Realising the opportunities that migration can bring


Migration remains a fiercely debated topic among publics and policymakers across Europe, with the lion’s share of discussions centred on associated problems (real and perceived). While we should not ignore the challenges, we should also not forget about the opportunities that international migration can bring. Indeed, it can help address some of the shorter and longer term issues that Europe (and the globe) faces, including labour shortages (or surpluses), demographic imbalances, global displacement, and climate change. 

Labour shortages

The global ‘race for talent’ is heating up amid labour shortages at all skill levels and aging populations in Europe. In this context, the question of how to attract, develop, and retain talent is becoming increasingly urgent. Yet, many EU Member States are not the strongest competitors on this front. Employers (especially SMEs), meanwhile, often find it time-consuming and cumbersome to recruit internationally. These shortcomings underscore the need to rethink and regalvanise efforts to secure needed workers – including those currently living in other countries – through talent attraction and retention strategies. 

It is apparent that it is not just the appeal of the job offer, but also of the place, that matters in the decision to move to another country or settle in the long term. Decision criteria for international recruits include assessments of future career opportunities (as well as opportunities for partners), children’s access to a quality education, the inclusiveness of society, and quality of life more generally. In other words, welcoming living and working environments can nudge job seekers to relocate. As actors inside and outside government can influence these factors, collaborative approaches that include employers, governments, and civil society actors can help build ecosystems that draw talent. 

Of course international talent is present in Europe in the form of refugees and other migrants who are already in Member States, a group that stands to be further tapped. Better job matching and enhanced recognition of their skills and qualifications can contribute to reducing underemployment, thereby enabling migrants to make full use of their experience and skill sets for their benefit and that of local labour markets. Ramping up efforts to retain international students upon graduation is another way to grow Europe’s talent base. Training, such as up- or re-skilling, can also help to improve employment prospects and address evolving labour market needs. 

When it comes to global talent already in Europe, it is also important to think about the role that intra-EU mobility could play in supporting talent attraction and retention. Making it easier to move from one Member State to another, such as by harmonising the recognition of qualifications, can help third country nationals to further their careers in Europe. For individuals who have received international protection status in Europe, fewer restrictions on mobility within the EU (e.g. skills-, family-, and education-based relocation opportunities) could support more and better job matching, in addition to enabling people to join and tap into their networks. We have seen, for instance, that free movement has enabled Ukrainian refugees to move to their Member State of choice, such as to join family members or other connections or because they speak the local language, which has supported them in settling in. 

Global displacement

Another number that continues to rise is that of persons forced from their homes worldwide. Many individuals find themselves facing protracted displacement abroad and struggle to put their skills to use to forge sustainable futures. Though the skill sets of refugees are often overlooked in conversations about displacement and protection, many have skills they can contribute – when given the chance. 

Skills-based policies like refugee labour mobility, otherwise known as complementary labour pathways, can benefit refugees as well as receiving employers and economies. Currently, most refugees cannot take up jobs in Europe because they do not fulfil all visa requirements or lack the networks, documentation, or finances needed to access existing labour pathways. Complementary labour pathways can help match skills and labour needs as well as facilitate mobility, enabling European employers to access a largely untapped pool of talent and refugees to use their skills to build a sustainable future. The good news is that this promising approach is starting to take root in the EU, mainly via the launch of pilot schemes. There is considerable room for expansion.

Climate change

In the context of climate change, slower-onset changes and sudden natural disasters are increasingly leading people to leave their homes. Climate change acts in combination with a range of other factors driving displacement and migration, making it difficult to pinpoint it as the sole cause. We do know, though, that migration can serve as an adaptation strategy to climate change for some. It can, for instance, offer livelihood opportunities elsewhere, provide a source of remittances, and serve as an insurance strategy against risks related to environmental change.

The green transition, furthermore, provides an opening to harness mobility to respond to environmental threats. As the world moves towards adopting more sustainable practices aimed at combatting climate change, new skills are in demand in Europe as well as other regions of the world. Mobility – of people, as well as ideas and investments – can enable more people to take up jobs in the green economy. Circular mobility can support expanded training opportunities and help build the workforce needed to boost resilience in the face of climate change. Longer-term migration, meanwhile, can help meet labour needs in Europe’s green economy.

Opportunities for the next generation

While Europe is aging, other parts of the world are home to relatively large shares of young people. Youth are coming to Europe to study, work, train, travel, and volunteer, but access to these opportunities remains limited, especially due to rigid immigration regulations and with regard to socioeconomic status. Mobility (whether shorter or longer in duration), if designed and implemented well, can provide a range of opportunities, including personal, academic, and career development. 

Mobility programmes offer the chance for young people to work, train, and/or study abroad, thereby gaining international experience, enhancing foreign language skills, and expanding their social and professional networks. These initiatives could help destination countries augment their international relations, gain tourism- and education-related revenues, or even support talent attraction efforts. Origin countries, for their part, can benefit from workforce development, skills transfers, and remittances. Undoubtedly, Europe’s youth also stand to benefit from the chance to gain international experiences, deepen language and academic/technical knowledge, and participate in cultural exchange. Expanding options for youth mobility and thinking outside of the box can unlock more opportunities for more youth in more countries.

Realising the opportunities

In the public debate, the challenges with regard to migration tend to overshadow the opportunities. Knowing that there are challenges should not prevent us from working to tap into the potential. A more far-sighted and comprehensive view of migration can help make the most of possibilities to respond to challenges like labour shortages, global displacement, climate change, and demographic imbalances. Of course migration is not a panacea for the issues faced, nor is it the only tool available. But we should think about these opportunities and strive to realise them – in both senses of the term. This means recognising the potential and thinking strategically, proactively, and creatively to seize these opportunities. 

*Caitlin Katsiaficas is a policy analyst at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development. She has held various positions at research institutions, governmental organisations, and NGOs in Europe and the United States, including the Migration Policy Centre, George Washington University, Migration Policy Institute, World Bank, and International Rescue Committee. 

**Opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author alone.

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