Time to talk about circular migration

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has developed an international definition of the hitherto vague term "circular migration". The realization that circular migration can have positive effects for everyone involved has been around for a long time, but building practical policies on a fuzzy concept is difficult. Now it is time to rethink the role that circular migration can play in global development, writes migration expert Bernd Parusel.

People have always moved to improve their living conditions. For global development, it matters a lot where people migrate from, how many people move and where they go. If migration takes place in an orderly manner and migrants' rights are met, migration can have positive effects both for the countries of origin, the recipient countries and for the migrants themselves.

In the countries of origin, migration can contribute to development, not least through money that migrants send home (remittances) and through new experiences and knowledge that they share with relatives and friends in the home country. For recipient countries, migrants can be in demand labor and rejuvenate the population, and at universities and colleges they can strengthen international research cooperation. Last but not least, migration can be positive for the individual - being able to work, study or do research in another country provides increased personal development opportunities.

Researchers and politicians have sometimes argued that the effects of migration on human and economic development are greatest when migrants not only move from one country to another and stay there, but when they eventually also return home or move on (to then possibly migrate again). In this way, the loss of domestic labor in the countries of origin ("brain drain") and money, knowledge and cultural experiences are transferred between different continents ("brain circulation"). This phenomenon is sometimes called "circular migration".

Lack of concrete progress

Just a few years ago, circular migration was an important migration and development policy issue. In July 2014, amendments to the law came into force which, among other things, made it easier for migrants to leave Sweden and still retain the right to return. Circular migration was facilitated, for example, for doctoral students, workers and migrants with permanent residence permits. The promotion of circular migration was also widely discussed internationally and within the EU.

However, concrete progress has been rare and the discussion has recently lost much of its dynamism - for several reasons. In Europe, the refugee situation and its management have supplanted other strategic work in the field of migration. Although the European Commission has argued that more legal routes into the EU need to be created in order to reduce irregular migration, not much has happened in practice. The EU legal framework on legal immigration contains the idea of ​​the positive effects of circular migration only in a 2014 Seasonal Workers Directive, which calls on Member States to facilitate re-entry for migrants who have been admitted at least once before.

Another problem is that the term "circular migration" has long remained unclear. Building practical policy on a fuzzy concept is difficult, and evaluating something that is not defined is possibly even more difficult. If you go through international research literature, it turns out that circular migration has been defined in many different ways, and sometimes not at all. In some countries, circular migration was interpreted as a strictly regulated form of mobility: migrants would be allowed to come and work for a limited time and then be forced to return home. Others - including Sweden - believed that the positive development effects of circular migration would be greater if the migrants themselves were allowed to decide how long they wanted to stay.

Definition creates new opportunities

While the political difficulties remain, progress has recently been made on the question of definition. In 2013, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) convened an international "task force" tasked with developing an international definition and proposing methods for measuring circular migration. The working group recently published its final report and concluded, among other things: In order to be able to distinguish between return and circular migration, the latter must involve a person moving between at least two different countries, and not just once or twice (immigration followed by emigration ) but at least three times. Circular migration thus means that a person legally migrate several times between two or more countries, says UNECE. According to this definition, why people move does not matter.

In order for statistical authorities to be able to measure circular migration patterns and produce comparable statistics, UNECE also proposed a - somewhat more square - statistical definition. According to this is a circular migrant a person who has crossed the border of the country of destination on at least three occasions during the last 10 years, each time with a period of residence (abroad or in the country of destination) lasting at least 12 months;. This interpretation can be considered narrow - mainly because many migrants, such as students and seasonal workers, do not stay in the country of destination for a year or more.

From a policy perspective, which should also take into account more short-term migrations, the statistical definition is thus not entirely satisfactory. However, as most countries, including Sweden, do not provide population statistics that include migrants with shorter stays, UNECE had no choice. Despite this shortcoming, it is now possible for the first time to follow up the number of circular migrants (with "long migrations") over time, and to draw comparisons between countries. Hopefully, this can help revive the discussions about circular migration and development.

Even at the political level, things have started to happen again. At the UN summit on migration in September 2016 in New York, the member states agreed on a declaration that will improve the situation for the world's refugees and migrants. States expressed their willingness to facilitate safe, well-organized and legal migration, including labor migration, circular migration, family reunification and opportunities for migrants to stay in a country other than their home country for education.

The realization that migration can have positive effects for all involved has long existed, but has often been overshadowed by divisions and crises, not least in Europe. The fact that there is now greater clarity about how the term “circular migration” should be interpreted and how its scope can be analyzed can help political decision-makers to develop new bills and projects. It is time to reconsider the role that circular migration can play in the framework of a more comprehensive migration and development policy strategy. A strategy that opens up for legal migration as an alternative to irregular movements. A strategy that takes into account the needs of both the recipient countries, the countries of origin and the migrants.

Bernd Parusel*


* On behalf of the European Migration Network (EMN), the author of the article participated in the UNECE task force Defining and Measuring Circular Migration. The working group published its final report in December 2016. The report is available for download

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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