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Reopening the channels of legal economic migration

Giuliano Amato
Professor Emeritus

We cannot fight illegal immigration on the assumption that only political refugees are admissible, while all economic migrants are, as such, irregular. The main antidote to illegal immigration is to restore legal migration on the basis of our labour markets’ demand and consequently activate the main vehicle of integration, a regular job.


In 2007 I was Minister of the Interior and therefore a member of the European Justice and Home Affairs Council. At the time, the main course of action pursued by the Council was relationships with the countries of origin to promote legal inflows of migrants in order to meet the demand from our labour markets. We were well aware of the attention of our public opinions to the actual implementation of the readmission agreements whereby the irregular immigrants were sent back to their countries. But we were equally aware of the need for legal channels of immigration to Europe, both as the main disincentive for potential migrants to use the costly and risky channels of illegal entrance and as an incentive for their countries to cooperate in the enforcement of readmission agreements. Furthermore, we knew full well what everybody knows, namely that integration is the main antidote against the loneliness and the exacerbation of their separate identities, which otherwise may easily affect migrants and that having a regular job is the main vehicle of integration.

What did he negotiate? On the one side he negotiated readmission agreements, on the other the initial experiences of ‘mobility partnerships’ and at the time a new European tool aimed at fostering legal migration.


Setting the amount of admissible l regular migrants on the basis of demand from labour markets was and still is a Member States competence. However, nothing prevented us from jointly supporting the EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner, who negotiated with the countries of origin using the aggregate European demand for labour. What did he negotiate? On the one side he negotiated readmission agreements, on the other the initial experiences of ‘mobility partnerships’ and at the time a new European tool aimed at fostering legal migration.

What has happened since then? The programme of mobility partnerships still exists but very few countries have joined it and it is certainly not a priority in current migration policies. The fact of the matter is that ten years ago the main distinction was between legal and illegal economic migrants. Nowadays it is between political refugees (as such, legal) and economic migrants (as such, irregular). I understand the reasons for this incredible distortion, that range from the conflict in Syria, which has multiplied the number of political refugees, to the long and deep economic crisis that we have been affected by. The crisis has not reduced the inflow of migrants in search of a better life but has drastically reduced the demand for foreign workers by our firms. For sure the aftermath of these events leaves us with a discouraging landscape. On the one side, there is a formidable number of migrants who have illegally entered in recent years, who certainly do not qualify as political refugees. On the other side, there is a continuing inflow of (mostly) economic migrants, who we try to stop before their arrival, in Mali, in Niger (from where they still can go back), and, in the worst case, in Libya (where they remain prisoners).

The only way out is to restore the channels of legal migration and therefore give programmes such as the mobility partnerships the centrality that they deserve. This means relying again on our labour markets and on their demand for labour which, despite the impact of new technologies, is returning to the pre-crisis levels (in the wide area of services, and first and foremost health services, we are in desperate need of personnel that we have to look for outside Europe).

What about the irregular migrants who have already entered the EU? If we really think we can send all them back, let us do it. If we do not think so, ignoring them and treating them as the invisible men and women of our societies would pave the way to the worst risks. It is much better for us to give them, whenever possible, a regular job and to integrate them. Our overall population is shrinking and our birth rate is lower and lower. This ageing Europe has to be open to others.

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