A Christian Perspective on Economic Migration

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At the 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, the late Peter Sutherland, formerly UN Special Representative for Migration and Development, spoke about the need for an approach towards migrants and the challenges of migration from the perspective of the Christian concept of koinonia (fellowship or communion) which teaches the value of actively cultivating community and a common spirit. Little did we know at the time (although perhaps Sutherland himself had glimpsed the future), that within a few years we would see the issue of migration at the very core of the tumultuous political developments that have since rocked the global order: from the unprecedented flow of migrants into Europe between 2013 and 2017, to the election of US President Donald Trump and his plan for a border wall, as well as the decision by Britain to exit the EU and “take back control of its borders”. The issue of migration has been the major motivating force in these developments, and so-called economic migration has been the most intense point of contention.

The distinction between refugees and economic migrants has been critical in the political developments that emerged, and has been particularly central to the debate about illegal immigration and the question of migrant rights. It is a distinction with a ring to the ear not unlike that made between the so-called “deserving” and “undeserving” poor of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century which continues to echo in the tabloid media today. That is not to say that there is no distinction; of course there is an important difference between people who have fled war and persecution and those who have decided to move to a wealthier region in search of a better life. However, such a blunt distinction fails to reveal the complexities underlying the push and pull factors that lead people to choose to place their lives at risk crossing the Sahara Desert and then the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Europe. Nor does such a distinction necessarily lead to the conclusion that only one group should be admitted entry and the rest be treated as a threat. In fact, it is not clear that acknowledging the distinction has left us any better off in figuring out how best to respond to the challenges of migration at all.

At the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, much to the chagrin of her party, opened Germany’s doors to the asylum seekers entering Europe in their tens of thousands. Merkel was the most strident of all European leaders in her determination that building walls was not a solution to the problem as she had analysed it: both because it contravened our values and because she could not see it as a meaningful solution in the long-run. Three years earlier at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Sutherland expressed the view that it is wrong to close our doors to those seeking a better life. He asserted that it is immoral for us, who have benefitted from globalisation, to tell migrants to turn around and go back to where they come from, to insist that they are not entitled to share in the benefits of globalisation. Not only that, but considering our demographics, Sutherland stated that it would be counter-productive: “I would argue that [trying to restrict or stop migration] is contrary to our fundamental beliefs as Christians, if we fail to build inclusive societies and communities, one day we might find ourselves looking for immigrants only to find that they were looking elsewhere.”(https://www.icatholic.ie/iec2012-peter-sutherland/) Statements by both Angela Merkel and Peter Sutherland were recently echoed by the Vatican’s Fr Michael Czerny SJ at the Research Track Seminar, The Future of Work, Labour After Laudato Si held in Rome from the 10th to 12th January 2019.

Fr Czerny, under-secretary at the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, delivered a presentation on the matter of migration entitled “Points on Jobs, Demography and Migration”. Fr Czerny emphasised that work and labour are directly related to the meaning of life, and the sense we give to our actions and activities as human beings. He made clear that an integration of these various dimensions will require a new perspective on the relationships between the economy, labour, care for our societies and for the earth, and each individual human vocation. Fr Czerny outlined five categories of migrant, in each of which work is an important dimension, thus giving greater insight into the underlying complexities involved in so-called economic migration:

  1. Voluntary or intentional migrants seeking better quality of life
  2. Voluntary or intentional migrants seeking family reunification or with other socio-cultural (non-economic) objectives
  3. Forced migrants leaving areas of environmental decline, social or political stress in order to live and work in better conditions etc.
  4. Forced migrants who qualify as refugees
  5. Victims of human trafficking who are ‘put to work’ in the most dire of conditions.

Work and working conditions are generally the major push and pull factor in contemporary migration, with lack of job opportunities, insufficient wages, insecurity, pressure on the economy due to environmental change, being key drivers.

Fr Czerny insisted upon the social focus of work, and drawing on Catholic Social Teaching, he noted how new forms of capitalism, of value chains, of modalities of production are disrupting the links between extraction, production, distribution, consumption and societies in new ways. New forms of dialogue are required to maintain the quest for human dignity, respect and protection of the natural environment, and the exercise of new forms of solidarity in the advancement of the common good. Fr Czerny acknowledged that all this is more or less equivalent to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He emphasised the long-standing Catholic Social teaching that the economy must advance the common good and should not be reduced to business, and economic outcomes should not be reduced to profit and loss. Accordingly, we need to address the profound economic challenges of sustainability and solidarity across continents and across generations as outlined in Laudato si'. He acknowledged that present economic models are exacerbating world imbalances and depleting developing countries of their important resources caused by a global system in which local economies are transformed to serves export interests. For example, the considerable increase in land-grabbing which has replaced local market farming in Africa with industrial farming in order to provide corn-ethanol to Europe. The quest for cheaper products often determines the “need” of companies to cut labour costs, which frequently leads to underpayment, exploitation and abuse in their supply chains. Such systems are where precarious employment of migrant or “irregular” workers prevails. Fr Czerny explained that the official discourse in the Global North is to eradicate irregular migration, however the same Global North depends on irregular migration to staff the informal economy which supports the formal one. This clear contradiction amounts to hypocrisy, because leaders choose to turn a blind eye to these obvious facts while seeking political power with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Fr Czerny asserted that a culture of waste and consumerism, that commodifies human beings, has also resulted in temporary migration schemes which aim to increase circular migration, often masking the attempt to deprive migrant workers from benefits they should be entitled to such as pensions and social security, and place restrictions on family reunification. Such policies jeopardize family life, integral human development, and the upbringing of children. As a result, while workers strive for a better family future by sending home their remittances, the interruption of normal parenting can cause problems that negate any gains. Fr Czerny further outlined that there is little consideration of the demographic direction in which many societies in the Global North are headed, and noted the total disconnect with long-term migration policies. With increasing life expectancy and declining fertility in much of the world, the care of family members, sick people and elderly is increasingly delegated to non-family members, with the consequence that the proportion of migrant workers in the care sector is rising quickly. There is an evident risk of relegating migrants to a few restricted labour sectors (normally unskilled sectors), without any possibility of social mobility, as well as a risk of ethnic stigmatization. Even professionals, let alone semi-skilled and unskilled workers, can find themselves exploited and degraded in a new country’s labour market. Even if they manage to make a decent living, they may not be fully accepted into the local society.

Fr Czerny then turned to the Pope’s comprehensive understanding of people on the move – the need to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them – as a pertinent framework within which to resolves many of these conflicts. Looking then to better governance, Fr Czerny pointed out that Laudato si’ has highlighted the need for new, integrated forms of governance, bringing together voices from local communities and popular movements together with more traditional actors of the economy: entrepreneurs, workers, investors, national and local governments. For Least Developed Countries, the strategy of labour export is not serving the countries of origin as a path to sustainable development, but only increases their economic and political dependency and instability. Fr Czerny insisted that migration must be seen as an international phenomenon that involves pairs of States; the country of origin and the country of destination. While he acknowledged that national sovereignty cannot be contested, he explained that some states adopt exaggerated language regarding their sovereignty in order to resist attempts at dialogue and cooperation. He outlined that international labour migration can only be governed effectively through bilateral and multilateral dialogues and agreements. Fr Czerny explained that countries of origin rarely have any power to bargain for better labour standards for their migrant citizens working abroad as the power lies exclusively with the countries of destination. Therefore, in their relationship with their employers and finally with the States from, or through, which they move or in which they work, migrant workers seldom have a voice.

Finally Fr Czerny acknowledged that this is not dissimilar to the situation of the peasants who, in the 19th century, abandoned their rural way of life to take up the new jobs of the Industrial Revolution. He then asked the question: if the unions were key to regularizing and finally improving the situation of workers in the nineteenth and twentieth century by organizing and collective bargaining, ought not the union movement – in the 100th anniversary of the ILO – take up the analogous challenge today?


To learn more about the future of work after Laudato Si’ visit https://futureofwork-labourafterlaudatosi.net/

To learn more about the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development visit https://migrants-refugees.va/

To watch Peter Sutherlands lecture on migration at the 2012 Eucharistic Congress visit https://www.icatholic.ie/iec2012-peter-sutherland/

John McGeady
OLA Justice Officer
11 February 2018