The South-North Challenge in the 21st Century

Here is a picture of something that happens every night.  An overloaded boat of refugees leaves the coast of West Africa, heading for Europe, by hopping up the chain of the Canary Isles under cover of darkness.  These days there is an absolute ‘underground railway’ ferrying West African youth into Europe illegally.

Boti lenye wahamiaji


The nations of France, Spain and Portugal have as many immigration officials intercepting them and sending them to processing centres, as the US has on the Mexican border.

Today, the European Union has opened its first Africa-based jobs centre, in Bamako, Mali.

The South-North drift, aka: the war for talent, has been going on for about a decade now (I mean in appreciable numbers, not just taxi drivers).  It has thrown up some surprising  epi-phenomena, for example Malawi has had to import non-English-speaking doctors from surrounding countries, because all of the Malawi-born (English-speaking) ones are now practicing in the UK.  So many Swahili-speaking doctors are now being drained out of East Africa to go work in Malawi…

The EU was, last year, widened to include Ukraine, Estonia and Lithuania.  If nothing else, this helped with the human trafficking of young blondes from Moldova into the sex industry of Western Europe, and further extension of smuggling and organised crime out of the East.

In the UK, attendance at Catholic Mass has spiked up in recent years due to the large numbers of young Polish tradesmen now living and working there.  As opposed to other waves of immigrants, these young Poles are there to make a lot of money for a few years, and then to go home and get on with their lives. 

Europe especially, used to be the stock example of what economists call ‘labour market rigidities,’ often because of language difficulties, but it has been nearly 20 years now since the Maastricht Treaty and the Erasmus Project, so the new generation are way more mobile, more multi-lingual, and less hamstrung by the nationalisms of their parents.

Another epiphenomenon would have to be the third-generation muslims in Paris and the cities of Northern England (Bradford, Oldham, Burnley), rioting because they can’t get a job, protesting that they are as European as the next man.

In the Benelux countries, a Belgian friend recently told me,  illegal immigration has proceeded to the extent as to almost push a small country over.  In the Netherlands the number of citizens under the age of 20 who were born there, is now less than the number of citizens under the age of twenty who were born elsewhere.  The older, voting, dutchman can see the future now, and he doesn’t like it.  This is why issues around Pym Fontein and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have become so heated.  Also there are discussions now in the Netherlands about whether the values of North African Islam are compatible with the values of a liberal, ‘Enlightenment,’ welfare state.  At the back of these debates is the question of national identity for small European countries in the 21st century.

In 2006, a group of illegan Chinese were drowned, cockle picking in a strong rip in Morecombe Bay, Lancashire.  They were being press-ganged by a so-called ‘snake-head.’  None of them could swim.  The Economist Magazine made a strong case at the time that the law should be changed to legitimize foreign workers.  Not paying them benefits, but ensuring that they could attract the minimum wage, pay Income Tax, generate VAT, be covered by OSH regulations.

I will be interested to see how the Malian Jobs Centre pans out, and whether it manages to legitimize the clandestine human traffic that is currently costing everyone a lot of money to no good effect. 

New Zealand, some years ago, introduced a scheme to allow seasonal fruit pickers in from the Islands.  This pretty-much follows the suggestions of The Economist above, and appears to have been quite successful.  No overstayers, no accidents, hard work, all fruit exported, and a seasonal labour shortage averted.

Australia is now in discussions about a similar scheme.  The PM opened discussions on the subject at APEC recently.

Historically, these sorts of schemes have not worked so well.  I am thinking of NZ bringing in large numbers of Islanders in the 70’s.  And I am thinking of the UK doing the same thing with West Indians in the ’60s.  On both of those occasions, disorientation, bitterness and illegality on both sides.

I would like to think that we are in a new generation these days, and that these sorts of programmes to help with labour market flexibility (not to mention giving everyone a fair go, no matter where they happen to have been born), will work well and productively. 

The other possibility is that they will turn into a new, 21st Century, legal serfdom.   

I also accept that integration needs to be managed at a governmental level with muscular regulation.  Just opening the front door and the back door, and saying "Let the market decide," is a recipe for disaster.

It will be interesting to see how the EU Jobs Centre in Bamako pans out.  And if the world can solve the issue of the South-North Divide creatively.


   …Askin the big questions, here on the new…



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