This is the second part of the analysis of professor Triandafyllidou on the role of immigration in the debates about the demographic trends and the sustainability of welfare states in the EU. The first part is here.
Immigration and demographic trends in Europe: towards sustainable labour markets and welfare systems? Part 2/2
The impact of such a continuous intake will however be different in the three broad regions outlined above. Immigration flows need to be sustained over time in southern, northern and western European countries to respond to important labour market shortages and to sustain economic growth while keeping wages stable especially in low skill sectors such as construction, agriculture or cleaning and catering. These sectors would be driven to a standstill if immigrant inflows were stopped. In the southern European region, demand for these labour market sectors is satisfied by new economic migrants who enter with or without documents in the EU (in the latter case they regularize their status after a few years through one of the recurrent regularization programmes implemented in southern Europe). In the northern and western European countries these shortages are catered for by family related migration (family reunification or family formation) that continues through the ethnic and kinship networks of established migrant populations.
The situation is different in the Central Eastern European region since new member states generally experience strong out-migration pressures and comparatively low immigration. These countries are facing an important socio-economic problem that touches not only their welfare systems but also their labour markets and economies in general. Poland for instance experiences labour market shortages in both low and high skill sectors. The Polish government seeks to attract Polish emigrants back but given the difference in wages between Poland and some of the old member states where Polish emigrants live (UK, Ireland, but also Italy or France), it is unlikely that there will be a significant return migration trend in the coming years. At the same time Polish authorities have adopted a restrictive immigration policy in line with the EU requirements for accession, remaining thus unable to respond to regional shortages in the labour market or to incoming migration pressures from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries.
Although some media have been quick to argue that the current financial and economic crisis makes the migrant labour force redundant, one should take such arguments with a high degree of caution. The crisis does not affect all workers (natives or immigrants) in the same way. Moreover, migration trends are long term phenomena that may fluctuate in response to changes in labour markets or welfare regimes. Although it appears safe to hypothesise that immigration will slow down in the next few years responding to the rising unemployment and low wages, this does not mean that immigration will stop or that European labour markets will have no more job opportunities for immigrants. Rather, it is important for member states and the EU as a whole to think forward and prepare itself for the post-crisis period so as to respond in the best way possible to the growth period that will follow after the crisis.