Immigration policymakers long accustomed to recruiting workers from abroad to fuel their economies suddenly faced a much different challenge in 2008. As the world's advanced industrial economies one by one slipped into recession, the prospect of return migration gained currency in immigrant-receiving states around the world.
In June, the European Union Parliament approved a directive encouraging unauthorized immigrants to voluntarily return to their countries of origin. In September, Spain's parliament authorized a program that effectively pays some unemployed immigrants to leave if they promise not to return to Spain for three years (see Issue #1: "Buyer's Remorse" on Immigration Policy ).
The trend has even spread to traditional immigrant-receiving countries, such as the United States. In July, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency launched a pilot program called Scheduled Departure that allowed some unauthorized immigrants to work with ICE to schedule their journey home. The program, however, attracted only a handful of participants and was promptly suspended.
Some reports suggest that the global economic slowdown will encourage migrants to return home. Malaysia's Human Resources Ministry said in October it is prepared to provide repatriation assistance for all Malaysian workers in Singapore who lose their jobs there.
In the United States, press reports of immigrants from Mexico or Central America returning home due to lost jobs have become more common, but there is as yet no statistical evidence of return (see Ones to Watch in 2009).
Some highly skilled temporary migrants in the United States and Europe may also face the prospect of return if their employers in the banking and finance sectors downsize or go bankrupt.
Flows to the United States appear to be slowing: the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) registered a net increase of just over 500,000 immigrants between 2006 and 2007 (from 37.5 to 38.1 million). That is well slower than the estimated 1 million net annual increase in the foreign-born population recorded between 2000 and 2006 by the ACS and other data sources.
Of course, a certain level of return migration occurs naturally. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that depending on the country of destination and the time frame considered, 20 to 50 percent of immigrants go home or move on to a third country within five years of their arrival.
Demographer Graeme Hugo estimates that about a fifth of all postwar permanent immigrants to Australia subsequently emigrate from Australia and that most of them return to their home countries.
More recently, an April 2008 analysis by the United Kingdom's Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that about half of the 1 million workers from the eight Eastern European states that joined the European Union in 2004 have left the United Kingdom and returned home.
The academic literature suggests that return migration results from both failure and success. Some migrants may decide to return because they fail to integrate or advance in the host-country society or simply cannot find jobs.
However, most research indicates that large-scale return migration corresponds more to political and economic conditions in the origin country. Migrants may be motivated to return by the prospect of new opportunities at home or because they have achieved their financial goals.
At the same time, they may choose not to return because of poor economic conditions at home. Also, money earned in the destination country — which those at home depend on — may give them reason to stay.
That said, having the right to return when economic circumstances change could be an incentive to leave now.
Overall, tracking return migration remains tricky from a technical standpoint. The United States officially stopped tracking the emigration rate of the foreign born in 1957.
Few countries (with the notable exception of Australia) have invested in the longitudinal data systems necessary to distinguish short-term from long-term departure and to identify the destinations of emigrants.
In many established migration corridors between developed and developing countries — such as between Mexico and the United States, Europe and North Africa, and the Philippines and the Middle East — return often occurs at the end of the migrants' life cycle as they prepare to retire.
However, Hugo's recent research on migration flows between Australia and India and China suggests that return migrants are increasingly young and skilled individuals in their working prime. It is not yet clear if this trend is applicable to other countries, but if it appears elsewhere, it could mean new competition in the race for skilled workers (see Issue #2: The Recession-Proof Race for Highly Skilled Migrants).