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Keeping tabs on those who leave

2 April 2014

Keeping tabs on those who leave

A Victoria University of Wellington researcher is playing a key role in the first major international study into emigration policies around the world, led by Oxford University.

Dr Alan Gamlen is heading the largest of 11 projects that make up the Oxford Diasporas Programme, which spans five departments and three research centres at Oxford. The research, funded by the United Kingdom-based Leverhulme Trust, is looking at the social, economic, political and cultural impact of diaspora, or groups of people living away from their homeland.

Dr Gamlen, a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences and Editor-in-Chief of the journalMigration Studies published by Oxford University Press, is in charge of the Diaspora Engagement Policies Project, which examines the formal and informal ways in which states of origin are reaching out to those who have left an area.

"The starting point is that we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of formal policies that origin states make regarding people who leave. This is kind of unexpected because we tend to think of migration policy as immigration policy, but actually there is an increasingly important realm of emigration policy as well.”

Over the last 20 years, says Dr Gamlen, there has been a massive increase in the number of states which have formal institutions to engage with their diaspora. They include the Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs, the Irish Abroad Unit, and Jamaica’s Joint Parliamentary Committee for Diaspora Affairs.

“From fewer than 10 states with formal diaspora ministries or offices like these in 1990, more than half the members of the United Nations now have some form of them.

“The Diaspora Engagement Policies Project is about trying to understand how and why this has happened.”

The research has collected new data that covers the entire international system over a 20 to 30 year period to look at how different kinds of diaspora policies relate to different characteristics of origin states.

So far, researchers involved in the five-year project have also closely examined 40 of around 100 countries with formal state offices for emigrants and their descendants, interviewing the senior politicians and policy makers who lead development of their state’s emigration policy.

Gamlen says this area of migration study highlights the way globalisation is changing the relationship between citizenship and territory.

“These situations, where a state is projecting domestic policy towards its own people who are living in another state, would previously have been thought to contravene international norms and threaten another state’s sovereignty. The field is novel and really interesting.”

Gamlen says there are lessons for New Zealand from the research.

“New Zealand has one of the biggest migration turnovers of any developed country, with the biggest highly skilled diaspora in the OECD and, at the same time, a huge number of people—a quarter of our population—migrating in to New Zealand. Considering that situation, we are a bit one sided in the way that we make migration policies in that they are all about in-migration.”

Dr Gamlen says current emigration debate is stuck on the wage differences between New Zealand and Australia, when we should be applying insights from the past few decades of international migration theory to local problems.

“If we did that, we’d start to see things in a different light. One thing we’d notice is that it’s not only wage differences between countries that matter but also inequalities within countries, and we just don't look at that at all in New Zealand as a driver of emigration.”


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