Peter Sutherland on the Need for Immigration

For the world's would-be migrants, prospects for 2009 look bleak. The international Organization for Migration recently appealed to governments to resist the temptation to close their doors to job-seeking incomers as the global economy worsens. Indeed, the economic case for the free movement of people remains strong, insists Peter Sutherland, special representative on migration for the U.N. secretary-general. And as a champion of a border-lite world, he can claim some rare credentials. In the past, the Irish lawyer has served as director-general of the

World Trade Organization and an EU commissioner; today he's chairman of both BP and Goldman Sachs International. For good measure, he also heads the governors of the London School of Economics, which runs its own Migration Studies Unit. In London, Sutherland spoke to NEWSWEEK's William Underhill. Excerpts:

Underhill : You have called migration one of the key issues of our time. Why?
Sutherland: There's an inevitable need for many hundreds of millions of people to move from one part of the world to another, sometimes incited not merely by poverty but by poverty which itself could be the result of climate change. It is also realistic to expect that there will be huge movements of people because of the differences in GDP per capita. While globalization has lifted some parts of the world, there are others where it has had little or no impact.

You have been a great champion of migration and the economic benefits that it can bring. Aren ' t such ideas going to be a much harder sell in the next few years?
The reality is that, even allowing for increasing unemployment in the immediate future, we still need more people, in Europe in particular. The European Commission has estimated that the working-age population of Europe will start to shrink by 2013, and by 2050—even assuming an influx of 50 million immigrants—there will be 40 million fewer people working in Europe. On these figures, which I admit are simplistic, if Germany wants to maintain its current welfare structure and dependency ratio, it would have to welcome 2–3 million new immigrants between now and 2050.

Those are powerful arguments, but as you have said, politicians, like voters, are swayed by ideas of " them and us " when dealing with immigration.
I think one can be more positive about politicians than many people are. If you compare today's politicians with those of 20 years ago, there is a much lower acceptability for what might be described as racist or anti-immigrant views. Put another way, there is a much broader acceptance of multicultural societies than at a time, for example, when it was acceptable to say "No Irish need apply" at a boardinghouse.

Is it possible to argue that the case for immigration is strengthened at a time of economic downturn?
It is counterintuitive at a time of rising unemployment to see immigration as an opportunity rather than a threat, but I think that is actually true. Take my own country as an example. Its staggering economic progress—although temporarily threatened today—over the last 15 years was enabled by immigration. The evidence is that immigrants are less likely to live off welfare than locals and are likely to fill jobs that would not be filled by locals.

People trafficking is already said to be worth $10 billion per year. If we do see greater curbs on legal migration, won ' t that lead to a rise in illegal migration?
That is automatically what happens. Therefore, we have to have a much greater degree of cooperation between countries of origin and countries of destination to maintain or develop opportunities for regular migration while finding mechanisms to stop irregular migration.

Migrant communities are targets for discrimination at any time. There must be a great threat in times of economic hardship.
There is a real risk that economic dislocation will be followed by greater pressures on the immigrant community. But I have never seen immigration and the multiculturalism of a society as a threat to the identity or values of the host community. The United States, for example, has assimilated a huge range of diverse cultures behind a broadly comparable value system. But there is a big obligation on the part of migrant communities to integrate —and some, it must be said, integrate better than others.

What hope does the election of Barack Obama bring?
I would not like to give the impression that President Bush had a completely closed mind on these issues: he didn't. But I imagine that President Obama is the greatest example of immigrant success that one could find anywhere, and that's a great tribute to the American people. Hopefully the United States, which is so important in terms of leadership on other issues, will also play a constructive leadership role on this one. The U.S., by definition, is heterogeneous. It is not like other societies that still harbor the illusion that they are homogeneous. They are not: you only have to look at their DNA.