The National Catholic Review

Paying immigrants to go home has become an increasingly frequent method in some countries for dealing with the global downturn in the economy. The Czech Republic, Spain and Japan have all taken this approach to offsetting the crisis caused by job layoffs. The Czech Republic is offering payments of hundreds of dollars, not including payments for family members. Though such offers are tempting, immigrants who accept them realize that job hunting in their own countries of origin will be difficult after their return. As recently as two years ago, foreign workers there made up almost 40 percent of the population. Unemployment in the CR could reach 10 percent by the end of 2009. The Czech arrangement applies only to workers who are in the country legally, but the government is  considering enlarging it to include undocumented workers. Farther to the west, Spain too has adopted a pay-them-to-go-home approach in dealing with its rising unemployment rate, the highest in the European Union. Migrants in Spain must agree not to return for three years.

On the other side of the world, Japan is responding in a similar manner to the downturn in   its own economy. It is offering unemployed foreign laborers similar buy-out packages. Called Nikkei, most are Brazilian in origin and, after Chinese and Koreans, represent the country’s third largest minority. Accepting the offer means agreeing not to return unless the economic picture brightens, especially in its electronics and automotive industries. Some Nikkei see the offer, with its indefinite don’t-come-back clause as discriminatory.

Much harsher has been the experience of migrants in countries of the former Soviet Union, subject as they are to abuse from Russian employers who withhold wages. Even police often extort money in raids on shanty towns where migrants live, as Human Rights Watch points out in its report, “Are You Happy to Cheat us.” During the oil boom years, millions of migrants settled in Moscow and other cities to work in the construction industry. With the economic downturn, there has been a xenophobic backlash as Russians themselves struggle to cling to their own vanishing jobs.

But at least their lives are not as imminently at risk as those of Africans who face the dangers of attempted travel by sea to European countries, often at the mercy of unscrupulous smugglers. They pay dearly for  places on the ships and some have been abandoned to a watery death. One maritime tragedy took place this spring in the Mediterranean Sea, when some 200 people from Africa drowned in April as they tried to reach southern Italy. Finding a less poverty-stricken life for themselves and their families has become more life threatening for the world’s poor migrants, all but deprived of human rights as they are.

George Anderson, S.J.