Speech by Gerd Leers on Refugees and Migration, Club of The Hague

Your Highness, Ladies and gentlemen, I bid you all a warm welcome to the Peace Palace. Today, as you know, is 22 November. A memorable day, especially in the United States. You may recall what happened on this date in 1963, 48 years ago.

It was, of course, the day that John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. It was a day when the entire world felt bound together. Mainly because it was one of the first events to be shared through television. Like the first step on the moon, or the legendary boxing match between Joe Frasier and Mohammed Ali. Everyone’s seen those images. On that day in 1963, something far off suddenly seemed very close. Whether they lived in India, Europe or the US, everyone was shocked by the murder of the American President. It seemed to connect us to that spot in Dallas, as if we had directly experienced the event. Not as directly as today, of course, when our lives are shaped by globalisation. But it marked the start of the Global Village. Today, too, we will be talking about the Global Village.

Your conference today is about the relationship between immigration and innovation, between employment and urbanisation. These are burning issues.

  • Innovation plays a central role in our lives: the influence of the late Steve Jobs is a case in point.
  • Urbanisation has passed a historic milestone: this year, for the first time, more people live in cities than outside them.
  • And employment is a major concern, in the EU and beyond.

It’s interesting to link these issues, and I will now do so, as I address the question of immigration. This question is often approached from a political and cultural angle. Immigration – and the related issue of integration – is a sensitive issue in many countries. Emotions often run high when it is debated. This is understandable. But my aim is to remove immigration from the political and cultural domain. For example, I think we should look more closely at national labour needs.

  • Where do we have labour shortages?
  • What knowledge and skills do we need?
  • How can a country meet these needs?

I hope that you can help us find solutions.

In this context, I would like to quote from the preamble to the 1975 Migrant Workers Convention:

Considering that in order to overcome underdevelopment and structural and chronic unemployment, the governments of many countries increasingly stress the desirability of encouraging the transfer of capital and technology rather than the transfer of workers….

Isn’t this a more practical approach to the question of immigration? Yet for a long time it has been more or less ignored. It seemed as if the time was not ripe, or the urgency was not felt.

Today, in any event, we need to make this approach central to the question of immigration. Why? Because it turns out that migration is not a quick fix for economic problems. In the past we were - in the old Europe - often too simplistic.

We used to say:

  • Are we short of labour because of demographic ageing? Let’s bring in some immigrants.
  • Is there work that no one wants to do? Let’s bring in some immigrants.

That was at best a short-term solution. It clearly didn’t work in the long run.

First, immigrants aren’t robots; they’re human beings, with cultural baggage. They bring their own take on society and culture with them, as they seek to build meaningful lives in their new country. When immigrants came to the Netherlands in the nineteen fifties and sixties, we thought that they would soon be gone again. We were wrong. They were here to stay.

Second, it’s better to consider alternatives like outsourcing and innovation. We should think more in terms of demand-driven immigration. Immigration policies should be informed by questions like:

  • In which sectors do we want to grow?
  • In which sectors do we want to innovate? What talents are needed for these sectors, and where can we find them?

In the Netherlands, the approach to securing the necessary talent is working well. We’ve found a way to attract knowledge workers. The key is to keep the procedure simple. There’s only one criterion: the wage level. The decision is made within two weeks, and no work permit is needed. About 6,000 highly skilled migrants come to the Netherlands every year. Talented foreigners are employed by our main companies and universities. None of this means we can rest on our laurels.

We still face two big challenges. First, the business community may be happy with the highly skilled migrant scheme, but they see a big shortage looming in the middle segment of the labour market. Knowledge workers alone are not enough. You also need people who can actually make things. Second, even importing knowledge workers is not an end in itself. We need a knowledge policy. As I said earlier, countries need a better sense of their most pressing needs, and of the sectors in which they want to grow and innovate. There is still room for improvement in these two areas.

Finally: all too often, the debate on immigration focuses on problems instead of opportunities. That’s unfortunate. It’s also misguided. Because immigration is not about to go away. The Hague Process is founded on this recognition: ‘Migration is of all times, it is an integral part of human history, present and future.’

The need to manage immigration effectively will only increase. It has the potential to dominate national debate. So it’s good that there are international initiatives – like yours – that are not confined by national borders. Your stimulating recommendations provide us with new perspectives. It’s still 22 November, and I’d like to go back to my starting point: John F. Kennedy. You’re familiar with his call:

‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.'

It is fitting that these words should inspire us today. So I would like to close with a call of my own, ‘Don’t just ask what your country can do for immigrants – ask what immigrants can do for your country.’

Thank you.