Asia’s Closed Door to Immigration

Despite nearly 30 years of headlong industrial development in Asia, individual governments are still reluctant to allow workers to migrate freely across borders to find jobs, according to an exhaustive new study of migration patterns by the OECD.

While more Asians are moving to Asia’s richer parts, the numbers are quite small compared with those who go to the West and Australasia. And the numbers who are able to stay permanently and take on a new nationality is even smaller. Asians from poorer countries and without ethnic links still see far more opportunities in North America and Australasia, and even in Europe, than they do in Japan and Korea.

The figures have disturbing implications in particular for Japan and South Korea, whose ageing populations make it likely that they will need many more migrant workers in the not-too-distant future to maintain their economic growth. Native births have fallen well below the replacement level in both countries. Beyond that, much of the awakening dynamism in the European Union has been the ability of Eastern Europeans, eager for work, to move into the west to take jobs western Europeans were unwilling to take.

Also, despite China’s two decades of explosive economic growth, the number of its citizens willing to look overseas for work, particularly in the west, is growing, an indication that far too many of its citizens still see economic promise outside their own country. China today is still providing more migrants to OECD countries – 11 percent – than any other country. The numbers have grown from 301,000 annually to 473,000 since 2000.

Although China is clearly in the lead as a source of overseas workers, India has been catching up although for countries outside Asia. China completely dominates the movement into both Japan and Korea. For example, one third of all inflows into Japan are from China – 112,000 in 2006 – far ahead of the Philippines, whose numbers have dropped, and Brazil, mostly Brazilians of Japanese descent who have decided to return to the country of their ancestors for economic gain.

The total stock of foreigners (excluding students and temporary workers) in Japan is only 2.0 million, or 1.6 percent of the population. Of these more than a quarter – 598,000 - are Koreans mostly born in Japan but who have retained Korean nationality. Their numbers are soon likely to be surpassed by Chinese. There has long been a significant Chinese community in Japan, but it has doubled in the past decade to 560,000 in 2006 and appears to be growing at around 40,000 a year.

Of other foreign residents, only the stock of Brazilians and Filipinos exceeds 100,000. The Filipino community is almost static at around 190,000, suggesting that the there is a much higher degree of turnover than for other nationalities. The Indian community has been growing fast, but from a tiny base and now totals just 19,000. As for acquiring Japanese citizenship, that is a very high hurdle to jump. Just 14,108 succeeded in 2006, more than half from Korea and most of the rest originally Chinese. Outside these groups, only 1,230 foreigners acquired Japanese nationality that year.

Korea has a different version of the same story. Ethnic Chinese comprise nearly half its stock of 660,000 foreigners, more than half the 314,000 inflow in 2006, and 80 percent of those who acquired Korean nationality in 2006. However, the vast majority of those were ethnic Koreans from China. The numbers of ethnic Koreans from Russia and Mongolia are assumed to have increased since March 2007 when ethnic Koreans from China and Russia but without Korean links were allowed to work for three years.

The biggest contingent from elsewhere in Asia is from Vietnam, followed by the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. Vietnamese and Thai numbers have grown very rapidly but the total stocks are not large (52,000 from Vietnam, 40,000 Philippines, 30,000 Thailand). The Taiwanese community has been static at around 22,000.

Quite how long the two Asian OECD members can hold off from much larger foreign influxes remains to be seen. Japan’s stock of foreigners has been growing only slowly despite the fact that its own working age population has begun to decline. So far this has been compensated by an increase in the workforce participation rate by women and over-65s. But that rate is already very high.

Permanent migration into Australia is running at around 50,000 a year and temporary migration varies between 40,000 and 70,000. Developing Asia dominates the permanent settlement intake.

For Australia, the Chinese inflow in 2006 was 18,000, almost doubling since 2000 but the number of Indians has risen even faster – to 15,000 in 2006. Although the total numbers are lower than those going to Japan and Korea they are more likely to become permanent. In 2006 alone 7,000 Chinese and 7,000 Indians acquired Australian citizenship.

The number of Indian students in Australia has now overtaken Chinese and a significant proportion can be expected to become permanent as many will qualify under skilled migrant categories. India is already second only to the UK as source of skilled migrants. Philippines, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore are also important sources for Australia.

India and China are running neck-and-neck in terms of inflow to the US – in the 60-80,000 a year range, followed closely by the Philippines. These numbers are of course dwarfed by the intake from south of the border. But India and China are also neck-and-neck in Canada at around 30,000 a year each, followed by Filipinos. The Asian percentage of total migration is very much higher in Canada. – roughly 50 percent compared with less than a quarter in the US.

European migration is dominated by intra-EU movement, which is mostly unrestricted, and with North Africa. Asians are only a small part of the total. Even so, because there is so much movement in Europe the numbers can be significant. Italy had a stock of 144,000 Chinese in 2006, making them the forth largest non-EU group, and 101,000 Filipinos. Spain had 95,000 Chinese. The UK had an inflow of 18,000 Chinese in 2006, slightly greater than that from India. However, the UK stock from India is a massive 258,000 while the Chinese number, though rising, is still only 73,000, roughly the same as the number of Pakistanis and Filipinos.

Europe also takes in huge numbers of asylum seekers. Though numbers have fallen from their peak they still totaled more than 200,000 for the EU as a whole in 2006 while Japan and Korea both took in fewer than 1,000.

Although there are problems with definitions of migration in the OECD as in other data, the study gives a useful guide to how far Asians can and do seek opportunities outside their own continent and that despite periodic racist events and ever-tightening controls, developed Europe and North America are still very open compared with developed Asia.