Why we should dispel the myth of migrants as a homogeneous group

By Gabriela Ramos, OECD Chief of Staff and Sherpa
Ludger Schuknecht, OECD Deputy Secretary General
Andreas Schleicher, Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
and Stefano Scarpetta, Director, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

On television, in newspapers and on social media, migrants are often described in blanket terms: they’re mostly unskilled, they have little chance of integrating in their host country, and they are a burden on the public purse because they rely on benefits more than they contribute to financing them. It’s a broad generalisation, and it often forms the basis of a polarised debate. But the data tell another, more differentiated story.

As we lay out in a new report, migrants come to their host countries from a wide range of backgrounds and with a diverse set of skills. In OECD countries, about one in three foreign-born people have a university degree, and fewer than one in four have completed only primary education or below. And although average proficiency in literacy, math and problem solving is lower, on average, among migrants than among native-born populations, this gap varies considerably within and across countries, and, in particular, across different migrant groups. Most immigrants have jobs; and, among low-educated migrants, employment rates are similar to those of their native-born peers. This portrait of migrants, and the degree to which they are integrated into their host communities, is far more nuanced than the black-and-white discourse in many public debates – and it demands a more articulated policy response, as well.

In Finland and Sweden, for example, the gap in literacy skills is large: native-born adults scored an average of 50 points higher than their foreign-born counterparts, according to results from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Yet in places like Australia, the Czech Republic and Ireland, the average difference was much smaller (less than 8 points). Much of this variation across countries can be explained by different migration policies and geopolitical factors that influence the composition of migration inflows.

There is even greater variation in migrants’ skills and educational qualifications across groups of migrants. In most countries, the skills profiles of migrants are actually more diverse than those of native-born adults. Our report finds greater variability in literacy and numeracy among migrants, compared to both the general population and adults with similar levels of education.

We must gain a good understanding of who migrants really are so as to make the most of their skills and potential.

Language, as you might expect, plays a big role in the discrepancy between foreign- and native-born adults’ performance in the labour market. Most migrants are not native speakers of the language of their host countries, which is also the language in which the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) is conducted. As a result, they scored 26 points lower, on average, in literacy. But when migrants were native speakers of the language in which the test was conducted, this gap narrowed by half, to just 13 points.

As our report makes clear, migrants are not a homogeneous group – and policies aimed at integrating them should reflect that. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have developed pre-arrival assessment of foreign qualifications to select migrants, while Sweden has put in place quick skills-recognition procedures and intensive language training to support migrants after they have arrived in Sweden. Effective integration policies would cater to the specific needs of different migrant groups, and build on their existing skills to help them develop and thrive in the labour market. Helping migrants learn the language of their host country is often a key step in the integration process; such courses should be tailored to people of different ages, linguistic backgrounds and education levels.

As we note in the foreword to our report, migration and integration are issues that governments and societies will be grappling with for years to come. If we are to implement integration policies that promote inclusive growth and social cohesion, we must gain a good understanding of who migrants really are so as to make the most of their skills and potential.

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