Does the Environment Win When Economic Crisis Sends Immigrants Home?
Many of the low-wage workers in Turkish cities are migrants from rural areas.
Turkish cities have been the stage for culture clashes in recent years, as residents of rural areas moved to urban areas in large numbers, bringing what many urbanites see as undesirable "village ways" with them. Citing social, economic, and environmental concerns, the government sought not so long ago to reverse the migration, with the prime minister even suggesting a visa be required for citizens to enter Istanbul, by far the country's largest city. But since the financial crisis hit, many migrants--in Turkey and around the world--seem to be heading back of their own accord, with uncertain consequences for the planet.The seeming global trend breaks down into two basic categories: Immigrants who had been working, legally or illegally, in richer nations returning to their home countries; and internal migrants who had sought opportunity in large cities within the same country heading back to their rural hometowns.
Heading back home
In the United States, economic woes are causing illegal immigrants to head back to their Latin American homes, CNN reported in February. Western Europe has seen a similar trend as construction work and other jobs often held by immigrants dry up, according to the New York Times, which leads its recent article with an anecdote about a Romanian laborer who had been working in Spain:
Mr. Mituletu, who is planning to return to Romania next month, is one of millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa who have flocked to fast-growing places like Spain, Ireland and Britain in the past decade, drawn by low unemployment and liberal immigration policies. But in a marked sign of how quickly the economies of Western Europe have deteriorated, workers like Mr. Mituletu are now heading home, hoping to find better job prospects, or at least lower costs of living, in their native lands.
Incentives for leaving
In hopes of accelerating the trend, some countries are giving immigrants a push out the door. The Czech Republic, reports the New York Times, is offering 500 euros and a one-way plane ticket home to any foreign worker who wants to leave, while Spain is allowing legal immigrants "to take their unemployment payments in a lump sum if they agree to leave and not return for at least three years."
Japan too is paying guest workers from Latin America to go home, on the condition that they "agree never to seek to work in Japan again," while the city of Istanbul has been footing the bus fare for Turkish migrants who want to return to their rural hometowns.
So what does this all mean for the environment? Although poor, the returning migrants undoubtedly adopted some of the more ecologically intensive habits of the richer countries or cities in which they were dwelling, whether that meant having to drive a car to get to work, or buying more packaged and processed food in supermarkets instead of growing it themselves on their farms. On the other hand, dense city living has many environmental benefits, though the poorest residents generally reap few of them.
In any event, it would be deeply uncompassionate to cheer struggling peoples' loss of opportunities, even if their return to yet more meager lifestyles means they are creating a smaller environmental impact. China has been swamped by returning jobless migrants--up to 26 million of them--many of whom have found themselves back in rural hometowns with little work to offer.
Boosting rural economies
So what's the solution? Is there some way to boost rural economies and those in poorer countries so that staying put is a more viable option for would-be migrants? The action plan prepared by the Turkish government before the economic crisis hit with full force aimed to reverse the flow of rural-urban migration by 2012 by improving basic health and education services and better creating job and housing opportunities in rural areas of the country.
The Chinese government plans to invest in job-training programs and rural infrastructure, while Japanese authorities have launched a Works Progress Administration-like effort to put underemployed urban youth to work on rural farms. Some, like management student Tomoka Inoue, 20, expressed environmentally inclined reasons for joining the program. "I think people are becoming more aware of where our food comes from," she said. "I want to get more involved with that."
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