The Migration Time Bomb

Abridged from a keynote address to the UNESCO think tank on higher education responses to migration, displaced persons and refugees. Sibiu, Romania, November 4, 2019.

Donald Johnston

Nov. 19, 2019

My own country, Canada, would not be the country of which I am proud had we not benefited from the talent and skills of immigrants throughout our history.

Let me cite two Canadian individuals with Romanian roots.

President and CEO of Air Canada Calin Rovinescu was born in Bucharest. He emigrated to Canada with his parents and sister when he was five or six years old. He did his university education in Canada, is a lawyer by training, but later became the CEO of Air Canada, our national airline. Here is a note from Wikipedia:

“Rovinescu is broadly credited with having saved Air Canada from bankruptcy and having set it on a course for sustainable profitability, better labour relations and continued success. In the ten years since his appointment, Air Canada’s shares have appreciated by approximately 4,000 percent and the airline has achieved record revenues, record profitability and carried a record number of passengers. He has been selected Outstanding Canadian CEO of the year.”

I say, as a Canadian, are we not fortunate that the Rovinescu family migrated to Canada?

And what of our Canadian teenager of Romanian origin, Bianca Andreescu, who beat Serena Williams to win the US open — the first Canadian male or female to win a Grand Slam. She has become a huge inspiration to Canadian tennis and has yet to turn 20.

I cite these cases because I believe people relate better to real life experiences and concrete examples of success such as Calin Rovinescu or Bianca Andreescu, than to general platitudes about how important migration has been for many countries, however true that may be. I should also note that despite the burden of his professional activities Rovinescu is very devoted to higher education, currently serving as Chancellor of the prestigious University of Ottawa.

I mention this because I appreciate that the focus of this gathering here in Sibiu is on higher education, but my own focus in these brief remarks is broader, more aligned with the SDG 4 goal of lifelong learning quoted above.

I regard the education systems as being fundamental in helping permanent migrants fully integrate into the new societies they have decided to join. My own personal experience has influenced my views for the following reason. When I was thirteen years old, I entered a large downtown school in Montreal that drew students from across the city, from every economic level, except the quite wealthy. Three students — a Jewish student from Iraq, a first- generation Hungarian, and a first-generation Italian — became my lifelong friends. Such a school composed of all visible minorities and faiths (except Catholic, which in Montreal had a separate school board) brought benefits to liberal societies which may be difficult to replicate today with more homogeneous school environments in many countries.

OECD countries that remain destinations of choice for international migrants are struggling to improve migration policies and I look forward to the comments here on the recent European experience with concomitant political problems as national populist sentiment seems on the increase around the world.

How are countries to tackle what appears to be broad-based jingoism which manifests itself in antipathy to migration and even suggestions of racism?

As the OECD commented in its 2019 migration outlook:

“Migration touches upon the very notion of the nation state. Changes in legislation govern who can enter or stay legally in a host country, who can settle with his or her family, who can obtain citizenship or can vote, can all have an impact on social norms, values and institutions.

This explains why the management of migration flows and the integration of foreign-born people in OECD countries are among the most sensitive and complex policy issues we face. Migration policy decisions are often magnets for controversy and, at the same time, migration and integration generally rank high in the list of people’s concerns in opinion polls…and while migration flows are at record highs, and many OECD countries have a sizable share of their population born abroad, the public discourse in the press and social media is often dominated by partial or distorted views, with migrants used as a scapegoat for unrelated problems or fears”.

Let us move the subject to a largely uncharted area of the future, namely the fact that these already record numbers of international migrants may be greatly increased by massive migrations from some of the poorest regions of the planet because of climate change, which is already threatening us to different extents across the globe.

In 2016, SciencesPo in Paris published an Atlas on environmental migrations. It examines geophysical events such as earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, flooding, hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes, landslides, drought, extreme temperatures and forest fires, degradation of ecosystems, rising sea levels, and coastal area risks, major industrial accidents, (chemical like Bhopal in India, nuclear, such as Three Mile Island in the United States, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan); the often forgotten development and infrastructure projects which displace people, and of course the multiple other impacts of climate change not cited above, especially in agriculture and fisheries.

Not only does the Atlas provide an inventory of such events, but also the number of people displaced in each instance, often becoming migrants to other countries. Effectively, no part of the planet is spared. Of course, not all these events result from climate change but many of the worst do, especially those flowing from global warming. The world may be faced with an international migration avalanche.

The three expert authors of the Atlas point out that today one of seven people in the world is a migrant and that the deterioration of the environment is a major cause of this unprecedented human mobility. This they say, is a reality largely ignored as a consequence of climate change but it is bound to increase as we slowly lose the climate change battle, which in my opinion we will in the absence of the arrival of some yet unproven technology.

Those who believe that mitigation, namely reducing the GHG emissions so as to prevent atmospheric accumulations of CO2 from exceeding 450 ppm are ignoring decades of failure to do so. As you probably know, there is a broad scientific consensus that exceeding that ceiling will result in global mean temperatures at least 2C degrees above those of the preindustrial revolution period. It is considered possible that such mitigation could save the world from the direst consequences of global warming. Indeed, following the 2015 Paris recommendations, the target became 1.5C degrees.

Let me digress for a moment to explain why I do not see that happening and why the world will have to focus on the other aspect, namely adaptation where migration will likely become the most important challenge.

Unfortunately, political leadership has not provided concrete answers in two critical areas in the battle against climate change. They are generally known as mitigation and adaptation.

We have been aware that CO2 emissions would accumulate from the use of fossil fuels, notably coal, at the outset, since 1896. This was explained by Swedish chemist Svante Arhenius, later a Nobel Prize winner. The problem was well documented at the UN conference on the environment in 1972, repeated in Gro Harlem Brundtland’s report “Our Common Future” in 1987, at the UN Rio Earth Conference in 1992, at the UN General Assembly in Special Session in 1997, at Kyoto where the famous protocol was signed, at every United Nations FCC conference (known as COPs) since and undoubtedly will be again at the next one in Madrid, in December. But emissions of GHGs have risen steadily over the whole period I have described and are well on track to reach 450 ppm.

This means that major adaptations are needed on many fronts, and two in particular to address massive increased migration from areas that could become uninhabitable.

The first are national policies to encourage people and their families to remain in their countries and communities. I will not address those today, but they would probably affect many areas such as energy, air pollution, agriculture, flood prevention and so on. Wherever such adaptation is feasible in the developing world, development assistance should be channeled there from OECD nations in particular.

But how are we to counter the negative views held by so many in OECD countries about the problems they perceive with immigrants arriving, especially those without skills and linguistic capabilities? Here we have much to learn from each other in terms of the successful integration of immigrants and also to demonstrate with concrete examples how important immigration is to our societies when properly managed. My own experience as Secretary General of the OECD convinced me of the role of that organization and of other international organizations in sharing best practices in many critical areas and migration is certainly one of them.

The 2019 OECD outlook I referred to tells us that 60 percent of European respondents to a Eurobarometer poll do not feel well informed about immigration and integration and that 50 percent of respondents believe there are more migrants staying illegally than legally, whereas the number of illegals is quite small. This comment is troubling:

In the absence of a supportive electorate, OECD countries will not be able to provide adequate programs to meet the growing demand for enlightened immigration policies which bring the publics pf our countries to focus on the positives and not the negatives of migrants coming to countries in the developed world. The former vastly outweigh the latter but most do not know that.

The OECD has begun a program for better communication of the benefits of migration for its member countries. The program is known as NETCOM, which is a network of Communication Officers on Migration that gathers officials in relevant ministries, agencies and local authorities of OECD countries to discuss communication objectives and challenges in the area of migration and integration, and to share best practices. This could be more broadly adopted as a policy to address the broad suspicion of the benefits claimed from immigration. But it must also in each country address the challenges of those who may suffer from migrants filling jobs lost or displaced.

In Canada, the federal department of immigration has launched an initiative called Immigration Matters, which includes a website that provides both information on the country’s immigration system and personal stories of immigrants who’ve started their lives over in Canada.

These issues are very important, as we are likely to witness migration exploding in the very near future, especially more people leaving uninhabitable areas of the planet. Could higher education not play a significant role here by detailed analysis of the economic and social benefits of migration, encouraging students and professors to contribute to public policies at national and local levels?

I was pleased to note in the OECD report that my city of Montreal is host to 200,000 University students of which 33 percent are foreign. They make a huge economic, social and cultural contribution to our country and no doubt will be strong ambassadors for sensible and humane migration policies. The site of Immigration Matters tells of one foreign student who stayed in Canada, became a successful entrepreneur and donated 15 million dollars to her alma mater, Montreal’s Concordia University.

Why can’t universities educate more students as promoters of migration and start by increasing the number of foreign students in all our universities. These educated young people will embrace the challenges of the globalizing world. But our universities must also teach the importance of linguistic competence in numerous key languages. Is this happening?

There is another area of higher education which may be even more significant for migrants. I refer to community colleges. They are post-secondary but many of them focus on more specific vocational training which should be designed to meet skill requirements of job markets.

I imagine that most immigrants in community colleges or their equivalent in OECD countries intend to be permanent residents of their adopted host countries. Foreign students in Universities are more likely to return to their home countries.


Donald Johnston is a former Liberal federal cabinet Minister; former Secretary General of the OECD; founding Director and former Chair of the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) and Chair Emeritus of the McCall MacBain Foundation, Geneva.