49th St. Gallen Symposium "Capital for Purpose": 8–10 May 2019


Robots versus Immigrants

Humanoid robots pioneered in Japan could one day become role models for Europeans once again. They are already well-known in the nursing sector, where they are considered a possible answer to labour shortages. Robots might eventually be seen as an answer to another issue: The societal tensions caused by immigration. In Japan, ethnic and cultural homogeneity is an important principle. Experts have reported that politicians aim at keeping migration low, and favour smart software when it comes to low-skilled jobs filled by immigrants in other countries. Might similar developments someday be seen in France, Germany and other countries where right-wing populists are stirring up xenophobic sentiments?

One who should know is Michael Møller. When he came to the United Nations in 1979, he started at the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. Today, he is Director-General at this UNHCR office in Geneva, and he blames politicians for the rise of hostility. “People are afraid, and that is because our leaders are giving the wrong messages,” Møller says. He wants to make the narrative around migrants fact-based. “I took the opportunity myself to convince the press to write differently about the issue, and to write a more positive story – a fact-based one.”

According to him, the positive aspects of migration will be predominant in nearly all regards: “In most societies, for every migrant, another job is created.” And the remittances – the money sent back to the countries of origin – would increase overseas development aid by the factor of three.

Møller argues the state of technology is not nearly at a sufficient level to replace workers with robots. According to him, this was one reason German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed Germany to take in Syrian refugees in the summer of 2015. “That was not just philanthropy,” he says. “It was rooted in the fact that Germany – in order to keep its economy going – is going to need somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 immigrants each year.”


How inclusion works: learn from Canada

When looking for ways to make society feel more comfortable with that necessity, Canada suggests itself as role model. Migration to Canada may differ from that of Europe as the country is not confronted with comparable amounts of refugees. Still, Canadians do an extraordinarily good job of including new arrivals, Adrienne Clarkson says. The country’s former Governor General sees citizenship as key factor: While only 47 percent of people migrating to the United States became citizens, the figure in Canada is 85 percent. “That makes people realize they have a future in this country, and it is worth belonging and contributing. We show that it works,” she says, pointing out Canada’s high levels of overall education and medical care, and low crime rates.

The fear in Europe seems somewhat irrational to her. “The countries are very well established with clear ideas of what they are,” Clarkson says. “Why can they then not have the self-assurance to say: We can welcome people, and they will be part of us?”

She sees volunteering as a good way to bring people from different backgrounds together: “Mixing with people who are not like us is a good thing. It creates relationships, and that is what human beings need.” The fact that Great Britain has recently established a Minister of Loneliness is, in her eyes, proof enough that robots can in no way be a complete solution. “Only in society can human beings truly function.”

People are afraid, and that is because our leaders are giving the wrong messages.
Michael Møller and Adrienne Clarkson at the 48th St. Gallen Symposium.

Will automation and climate change the pattern of migration?

The challenge of including working migrants might become less important. United Nations’ Michael Møller believes that soon fewer people will choose to come to Western countries, as automation might change the whole pattern of migration. “Five of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa right now. And what we are seeing there is a technological leap,” he says. “Africa is usually depicted as some big black hole full of catastrophes – it is not! The prejudices and the perceptions that we have fed for so many years in many cases are completely wrong.” Countries such as Rwanda are expected to become prosperous, so people might not long to leave in the future – at least not for economic reasons.

To Møller, revolutions caused by climate change are much more alarming. “We are catastrophically close to a point of no return, where things we discuss now will not matter much. Climate change is going to create tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people on the move. We are going to have to completely rethink how to structure our societies, how to manage this massive amount of people on the move. The only way to succeed is to recreate international solidarity. That requires much more integrated and much less nationalistic ways of thinking in terms of our societies.”

Again, he blames politicians for the lack of progress in that regard. “We have a big problem: short-term political structures that look three or four years ahead, at most. The long-term solutions we need to apply are completely different. But we need solutions that have an effect 15 or 20 years from now.”

Climate change is going to create tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people on the move. The only way to succeed is to recreate international solidarity.