Governance of International Skilled Migration: Scalar Politics and Network Relations

Published 2 February 2016 / By Micheline van Riemsdijk

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States, cities, and companies are competing for the best and brightest workers.

In order to attract skilled migrants, most governments in high-income states have liberalized their migration policies. Studies of migration governance have predominantly examined the roles of states and supranational actors in the regulation of international migration, paying less attention to the involvement of non-state actors in national and local levels of decision-making. Private actors try to convince policymakers to attract more skilled migrants to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy.

In a working paper I examine how policymakers and non-state actors shape the governance of international skilled migration in Norway. The Norwegian economy fared better during the global financial crisis than other Western states, thanks to close government control of the banking industry, sustained international demand for Norwegian petroleum products and services, and revenues from its sovereign wealth fund. Unemployment rates remained low compared to other states, and Norway-based companies continued to hire highly skilled migrants. The research project focuses on the petroleum industry: a sector that recruits many foreign-born engineers.

The project examines the governance of international skilled migration, bringing together literatures on scalar politics and network relations. Scholars traditionally conceptualized geographical scales as fixed and hierarchical. They regarded the global scale as the most powerful scale, which dominated actors and institutions at lower scales. Geographers have recently argued that actors at lower scales can exert influence through bottom-up governance.

Some scholars favor network modes of governance as a non-territorial alternative to scalar hierarchies. Private actors can establish network relationships with government actors at the local and national scale, facilitating the involvement of non-state actors in the decision-making processes. Some scholars argue that network modes of governance can be more effective and efficient than hierarchical models of decision-making. Networks are, however, imbued with power relations and network membership does not necessarily confer decision-making power to all members.

The working paper analyzes the scalar politics and network relations of various stakeholders in international skilled migration in Norway. It examines how private actors create alliances with local and national politicians to recruit more skilled migrants to Norway. The research also investigates the limitations to these network relations. For example, government officials clearly delineated the spheres of influence for private actors. The Ministry of Labor and Social Inclusion refused to consider tax incentives for third country nationals and state-funded language courses. Thus, the Ministry retained its decision-making power in employment benefits and the funding of state programs.

The study found marked differences in the creation and compositions of policy networks in Oslo and Stavanger. Stakeholders in Oslo have many opportunities to meet with national decision-makers, which is reflected in their policy networks. Stavanger takes a more local approach to skilled migration governance. The Stavanger Chamber of Commerce works with local companies, organizations, and authorities to address the housing shortage and unemployment of accompanying spouses. This public-private partnership is more flexible and efficient than the national top-down decision-making model. There is, however, a lack of openness and transparency in this governance model, possibly raising concerns about the accountability of network members.

The study findings underline the key role of expertise in network access and political influence. The employer association Abelia and national labor unions use their expertise in migration and employment regulations to strategically target their lobbying efforts. These actors also organize conferences to gather information about current skilled migration issues in Norway. They use this expertise to influence skilled migration policymaking at the national scale.

It is important to note that Norway’s economic situation has deteriorated considerably since the fieldwork research has been completed. As a result of the dramatic decline in global oil prices since late 2014, Norwegian petroleum-related companies have laid off numerous workers. The economic slowdown and related layoffs will likely reconfigure the scalar politics and network relations in skilled migration governance as stakeholders’ priorities have shifted. In addition, the current refugee situation in Europe has eroded public support for immigration. These developments may reduce the influence of private actors in skilled migration policymaking at the local and national scale.

More information about the project on the governance of international labor migration can be found at

Micheline van Riemsdijk, University of Tennessee, Department of Geography, Burchfiel Geography 304, Knoxville TN 37919, USA