Migration topics are omnipresent in today’s news, public and political discourse. The so-called ‘migration crisis’ in Europe, fueled particularly by Syrian refugees, the election of Donald Trump as the next US president and his incendiary remarks about undocumented immigrants in the US, and several other incidents the world over have put migration on the forefront of national and international discussions.
However, migration is as old as mankind and public discussions often neglect the fundamental role human mobility plays for sustainable development in all corners of the globe. For this reason, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that was adopted by the global community in 2015, and specifically its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight that human mobility plays an important role to implement the global development agenda. Sustainable development acknowledges that development goes beyond economic growth and balances its three dimensions: economic, social and environmental. It aims to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives in a healthy environment. This way, the planet can support the needs of the present and future generations.
In fact, in September 2016, all 193 UN member states signed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants that recognizes that our world is a better place for the contribution made by migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development. And the benefits and opportunities of safe, orderly and regular migration are substantial and are often underestimated. While the United Nations estimate that 244 million or 4% of the world’s populations are international migrants, the development impacts of human mobility are much greater than this number would suggest. Migration is a global phenomenon. Countries in the global south host 42% of all international migrants and 86% of the world’s refugees, while the higher income countries of global north host 58% of international migrants but only 14% of all refugees.
Four principal links between migration and development
To unpack the multifaceted relationship Figure 1 illustrates the four principal ways in which human mobility interacts with sustainable development. First, the level of development can influence the mobility of people. This is often conceptualized as underdevelopment being a driver of out-migration. Second, migration often leads to immediate and substantial development gains for the people who migrate. Third, migrants are agents of development who actively contribute to development in their countries of origin and destination. Fourth, migrants, refugees and displaced persons can be vulnerable groups whose specific needs can be targeted by sustainable development efforts. I will explain these categories in a little more detail below and elaborate on related policy interventions.
Human mobility is a diverse concept
There are many different forms of human mobility. And we have developed different labels to describe them. We often distinguish forced movements—such as refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs)— from voluntary movements—often equated with economic drivers of migration. For statistical purposes, the UN defines persons as international migrants if they live outside their country of birth or if they live in a country but they hold a different citizenship. The specific legal status of refugees under the 1951 UN Convention and its 1967 Protocol, under regional conventions and domestic law matters. But it is important to note that sharp policy definitions often do not fit the complex realities of why and how people move. For example, Alexander Betts has coined the term survival migrationfor all forms of human mobility that are caused by existential threats to which people have no access to a domestic remedy or resolution. Such threats may be connected to environmental change, livelihood collapse, and state fragility.
We often look at international migration being distinct from movements that do not cross internationally acknowledged borders. However, internal migration often has similar effects to international migration. Lastly, instead of using ‘immigrant’ and ‘emigrant’ I often use the term migrant because people are simultaneously both. They are often transnational actors whose actions affect the places they reside, as well as the places they come from.
Migration is critical for implementing the SDGs
Migration is directly and indirectly linked to the SDGs (Figure 2). For example, the SDGs include targets to protect migrant workers’ labour rights, promote safe and secure working environments, in particular for women migrants (target 8.8), implement planned and well-managed migration policies (target 10.7), reduce the transaction costs of migrant remittances (target 10.c), and build capacities to produce high quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated among others by gender, race, ethnicity, and migratory status (target 17.18). In addition, the SDGs reference scholarships that can affect student mobility (target 4.b)and trafficking in persons, especially of women and children, forced labour and exploitation (targets 5.2, 8.7, 16.2).
In addition to the targets that anchor migration-related issues explicitly in development strategies human mobility is indirectly relevant because of the different links between migration and development that I have outlined above. Improving SDG outcomes can turn migration from a necessity into a choice. Migrants and migration can be enablers of reaching SDGs by unlocking the positive potential that human mobility has for mobile populations, communities of origin, as well as of origin. Lastly, migrants, refugees, and displaced persons are often vulnerable populations whose specific needs need to be considered in order to “leave no one behind”, which is a key principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Several goals and targets refer to universal access to certain services for all men and women. Often there are specific legal, procedural, or social challenges for migrants, refugees, returnees, and IDPs to access certain services and enjoy freedoms that are critical for sustainable human development. Figure 2 contains an illustrative list of SDG targets that are particular relevant to empower mobile populations, that may be addressed by facilitating migration, or that can be achieved with the help of migrants’ contributions.
Emigrants and diaspora populations as enablers of development
In my book Migration, Citizenship, and Development (2013, Oxford University Press), I show that emigrant and diaspora populations can have direct, intermediary or indirect effects on sustainable development outcomes of their home countries.
Diaspora actors can directly affect their home country’s development by remitting money, by investing, by getting involved in trade or philanthropic projects, by transferring knowledge, by raising the country’s tax income, by spending as tourists or by bringing social change in the country or its bureaucracy. In addition, emigrants have intermediary effects when they act as agents for cooperation between third parties and actors in their home country, for example when they facilitate investments by companies they work for. In this case they are not investing their own capital but they act as intermediaries for investment. Indirect effects are even further removed from direct actions and activities of diaspora actors. The entire diaspora community (or significant parts of it) can bring a change in the source country’s perception and appreciation. This ‘branding value’ of migrants can have positive effects for economic cooperation and investment.Overcoming a simplistic understanding of what drives mobility
The absence of sustainable development—such as poverty, the lack of productive employment and decent work, universal health coverage and equitable access to quality health services, education, justice and conflict—are strong incentives for people to leave the places they reside in search of better livelihood opportunities, higher quality of life and human security. However, it is important to note that there is no linear relationship between development and migration and displacement. That means, better development outcomes do not necessarily lead to less migration.
When economic development provides more productive employment and decent work opportunities and increases the average income, this may result in reduced pressures of populations to leave their homes in search of livelihoods, hence reducing migration. On the other hand, it is well documented that the poorest segments of society are often excluded from migration, especially international migration, as migration can be costly. Indeed, increased incomes for certain groups may enable them to afford migration and hence, increase internal and international migration. The same holds true for improved education, health and other development outcomes. Thus, sustainable development may lead to more incentives to stay at “home” but it can also increase the desire and capacities of people to migrate. Importantly, development programmes should not intend to reduce or prevent migration. Instead they can aim at making migration a choice, not a necessity.
Good migration governance matters
Migration occurs with or without government policies. Higher borders and restrictive legal and policy regimes do not stop migration. But they tend to make migration less safe and less beneficial for everyone. For this reason SDG target 10.7asks all states in the world to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies”. This acknowledges that we can increase the positive impacts of migration on the development of migrants, communities of origin, transit and destination alike by well-managed migration policies that empower migrant women and men, protect their rights, give them decent working conditions and provide them with choices and liberties. Such policies create safe and meaningful pathways for people to migrate and to use their skills. They also reduce or eliminate recruitment costs for migrant workers which otherwise can lead to highly indebted households and fewer development gains.
Two recent endeavors have attempted to outline how states’ well-managed migration policies could be assessed through composite measurements, namely the IOM’s Migration Governance Index and the Global Knowledge Partnership for Migration and Development (KNOMAD)’s dashboard on Policy and Institutional Coherence for Migration and Development.
Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees to shape the future of migration governance
Governments the world over know that no country can manage migration alone. Migration is a global issue that needs international cooperation at the regional and global level. Since 2007, a large number of countries come together at the annual Global Forum on Migration and Development to discuss how they can learn from each other to promote well-managed migration policies. In September 2016, a major UN Summit adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants that paves the way for two global compacts that will shape the future of migration governance: the Global Compact on refugees with its Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, and the Global Compact on safe, regular and orderly migration. We know that migration can accelerate sustainable development in all parts of the globe. It’s time for the world to come together to make human mobility easier, cheaper, and safer. This will benefit us all.
teaches international development, international relations, migration and
refugee studies at Columbia University's School of International and Public
Affairs (SIPA), Columbia Law School and at The New School's Graduate Program in
International Affairs. Daniel has published widely on the effects of migration and
citizenship on social, economic and political development, ethnic identity and
the role and genesis of public and citizenship policies, as well as on refugees
and displacement. This includes his book ‘Migration,
Citizenship, and Development. Diasporic Membership Policies and Overseas
Indians in the United States’ (2013, Oxford UP). In addition, he regularly
advises governments and various United Nations agencies on issues of migration,
diaspora engagement, displacement, and development. You can follow him on Twitter at @danaujoks.
DISCUSSION: How do you see the current state of world politics in light of the increasing challenges of international migration? How do you see the ways to address the challenges posed before refugees, migrants and "mobile populations" in the context of SDGs? Leave your comments and contribute to the discussion below.