Bringing migration into the post-2015 tent: addressing the ambivalent views on migration and development

By Chris Richter, from the International Organisation for Migration.

It has long been recognized that migration has complex, multifaceted and mutually reinforcing links to development. It can have positive effects – offering opportunities to expand income, opportunities and livelihoods and to escape dire economic, social, political and environmental situations. It can also have negative ones – leaving people vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses, or exacerbating inequality.

Whatever its impact, migration is a vital factor in efforts to achieve sustainable human development, providing crucial justifications for its inclusion in the post-2015 Development Agenda. The growing scale and complexity of modern migration underscores this view. Today, one in seven people on the planet is a migrant, though the impacts of migration affect many more – the families who stay behind, the communities in origin and destination countries, and the many businesses and industries that develop around, or are supported by, migrants.

Despite this, however, and despite a surge in interest amongst governments, starting with the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development and leading to the current global discussion on the post-2015 agenda, migration has remained largely on the ‘outer’ when it comes to development plans and frameworks.

The question is, given the long history of study, the substantial evidentiary basis and the growth in interest amongst governments, why is this still the case? Three particular issues stand out.

First, the sheer complexity of the migration and development relationship has made it difficult for migration practitioners to develop a cohesive narrative, or to speak in a unified voice, about how, and to what extent it should be included in the post-2015 Agenda. Migration is an immense topic that not only has diverse and multiple links with development, but that also affects many other areas of public policy, and vice versa.

The migration community needs to be more specific in the way it advocates for migration to be included, and to focus attention on the areas where the evidence is most readily available and compelling. While the conversation is coalescing around a number of themes – protecting and promoting migrants’ rights, reducing the social and economic costs of migration and establishing global partnerships on migration – turning these broad ideas into something that can fit concisely within the new development framework remains an ongoing challenge.

Second, many governments still perceive the migration and development link as presenting a difficult choice between national sovereignty on the one hand and more outwardly focused migration policy on the other. While the developmental benefits of migration are widely recognized and promoted, governments remain concerned that adopting more ‘development friendly’ migration programs would mean eschewing their sovereign prerogatives with respect to the entry and stay of foreign nationals. This is particularly the case when governments are faced with domestic constituencies that are ambivalent towards migration; public opinion is often a significant influence on immigration policy, and is rarely welcoming of reduced restrictions on migration.

However, linking migration and development policies need not be a zero-sum game. It is not about setting mandatory quotas on migration or otherwise limiting governments’ decisions about managing their borders. Rather, it is about making sure that migration occurs in conditions of safety; that it is a matter of choice, rather than compulsion; and that the human rights of migrants are protected. To do this, governments would adopt more informed migration policies that are sensitive and responsive to the opportunities and risks inherent in migration, but that still recognize national interests and objectives.

Third, there are substantial differences in the way migration is viewed by various sectors. Whereas migration practitioners are largely optimistic about the possible benefits of mobility, those in the development field have remained somewhat skeptical. Even in the areas where the development potential is greatest – such as the possible contribution of remittances – many still see only the negatives, such as the inequalities that have been observed in some cases between those who move and those who don’t, or the structural dependence in some economies on remittances. In this respect, migration is often seen more as a problem to be solved than as a possible solution.

However, while it is true that migration can have negative consequences and can be driven by poor development, seeing it only in this way misses the point that policies can make a difference. Migration is neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but whether or not it produces predominantly positive outcomes hinges on appropriate policies for humane and orderly migration and the protection of migrant rights. Like many issues relevant to development, its impact is also context specific.

In short, there is still a great deal to be done before migration can cement its place in the minds and priorities of the international development community. As the form and content of the future development framework is debated, the task of advocating for migration to be included must therefore be conducted on multiple fronts. It should simultaneously make the evidentiary case for migration, while also addressing some of the barriers that may have kept it out in the past.

For one, migration practitioners need to focus attention on the aspects of the migration and development relationship that could bear the most fruit in the post-2015 context. This means making some hard choices about which issues to advocate for, and which to pursue in other contexts.

Governments must also be reassured that the migration and development debate is not designed to undermine their sovereign powers with respect to managing the flow of people across borders. Proposals to enhance the links between migration and development are concerned with the quality of migration, rather than quantity.

Finally, migration advocates must redouble efforts to present a more nuanced understanding of the migration and development link, in particular to convince their development colleagues that while mobility can have both positive and negative impacts, it is not all bad; informed and effective policies can and do make a difference. For example, establishing global partnerships for development that include migration would be important to managing and responding effectively to the cross-border and cross-sectoral implications of migration, recognizing that no one country can do so while acting in isolation.

Too much is at stake to let the current ambivalence persist. And with 2015 now less than a thousand days away, the clock is ticking.

In September 2013, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will release its report: Migration and the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda, which brings together recent research findings on the links between migration and development, offering proposals on how migration could be factored into the post-2015 development framework.

1 Comment on "Bringing migration into the post-2015 tent: addressing the ambivalent views on migration and development"

  1. The Global Burden of Disease Study released last year in the Lancet shows that viral hepatitis was responsible for almost 1.45 million death in 2010, the same as HIV/AIDS and signifcantly more than TB or malaria. Despite this enormous death toll, leaders in global health consistently leave it off their agendas.

    Viral hepatitis is the 8th leading cause of death worldwide, killing as more people as HIV/AIDS every single year Says Charles Gore, President World Hepatitis Alliance. “500 million people worldwide are chronically infected. In the face of these numbers how is it possible that viral hepatitis receives little priority across the world?

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