The MDGs ignored migrants and refugees. How will the SDGs fare?

This post, by Bob van Dillen, expert on migration and development at CORDAID and coordinator post-2015 at Migration and Development Network, MADE, is the fifteenth in our blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be implemented to include all social and economic groups.


The commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ has been a key feature of all the discussions on the post-2015 agenda and the SDGs. The idea that ‘no goal should be met unless it is met for everyone’ is well established in the 1 August outcome draft Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This would mean ensuring that every individual migrant – in countries of origin, transit or destination – achieves the full package of rights and opportunities the SDGs express, regardless of migratory status.

In the first of this blog series, the reader was reminded by Liz Stuart that the SDGs, unlike the MDGs, need to have the poorest, most vulnerable, and most disadvantaged, at their heart. My former colleague Jo Boyden made the implicit understanding explicit: the MDGs did leave certain groups out. It was particularly disappointing that the MDGs completely ignored migrants and migration, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

Fifteen years later, this omission has been repaired – at least to a large degree. No fewer than 1 billion people (1 out of 7 world citizens) are internal or international migrants and no one would today dispute that migration impacts development and vice versa. There’s also a growing body of evidence suggesting that migrants not only contribute to economic growth and well-being in countries of destination, but also to countries of origin by sending money back home (remittances) or by investing as social entrepreneurs in their home communities. The SDGs are expected to facilitate this important contribution.

In his blog, Kevin Watkins reminded us that LNOB is not about technical fixes, but about confronting the power relationships and vested interests that keep the poor where they area – and it is about forming the national and international coalitions needed to deliver change. This is particularly true for migrants and migration. This year alone we’re counting over 2000 people that drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.

We see 3000 migrants on TV camping in Calais (a swarm, according to British Prime Minister David Cameron, and a threat to Europe’s standard of living, according to the Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond), waiting for a dangerous opportunity to cross the Channel. We witness the EU leaders struggling  to agree over the relocation of 40,000 refugees. We are watching Fortress Europe leave debt-ridden Greece to deal with 50,000 migrants arriving last month alone. As Kevin rightly noted, “through their migration policies, the countries of the European Union are reinforcing vulnerability, restricting opportunity, and reinforcing inequality.”

At the same time however, the SDG negotiations have resulted in migration and migrants being well represented; both in terms of migration as a positive force for sustainable development and in terms of promoting the rights and well-being of migrants. In short, paragraph 35 recognizes the positive contribution of migrants to inclusive growth and sustainable development and mentions “full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of migrants regardless of migration status”; paragraph 14 notes that forced displacement is a threat to development progress; paragraph 23 recognises migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons amongst vulnerable people; paragraph 25 establishes that migrants should have access to life-long learning; paragraph 27 contains a commitment to eradicate human trafficking; and paragraph 74.g establishes that the follow-up process will include disaggregated data based on migration status.

Migration explicit targets appear under the goals on economic growth, employment and decent work (SDG 8), inequality (SDG 10), and means of implementation (SDG 17). These include:

8.8          Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment;

10.7        Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies;

10.c        By 2030, reduce to less than 3 per cent the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 per cent; and

17.18     By 2020, enhance capacity-building support to developing countries […] to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by [inter alia…] migratory status

In addition, three targets call for an end to exploitation and human trafficking under the goals on gender equality (SDG 5); economic growth, employment and decent work (SDG 8); and peaceful societies, access to justice and accountable institutions (SDG 16).

Together with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) from the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, this signifies an important step forward in terms of integrating migrants and migration into the global development agenda. The AAAA spells out policies and actions related to ensuring safe, orderly and regular migration with full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants, regardless of status; ending human trafficking; access to and portability of earned benefits; education for migrant and refugee children; skills recognition; lowering the costs of recruitment and remittances (cheaper, faster and safer transfer, including by promoting competition, transparency and the use of new technology and addressing obstacles to flows of remittances and to improving data collection); financial inclusion, services and literacy; combating xenophobia; and facilitating social integration.

Looking at the proposed SDG indicators one can see that it will not be easy to measure targets such as orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people. This will however be crucial to ensure that governments make progress, for example reducing the number of people drowning in the Mediterranean or reducing the number of victims of modern slavery or human trafficking.

Other blogs in this series have mentioned the need for stronger data collection and measurement.  As Sarah Hendriks pointed out, improved data for girls will require both quantitative and qualitative data, as perceptions of safety and access to services often reflects how well programs are being implemented. This is equally true to migrant girls and migrants in general, and it was important to have migrants included in the definition of “vulnerable groups”. It is crucial that civil society contributes to the collection of such quantitative and qualitative data, and requesting governments to take these into account when reporting progress or adjusting policies.

Finally, it is important to underline the universality of the SDG agenda, which means that this agenda “agreed by consensus” is as relevant to France, Greece and the UK as it is to The Philippines, Eritrea or Mexico. Developed countries will have to ensure that no one is left behind in their own societies.

A good example to illustrate this is the situation of undocumented migrants, an estimated 90,000 of which live in my own country, The Netherlands.  Without a social security number or ID card, they cannot go to the doctor and their children cannot go to school. No one would employ them, nor let them an apartment. In November last year, the Council of Europe said the Netherlands must ensure everyone living in the country has food, clothes and shelter, including failed asylum seekers who are not cooperating with efforts to deport them, or cannot be deported for administrative reasons. The Council of Europe’s decision is not binding and it took months of coalition party negotiations in order to reach a compromise that satisfied nobody. The number of shelters will be reduced, and to get into them rejected asylum-seekers must show they are trying to leave the country.

According to the SDGs, they would need to not only be given access to food, clothes and shelter, but also learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to participate fully in society. Similarly, this is true for migrant’s decent working conditions, especially for migrant women, and the SDGs are thus an implicit call to end exploitation of domestic workers in the UK  who clean people’s houses and gardens or look after people’s children.

However the SDGs are not binding and it is therefore up to the governments of developed countries  to put into place the appropriate policies that adequately translate the SDGs into national policies and implementation.

And it is up to parliaments and civil society to hold them to account.

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