Lowering the Costs and Amplifying the Benefits of Migration

The evidence is clear: migration contributes more powerfully to development than any other means we know. When states and stakeholders gather in October 2013 at the second High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development, they need to build on this knowledge by committing to concrete actions. If more states work together and make better informed policy choices, they can generate large economic and social gains from migration, while ensuring decent living and working conditions for migrants.

International cooperation on migration has made remarkable progress since the first High-level Dialogue in 2006. Seven years ago, the situation was grim. Distrust among states was commonplace. The notion that migration could be constructively discussed at the United Nations was widely dismissed. However, the creation of the state-led Global Forum on Migration and Development, which was created at the 2006 HLD, has fundamentally changed the calculus of cooperation.

In its first six years, the Global Forum proved to be a safe harbour, a place to discuss the challenges of migration in a collegial and non-binding manner. Old paradigms have crumbled, myths have been shattered and relationships and trust have begun to grow. States and other stakeholders, grounded in facts and practices, are fostering a common understanding of migration and migrants. The Forum’s value is now self-evident—approximately 150 countries gather every year to analyze common challenges. Countries that were once silent on migration in international debates are now vigorous participants. Civil society has also become a strong and persuasive interlocutor on policy issues.

Given everything we now know, we must act in a more resolute fashion. Remittances capture migration’s impact in a compelling way: migrants sent $401 billion to developing countries alone in 2012, triple the amount of overseas development assistance. These flows are far more reliable than other funding sources. When the global financial crisis hit, foreign direct investment in developing countries plunged 89 per cent, while remittances dipped just 5 per cent; today, they are growing 9 per cent annually. Remittances also go directly to the people who know how to use them best. In Bangladesh, just 13 per cent of households that receive remittances are below the poverty line, compared to 34 per cent of those that do not. However, remittances tell only a small part of the story of how human mobility is shaping our world for the better.

Receiving communities, for instance, rely on migrants to help meet critical needs for labourers. They perform the most fundamental tasks, from building roads and homes to taking care of the very young and the very old. We also know that migrants spark innovation: in the United States, patent issuance rose by 15 per cent with each 1.3 per cent increase in the share of migrant university graduates. In addition, we need to take into account the taxes migrants pay, the investments they make and the trade they stimulate.

Meanwhile, we have learned that migration does not, in net terms, take jobs from natives: according to one recent study, on average, every new migrant creates one new job, thus expanding the overall economy. In origin countries, migration supports the balance of payments, making it easier to pay for critical imports, access capital markets and reduce interest rates on sovereign debt. All of this makes our nations and communities more prosperous and resilient.

We have denied the lessons of history and the truth about the human spirit for too long. People will continue to move, for it is in our restless and inventive nature. The twenty-first century is built on mobility. Capital, goods and information circulate at low cost and lightning speed. Yet, paradoxically, international migration has become more perilous. It is governed by outmoded notions about human mobility. It is hampered by inadequate policy and legal frameworks, and it is stifled by overriding security concerns.

While our globalized labour markets seek migrants, and as ever more people seek to move to escape poverty, our patchwork system of international mobility hampers them. In fact, it empowers those who exploit migrants—smugglers and traffickers, crooked recruiters and venal employers. It has severely compromised the human rights of migrants, too many of whom must travel, live and work outside the protection of laws. It has depleted public trust in the effectiveness of government. And it has undermined our ability to design policies that allow migration to help us achieve our development goals.

Simply put, the current system does not work. There is no good reason, for instance, why some states can protect the fundamental labour rights of their workers abroad and others cannot. It is not acceptable that only about 20 per cent of international migrants can take their social security benefits with them when they return home. Moreover, the lives of migrants should never be in jeopardy.

It is now time to begin building a system of human mobility that responds to the realities of the twenty-first century. Piece by piece, carefully and systematically, we need to create an adaptable architecture that allows individuals to develop their full potential, communities to better integrate newcomers, companies to access the workers they need, and governments to regain public trust.

A decade ago, we lacked the evidence and trust needed to take broad action on international migration. Today, that has changed. The Global Forum on Migration and Development was a critical milestone. Also important was the creation of the Global Migration Group (GMG), which brings together 14 United Nations agencies, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the World Bank to coordinate their migration related work. Regional consultative processes, meanwhile, allow for new ideas to be tested while fostering habits of cooperation.

Broader forces are at work as well: greater demographic pressures, globalized labour markets, and the economic ascendance of the developing world are fundamentally changing how and where migrants flow across the globe. Practically every country in the world must confront the challenges and opportunities of migration, and they can no longer be divided neatly into countries of origin and destination with opposing interests. Today, developing countries receive as many migrants as do those in the developed world.

Some positive developments have taken place. On 5 September 2013, the Convention on Domestic Workers went into force, offering critical protection to tens of millions of the most vulnerable workers, a great many of them migrants. The convention has been ratified by countries that did not sign the 1990 Migrant Workers Convention, signalling a new openness to treaties related to migration. Remittance fees, meanwhile, have dropped significantly in recent years.

Countries are also becoming much more proactive in working with their diasporas. Today, there are 77 offices, bodies and posts that governments in 56 countries have created specifically to formalize engagement with their diasporas. These initiatives encourage migrants to augment ties to their countries of origin through investments, human capital transfers, philanthropic contributions, capital market investments and tourism. In each of these areas, there is a growing richness in ideas of how to mobilize migrant communities. Now we must transform this common will and evidence into a more systematic effort to draw out the advantages of migration and blunt its ill effects. The United Nations High-level Dialogue must produce more than new processes like the Global Forum and the GMG. We should conclude our deliberations in October with clear commitments from states and stakeholders for action on specific issues.

Migration was not included in the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, migrants have been instrumental in meeting the MDGs—from reducing poverty to improving gender equality and preventing infectious diseases. Now it is time to make migration a formal part of the post-2015 development agenda. Its inclusion will help us break free from our preconceived notions of how development happens. It is human centred, placing the individual at the heart of our concerns, rather than the agendas of states and development actors. It is universal, as it impacts nearly every country on earth, and its benefits flow both North and South. It is a test of fair governance and effective government, demanding coordinated action not only among states, but also at all levels of government, from the local to the regional to the global.

By including migration in the post-2015 agenda, we can finally bring migration under the aegis of the United Nations. The potential ways of doing this are many. Over the past decade, for instance, we have made great progress in reducing remittance costs from almost 15 per cent to under 9 per cent. We have a long way to go on this front, but the scope for action ranges well beyond remittances. The international community could, for instance, make a commitment to innovative policies that reduce the fees workers are forced to pay recruiters.

Possible targets, meanwhile, need not be measurable only in economic terms. The post-2015 agenda could aim, for instance, to eliminate discrimination against migrants who are legally present in their territories, particularly with respect to equal wages for equal work, decent working conditions, and access to education for migrant children. Among other targets could be a sharp reduction in human trafficking—as indicated by the volume of prosecutions of traffickers, the number of states offering special legal protection to victims of trafficking, and the number of companies screening their supply chains for forced labour; increasing the share of migrants working at their highest skill level; and reducing the proportion of migrants lacking legal authorization to reside in their country of residence.

Migration stakeholders have developed many ideas for how governments, the private sector and civil society can build partnerships around mobility policies that (i) reduce discrimination against migrants and protect their rights; (ii) lower the human, social and economic costs of migration, including those related to recruitment, remittances and obtaining documentation such as visas and residency permits; (iii) expand opportunities for migrants to more productively invest their earnings and share their knowledge; and (iv) enlist migrants and diaspora organizations in enhancing development in their communities of origin and destination.

If integrating migration into the post-2015 agenda demands enormous effort, it is instructive to recognize how limited, in fact, this effort is: it entails persuading development stakeholders to better understand how migration can help them achieve their goals, while showing those responsible for migration how to craft policies that amplify the development impact of migration.

Building a truly dynamic, effective system of human mobility suited to the twenty-first century will demand action on all fronts: education, health, housing and labour, among others. The next frontier of effective migration governance calls for coordinated, collaborative action across and between entire governments. If we take on the challenges of migration one by one, they can and will be solved. Last year, for example, I called on stakeholders to address the plight of migrants affected by acute-onset crises, such as civil conflicts or natural and manmade disasters. My effort to focus attention on this issue has inspired states to take action. In particular, the United States and the Philippines have offered to lead an initiative to create a framework for action on assisting migrants in acute-onset crises. They are being joined by independent experts, civil society, the IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in addition to other states.

This issue is not the single most important one we face, but it is a problem where we can envision real, practical solutions, for it takes global cooperation from the realm of rhetoric to that of action. It expands the conversation beyond the strict migration and development framing, in the same evolutionary way that the Global Forum has catalyzed international cooperation. It compels more complex coordination that involves not only international organizations, but primarily states, as well as employers and civil society.

We need to take on many more such challenges. Our success will breed more success and greater confidence, reducing the perception that migration-related issues are the third rail of politics. Success will also allow us to more effectively address the legitimate fears the public harbours about the change that migration brings. As such, I urge states to come to the High-level Dialogue prepared to engage in a vigourous debate on the problems and opportunities related to migration, for we have the will and knowledge to address them.

We must work tirelessly from the bottom up, solving practical problems related to migration. Smaller groups of states and stakeholders can develop and test solutions to common challenges that might eventually become global standards. This eventually will enable broader collective action. The bottom-up practical approach and the top-down normative approach share a common cause: to improve outcomes for migrants and our societies.

The list of challenges we face is daunting. We must develop ways to address the specific needs of women, who now make up half of the world’s migrant population; to equitably invest in skills development; to make rights portable; to engage diasporas as development actors; to gather useful data; and to create innovate approaches to mobility like multi-entry visas and migration insurance, to name just a few.

Even if we were to conquer all these challenges, those that remain would be formidable. In the next generation, we must absolutely reject the notion that we can have second class citizens in our societies; it is a poisonous idea that has ruined civilizations. A child, no matter where she is in the world, must never be considered “illegal” or placed in detention. No man or woman should ever be jailed for a migration violation—and certainly not in conditions that violate their basic rights. We are on the threshold of a new era of international cooperation on migration. The High-level Dialogue is our chance to cross over it.