Migrants: Figures and Futures. How data help us manage human mobility

By: William Lacy Swing

 

Migration’s impact on the global humanitarian agenda touches on every aspect of our work—whether it’s our response to climate change, or to fighting income inequality or to improving maternal health or resolving ethnic conflict, we can’t escape the spectre of millions of people on the move.

 

We can hardly meet or manage our many challenges without discussing global migration. Yet, more and more, we are finding that without access to reliable, comprehensive and global data, managing migration policy becomes a game of blind man’s bluff.

 

As we prepare to meet this week in Paris for the OECD-IOM-UNDESA's International Forum on Migration Statistics, we need to consider migration’s human faces, of course. But we have to always keep in mind that we can’t begin to put smiles on those faces until we first grapple with the figures. That is, the data.

 

I am reminded today of the historic work of my friend and colleague, Peter Sutherland, whose passing this month is an incalculable loss to the entire migration community. In his landmark report on migration, which came to be known as the “Sutherland Report,” he set out a vision for how international cooperation can contribute to effective migration management. 

 

The report highlighted how, despite good data being essential to better migration governance, we still struggle to understand some basic facts about migration. Such as: who migrants are, where they are, where they come from and why they moved—especially for movements across countries in the Global South.

 

Sutherland The report provided key recommendations on how to enhance our knowledge of migration, which include implementing expert recommendations on traditional sources of migration data, harnessing the potential of new data sources or ‘big data’, developing capacities to monitor migration-related Sustainable Development Goals, and monitoring the protection of human rights for people on the move.

 

The Paris Forum could not be timelier. 

 

This is the first forum exclusively dedicated to migration statistics provides a timely and much welcomed opportunity to promote dialogue and effective cooperation on this important issue. We value our partners and believe that effective collaborations will be crucial to enhance the data landscape, deepen our knowledge on migration and appropriately act upon it.

 

Progress to make migration safer and more regular, to harness its potential for socio-economic advancement, to protect migrants’ rights and their dignity can only be measured if reliable statistics are available. Data are essential to identify which policy interventions are working to achieve these objectives, and which ones are not.   

 

Despite growing efforts by national governments and the international community, there are still significant gaps in migration data globally. National population censuses–traditionally the main source of data on migration–are infrequent and cannot therefore provide timely information. Moreover migrants—particularly those on irregular status—often are absent from household surveys, or are hard to track through administrative sources.

 

That leads to another pitfall: Without timely, reliable and comprehensive data on migration and migrants, the ability to design effective migration policies is severely limited. If migrants are absent from the data, they will be absent from policies, with negative consequences for their well-being and that of the communities where they live. 

 

Data are also essential to promote a debate on migration that is informed by facts, rather than fears and stereotypes. An increasing amount of data on migration today is not generated by the national statistical offices but by the private sector or international agencies. Innovations in technology and reductions in the cost of digital devices worldwide have meant that digital data are being produced in real time, at an unprecedented rate.

 

The “volume” of data available today is larger than at any point in human history. Still, this so-called “Big data”—or data generated in real time through the use of digital devices or web-based platforms and smart meters—offers enormous opportunities to improve our understanding of migration-related aspects. We see this demonstrated by a growing number of studies based on various types of big data sources – from social media to mobile phone call records, from Google searches to satellite imagery. 

 

Nonetheless the use of Big Data comes with significant challenges. For instance, there are serious privacy, ethical and human rights issues related to the use of data inadvertently generated by users of mobile devices and web-based platforms. 

 

Concerns over the use of Big Data for any purpose, including research, need to be identified and adequately addressed by policy-makers, for instance through the creation of a regulatory system setting out conditions and limits to access to and use of certain kinds of data. 

 

More generally, many statisticians and policymakers are still skeptical about the feasibility of using data from innovative sources for policymaking purposes. This is why we need to be innovative also in the creation of effective frameworks for these collaborations to flourish.

 

IOM, the United Nations Migration Agency that I direct, is actively engaged in advancing the debate on the potential of big data for migration. Together with the European Commission’s Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography (KCMD), IOM’s Data Analysis Centre recently organized a workshop in Ispra, Italy, that brought together researchers, private sector representatives, policymakers and practitioners to review the evidence on big data and alternative data sources on migration, discuss possibilities and obstacles, and suggest practical steps to enhance use of such data sources in support of migration policymaking. 

 

IOM and the EC are now discussing ways forward to enhance use of big data sources in migration analysis and policymaking, and incentivize partnerships in this promising area. This week I look forward to continuing that work with my colleagues and collaborators in Paris.

 

While we are all aware of the many gaps and limitations of existing migration data, particularly across countries with limited statistical capacity and resources, a global action plan on how to improve migration statistics is still missing.

 

Data availability in itself is surely not sufficient to ensure that evidence is sensibly used to inform policies. It may not even be sufficient to shift the public’s common and unjustified beliefs that migration is a threat to countries’ security, national identity and social cohesion, that migrants take away jobs, or that they are a burden on social welfare systems. But without reliable, accessible, and balanced information, sound management of migration becomes more difficult. We cannot hope to have sensible and effective migration governance without data. Migration statistics may not be sufficient but they are absolutely necessary.

 

Wiliam Lacy Swing is IOM Director General.