Migration and the SDGs: Measuring Progress

Despite the SDG monitoring framework, we have no idea whether migrants are being “left behind” in achieving the SDGs, and to what extent. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed

By Elisa Mosler Vidal and Frank Laczko

This week, countries from around the world come together in New York for the inaugural International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) to assess how much progress has been made in implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM).

The GCM builds on the language adopted by states in 2015 when they agreed to include migration in the framework to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs include several references to migration, calling upon states, for example, to reduce the costs of sending remittances, reduce human trafficking, and reduce unsafe migration. The 2030 Agenda also calls upon all states to “facilitate safe and responsible migration and the mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

Given this close linkage between migration and the SDGs and the GCM, IOM decided to prepare a report, with other UN agencies and partners, to examine how much progress has been made since 2015 in attaining migration-related SDG targets. The publication includes contributions from the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Bank, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and others.

Unlike the GCM, which consists of 23 objectives, the 2030 Agenda has a formal monitoring framework with 169 targets and 17 goals clearly identified. But despite this framework, we have no idea whether migrants are being “left behind” in relation to the SDGs, and to what extent.

The SDG monitoring framework requires states to report on the progress they are making in attaining SDG targets and has placed new demands on countries to collect more data on different aspects of migration and development. Below we present some of the key findings of this new study.

What did we learn?

Firstly, there has clearly been some progress relating to migration and development data. The 2030 Agenda accelerated the development of a few key methodologies at global level, so these could be used around the world and included in the SDG data architecture. For example, the new migration governance indicator 10.7.2 for which data are now available in 70 per cent of countries. Similarly, including indicator 10.7.1 on recruitment costs was key to work towards a single, globally accepted methodology for measuring progress.

While many of these methodologies are far from perfect, they seem to be improving. When the SDG-migration indicators were adopted, a few were classified as Tier III, meaning they had no internationally established methodology or standards. Over the years, these climbed so that as of 2022, for example, two out of four indicators to monitor target 10.7 are in Tier II and two in Tier I.

Sometimes, methodologies were relatively innovative. Indicator 10.7.3, which records migrant deaths and disappearances, relies heavily on media reports due to scarce official data. Both the Multiple Systems Estimations (MSE) and the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CTDC) database, used to estimate numbers of victims of trafficking, make use of administrative data, rarely leveraged for SDG monitoring.

We also learned that this is a busy space and many international organizations and other actors are working to improve migration and development data. From the WHO’s Global Programme on Health and Migration (PHM) to UNODC’s efforts to monitor smuggling and IOM’s diverse programmes to map diasporas and the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs), there are many new initiatives. We don’t know how many there were in 2015, but it’s clear there are many more now.

However, there is still a very long way to go. Only 55 per cent of countries provided data for SDG-migration indicators in 2020. And migrants are invisible in the data we do have – that year (2020), countries disaggregated by migratory status only one out of 232 SDG indicators. There is, somewhere, a disconnect between global advancements on migration and development data, and concrete progress at national level.

Statistical capacity can be an issue. Quality, timely migration data is difficult to generate; many countries struggle to provide basic migration statistics. Often, it isn’t realistic or possible for them to monitor migration and development topics as mandated internationally.

The SDG data framework can also be an issue. SDG-migration indicators cover a few key topics – such as the above and others – but these may not be a priority for all countries. Conversely, many key topics are left out. For example, while there are over 50 health and health-related SDG indicators, there are none on health and migration. Similarly, there are no indicators on climate change and mobility.

What about the way forward?

The SDGs lent urgency to the need to globally monitor migration and development topics and gave rise to several methodological advancements. However, what we know about migration and development in the average country is still, at best, very patchy. While the SDGs are by no means the only way to address this, they offer a significant chance to do so. So, what to do?

  • Disaggregate data. The motto of the SDGs is to ‘leave no one behind’, and often migrants or migrant sub-groups – such as IDPs or unaccompanied minors – are especially vulnerable. To include these in development policies, they first need to be counted and visible. This means disaggregating development data by migratory status, age, sex/gender, disability status and other dimensions.
  • Use existing data. Several fruitful SDG monitoring initiatives leverage existing data, such as administrative, operational or other information. Given the poor state of migration data to begin with, using migration data that is already available – such as census microdata – towards SDGs reporting can be a good idea.
  • Allow flexibility. The SDGs are global but to be successful – in both implementation and monitoring – they need to be translated effectively to national and local levels. While internationally comparable data is important, more flexibility in SDG reporting could encourage better results by, for example, emphasizing to countries that proxy indicators that use alternative data sources can be used where necessary.

SDG-migration reporting raises important questions about how global data frameworks are designed and implemented. Now is a good time to discuss this. The GCM has no data-driven follow-up and review process and instead builds on that of the 2030 Agenda. Right now, these building blocks remain shaky.

Greater efforts are needed to create positive returns for migration and development data from the 2030 Agenda. Luckily, many innovative projects and diverse and impressive expertise and a shared interest to do this before 2030 mean we are in a good position to do so.


Read ‘Migration and the SDGs: Measuring Progress – An Edited Volume’ here.

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals