Migration Comes of Age

By William Lacy Swing
First published in Strategic Review

This is the age of migration. There have, of course, been times of great population flow: the mass movements at the end of World War II, or the early years of the 20th century, when the populations of US cities began to surge. Others would point to the move across the Western United States, or further back to the age of colonialism and exploration by Europe.

But I firmly contend that migration, as it exists right now, is the mega-trend of our times, and is ineffably changing the world as we know and experience it.

It may be hard to think of migration as something as grandiose as a mega-trend, or even a trend. The phenomenon is shown night after relentless night on our television screens, morning after morning in our newspapers, and tweet after tweet on social media as something ghastly and gruesome. Migration, the headlines scream, ends in a sweatshop, a brothel or a watery grave. Indeed, more than 40,000 migrants have died in transit since 2000, and the curve is arcing upward at an alarming rate.

That is not to say that the media is getting it wrong. One of the most moving reports I have seen related to migration in recent years was the BBC’s Jonathan Head in the Andaman Sea in mid-May, filming the wretched plight of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh on abandoned smuggler ships. Cast adrift, they floated across the ocean in what we dubbed a game of maritime Ping-Pong, but with human lives.

Although Head’s report – backed by chilling photos from Agence France-Presse and eyewitness reportage in The New York Times – served as testimony to the outrage that was being perpetrated, what cut us to the bone was the cacophony of misery emanating from the infamous “green boat,” which eventually made landfall in Indonesia.

While the boatful of journalists bobbed alongside (commendably doing the little they could to ease the immediate thirst of the hundreds of souls aboard), what struck me – and surely every viewer – was the hum of helplessness, the wailing and moaning that is reserved for appalling suffering. We have heard these sounds in feeding centers in Africa, in hospitals in the Middle East and now on the boats of the Andaman.

I admit, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” sprang to mind:

And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.

Even now, weeks after the boats started to come ashore, we cannot be certain that somewhere out on that scorching sea, there are not still dozens, hundreds – even thousands – of people, perhaps enduring a hell worse than the poverty and persecution they have fled.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

This is the cruelest irony of this aspect of migration, be it death of thirst in the Andaman Sean, drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocation in the false compartment under a truck crossing a border. These migrants are seeking the jobs or the security – often both – denied to them by the states they are fleeing, the states that have failed them in one way or another.

They are often the best and the brightest of their communities; the ones who can be depended on to make a good living from the honest sweat of their brows, and to send back enough money to keep their families out of poverty. They may be chosen to make the perilous journeys across sea and land when the most vulnerable – the children, the mothers, the elderly – have been sent to safety.

Flight from the horrors of war or persecution should ideally be dignified, with a guarantee of safety at journey’s end. Sadly, this ideal is further than ever from our sight. We now have more refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons than at any time since World War II – more than 50 million – and the figure grew by six million in 2013 alone.

Even getting into the queue for resettlement is time-consuming and difficult. There are simply not enough countries willing to take in asylum seekers and refugees. Refugee camps, official or otherwise, have become seemingly permanent features, with populations running into the hundreds of thousands.

There is no easy solution here. The best minds, the savviest politicians, the most hardheaded and inspired activists have been seeking solutions to conflicts for years. Successes are few and far between. There are no simple answers to the challenges that war and conflict pose to human development. The migrants who pour from conflict zones are fleeing nightmares, not chasing dreams; they are easily exploited and deceived by the criminal gangs that run the ships in the Mediterranean and the Bay of Bengal.

These same traders in human misery also have a burgeoning market made up of those who are fueled by dreams rather than nightmares. There are now 232 million international migrants in the world, and one in seven of us have moved from place to place, meaning a billion people are migrants. Some choose to leave, some are compelled by disaster, conflict or persecution, but all leave behind all that they once knew and loved as familiar and safe.

Transportation is now cheaper and reaches more destinations than ever, and the skills that we possess have become more transportable, more adaptable as the world globalizes. The Internet has opened vast new possibilities to migrants, both in terms of seeking opportunities and negotiating pitfalls. Communications technology and social media means that migrants can establish communities before setting out, and can easily keep in touch with family and friends at home. The “emigrants’ wakes” of the Europeans in the 1920s, when setting forth to the new world meant cutting all ties with them, have been consigned to the history books by Skype and Facebook. Social media drives the demand and supply sides of migration, drives the legitimate and the illicit.

Yes, this is the age of migration. Migration cannot be stopped, cannot be contained. It is a phenomenon, brought to life by the dreams and hopes of the impoverished and the terrified. Their movement, be it in dribs and drabs, or in a sudden rush that captures every headline, must be managed. Borders must be protected; states must be in control of who remains on their territory. But this must be underpinned by humanitarian border management. There must be a place for those in distress, whose habitats are under threat, or those in dire need of protection.

Equally, the scourge of people trafficking and human smuggling must be stopped. While there are subtleties in terminology, there is no difference in the motivation of the criminal gangs that strip every last vestige of dignity from their victims. The source, transit and destination countries have to cooperate to protect the vulnerable and prosecute the smugglers, who are nothing more than peddlers of misery and death.

Thus we need an improved dialogue on migration. Much as I am grateful to the journalists who found and reported on the plight of those trapped on boats in the Andaman Sea last month, and those who report the unrelenting disaster of lives lost in the Mediterranean, we need to show another story. Migrants must not be seen merely as miserable wretches, the flotsam of a world that doesn’t care. Migration is not a catastrophe, nor is it an invasion. Often, it isn’t even an emergency. It is, as throughout history, an inevitability. People move to improve their lives, whether that means access to a better food supply or simply a better chance of surviving conflict.

It is a core belief of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that migration, as well as being humankind’s oldest poverty reduction strategy, has also invariably been a force for good in terms of human development. The statistics are firmly on our side here. Purely in financial terms, migration is a massive contributor to development. In 2013, remittances to developing countries topped $400 billion, an increase of 3.5 percent on the previous year. This growth is projected to continue, reaching $454 billion by the end of this year. Remittances already dwarf official development aid, and it can be argued that they better target the root causes of poverty, literally putting bread on the table. Remittances also pay school fees, allow people to access better health care and in some cases directly build schools, roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure. If the percentages chewed off by money-transmitting agencies and middlemen could be reduced, even more hard-earned cash could be sent home.

Another area worth noting is student migration. The number of students pursuing studies abroad continues to surge as higher education institutions around the world vie for the best and brightest minds. But there is growing competition for students from emerging regional destinations that may offer more affordable and culturally relevant programs of study.

The rise in internationally mobile students reflects growing university enrollments around the world. In 2012, at least four million students went abroad to study, up from two million in 2000, representing 1.8 percent of all tertiary enrollments, or two in 100 students globally.

While traditional destination countries, such as the United States, remain strong magnets for students seeking a high-quality education, new destination countries and regional hubs are competing for a share of the revenue and intellectual capital of internationally mobile students. In 2012, five destination countries hosted nearly half of all mobile students: the United States (hosting 18 percent), United Kingdom (11 percent), France (7 percent), Australia (6 percent) and Germany (5 percent). But the top five also saw their share of international enrolment decline from 55 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2012.

Australia and Japan, traditional destinations in East Asia and the Pacific, are rivaled by newcomers China, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand, which hosted 6 percent of the global share of mobile students in 2012.

Much of this ebb and flow of people and cash is ad hoc, and many chances are doubtless missed by making migration harder than it has to be. In many cases, migrants don’t want to leave their homes permanently. IOM’s literature is full of case studies of men such as Hassan, who left his flood-prone Indian village to work as a laborer in a nearby city. When he had saved enough for a small boat he returned home, now able to transport his family, possessions and livestock out of danger in the rainy season. Sadly, our literature is also full of stories of failure, of violence against domestic workers, of death on building sites, of families ruined through lack of contact.

In protracted conflict, as I said above, much remains to be done to ensure the rights and the security of migrants. This will take courage and big gestures, and will involve the totality of the international community.

Other factors in the migration dynamic have more achievable fixes. Much is already being done to make communities safer and more resilient to natural disasters. A small but significant example of this was seen recently in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, where a massive storm stripped the very vegetation off the land. Massive damage was incurred in terms of loss of infrastructure, although a combination of safe building codes and the use of traditional building materials kept that cost down. But what was most impressive was the preparedness program put in place by the government, which enabled people to move to safe evacuation centers, and then quickly and without major panic, back home to begin repair work. This action saved lives and prevented displacement. A similar preparedness plan in Nepal also got people to designated safe zones in the Kathmandu valley for the critical periods when they would have been most at risk of aftershocks.

Making communities safer isn’t only about preparing for floods, storms and earthquakes, and preventing displacement. Women’s groups in India have produced new maps of their neighborhoods where the danger is rape and sexual violence. They have shared online maps warning of obvious dangers such as areas where drugs and alcohol are consumed, down to dark streets, faulty lamps and unsafe public toilets. This helps them to go about their lives with less fear of their own communities and with a greater chance to participate in education and the labor force. IOM believes that girls and young women are key to sustainable development, as they tend to reinvest more income in their families than men. It stands to reason that the better their education, the more they can earn and the greater the benefit will be to their communities. It should also be noted that women account for 48 percent of international migrants, increasingly becoming the sole contributors to household incomes.

Despite the growing number of women migrants and the importance of the remittances they send to families left in countries of origin, there has been little analysis of the relationship between gender and remittances. Remittances are typically not disaggregated by the sex of remitters and receivers. As a result, not much is known about gender differences in the sending patterns, the use and impact of remittances or the contribution of migrant women to local development in countries of origin.

However, despite the lack of data, some studies do provide a glimpse into the realities behind the gender aspect of remittances. Studies suggest that the sex of the sender affects three factors: namely the volume, the frequency and the sustainability of resources over time. Globally, women remit approximately the same amount as men, but research suggests that they tend to send a higher proportion of their income regularly and consistently, even though they generally earn less than men.

Acceptance of migration, and thus of migrants, will be a key factor in determining economic success or failure in the decades to come. While 50 percent of international migrants live in just 10 countries, this too is changing. In 2013, the United States had 45.8 million international migrants, about the same as Russia (11 million), Germany (9.8 million), Saudi Arabia (9.1 million) and Britain and the United Arab Emirates (7.8 million each) combined. Meanwhile, China’s stock of international migrants increased by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2013. South-South migration is now greater than the flow of South-North (82.3 million versus 81.9 million), and in 2013, the year for which the most recent figures are available, 13.7 million migrants moved North-South, in a new and growing dynamic.

Of course, it is not all good news, nor positive spin. Far from it. Worldwide, 21 million people are victims of forced labor – a tenfold increase since 2004. More than half (11.4 million) are women, who also make up 98 percent of the 4.5 million who are victims of forced sexual exploitation. The migrants who make the dangerous journeys to new, harsh and unfamiliar worlds have to contend not only with the loss of home and identity, but also outright hostility from the communities that employ – or even enslave – them.

Mass migration has also sown seeds for the rise of unprecedented antimigrant sentiment worldwide. Certainly countries have a right, indeed an obligation, to control their borders. And, yes, economic downturns make migrants easy scapegoats for unemployment or depressed wages. Throw in post-Sept. 11 security concerns, and it’s not difficult to understand why indifference to migrants’ hardships has led to hostility, fear and resistance to their arrival. However, this is out of step with global opinion.

The G20, the club of the world’s major economies, has shown a desire for migration to be maintained or even increased. A new study, prepared by IOM at the request of Turkey, the grouping’s president for 2015, shows that 15 out of 19 G20 countries want immigration levels increased or maintained at the same level. The survey, part of a broader forthcoming IOM report titled “How the World Views Migration,” suggests that only a minority of people in G20 countries want immigration reduced, with pro-immigration sentiment higher outside Europe.

Turkey commissioned this examination of views of migration in the G20 in its capacity as the chair-in-office of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, and concurrently the G20 presidency for this year. Presenting the findings of a first survey of public opinion on migration in G20 countries conducted by the Gallup World Poll in more than 140 countries between 2012 and 2014, the report provides a rare insight into public attitudes toward immigration around the globe. Only 31 percent want to see lower immigration levels into their countries. Attitudes to immigration vary significantly according to age, education and income. Younger people and those with higher educational qualifications are more likely to welcome migration. Higher-income groups are also more likely to favor immigration.

A key finding is that in G20 countries, views about migration are linked to the perceived rather than actual health of the economy. Overall, people in G20 countries who feel economic conditions are worsening are more negative toward immigration, while those who think conditions are improving are the most positive.

This pragmatism gives us some hope in a world that seems to have turned its collective back on the most desperate and vulnerable among us. The road ahead is difficult, analogous even to the individual journeys that the migrants we represent set out on in their hundreds every day, but it need not be hazardous.

To me, and to the organization I lead, the road is clear. Our first and absolute priority must be on the humanitarian imperative; to save the lives of those in peril on land or sea. We have to address the root causes of irregular migration, which are many and include statelessness and the inability or unwillingness of states to protect all groups living within their borders.

We must promote safe, orderly and dignified migration, where migration is seen as something normal, as a voluntary choice that benefits the sending, host and migrant community. Finally, we must develop partnerships so that all ends of the equation are met. Jobs must be filled, the market must develop. The elderly must be cared for, the youth must be educated; families and communities must be protected. In that, there is ample place for everyone: governments, civil society, the international community and global commerce.


William Lacy Swing is director general of the International Organization for Migration.