The Tragedy of Modern Migration

  • Richard Ots | Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration in South Africa.

This article was first published in The Sunday Independent.

With the fall of the curtain on the current United Nations Millennium Development Goals imminent and looming large on the horizon, the international community will be engaging in robust and intense conversations to determine the content, size and direction of the post-2015 Development  Agenda.    

At the outset, it is perhaps fitting to commend the United Nations – the principal institution leading the charge to define a successor framework – for the progressive new approach it has adopted towards this end, particularly its emphasis on the centrality of inclusiveness in such a key socio-economic global project.

What I am certain will yet prove to be the perfect masterstroke by the UN’s mandated organs and individual subject-matter experts is the formulation of a bold, inspiring and ambitious vision, in what it calls a drive for five big transformative shifts. As the American architect Daniel Burnham phrased it: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

The key players behind the design and implementation of the current Millennium Development Goals should acknowledge that the exclusion of migration as an integral part of the conversation has left it incomplete and, consequently, wanting. It is common cause that with approximately 1 billion out of the world population of 7 billion people being migrants, the migration question cannot but be an integral part of the next phase of the United Nation’s development agenda.

In fact, the emergence of a broad consensus during the first phase of the post-2015 process on the relevance of migration bears testimony to this. This represents a major progressive shift from the original position contained in the Millennium Declaration itself, which made only a scant reference to migration without including specific goals or targets. Suffice to say, it is not accidental that several key messages in the area of migration and human mobility enjoy prominence even in the Dhaka Declaration of the Global Leadership Meeting on Population Dynamics of 2013.        

Indeed, nobody could have captured the essence of the centrality of migration to the development agenda better than Peter Sutherland, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on International Migration and Development, when he said “Making migration part of the world’s development strategy will have a meaningful impact on the lives of migrants, affording them greater access to rights and to the fruits of their labour. Perhaps even more important, it could change public perceptions of migrants, so that they are viewed as a blessing rather than a scourge.”   

Too often, indeed, do politicians and policy makers treat migration primarily as a problem that needs to be managed. There is much that they can learn from their constituents. Throughout the ages, people have resorted to migration as a solution to conditions of hardship and distress, or as an avenue towards improvement for themselves and their children. And throughout the ages, migrants have brought more than a suitcase with them to their new homes. Migrants bring innovation, skills, knowledge, diversity and fresh perspectives. But above all, they bring with them the willingness and the passionate drive to improve. That is, in essence, what migration is about: The drive to improve!

The Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 Development Agenda too, aim to improve the lives of people. The challenge for policymakers, therefore, is to recognize migration as a solution, rather than as a problem, and consider migrants as agents of development. Migration’s contributions to the social, economic and environmental elements of sustainable development should be factored in as we seek to develop a comprehensive and globally relevant developmental policy regime.

Foremost, it is essential to foster proper working linkages between migration and social development; including a clear commitment to systematically incorporate population dynamics such as migration in development strategies and policies, as outlined in the Rio+20 Outcome document. This can only be achieved through close co-operation between all stakeholders in the countries of origin and destination; ensuring orderly mobility with adequate protection and assistance for vulnerable groups, and in full respect for the human rights of all migrants.

Close on its heels is the recognition of the importance of the migrants’ privately funded contributions to development, mainly through the transfer of money earned by migrants and sent to individuals in their home countries, commonly known as remittances. Studies have shown that these contribute to poverty reduction amongst the families left behind by the migrants by increasing household incomes and thus enabling them to invest in housing, health and education. As a matter of fact, remittances form a significant part of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of many countries. A cherry on top is the fact that migration brings many intangible benefits, such as an increase in the flow of trade and the transfer of skills, values and innovation. Migration therefore should be integrated in national and sectorial development policies, strategies and programmes, particularly poverty reduction strategies. Portability of social security entitlements and recognition of professional and educational qualifications enhance the mobility of the most promising agents of development.

Thirdly, consideration ought to be given to the fact that managed internal and international migration is an essential part of increasing resilience and enhancing effective disaster risk reduction. The fact that two-thirds of coastal cities with over five million inhabitants are located in areas likely to be affected by sea-level rises and adverse weather conditions, possibly leading to the displacement of 200 million people by 2050, warrants for the inclusion of migration in disaster reduction and recovery strategies, including strategies aimed at adaptation to environmental changes.

Factors such as social and economic realities, the cross-cutting nature of migratory phenomena and political sensitivities make it unlikely that there could be a stand-alone migration goal. Instead, we are convinced that migration should be considered as a key development enabler for all these big transformative shifts of the post-2015 Development Agenda and, therefore, as a core and integral element in a renewed global partnership for development.

The international community should define migration targets as part of a global partnership for development, complemented by migration-related development indicators. In practical terms this implies the creation of co-operative agreements related to human mobility, which will enable safe, lawful and less costly migration across or within borders; and in the process ensure the protection of the human rights of migrants and produce positive development outcomes for all stakeholders.

Secondly, migration should also be incorporated into targets wherever it is relevant to the achievement of specific development goals, particularly poverty alleviation, disaster risk reduction and access to quality education, health, housing and decent work. The well-being of the migrants, the need to combat inequalities and marginalisation as well as matters related to the repatriation of social rights, earned entitlements and savings.                         

Our call to the international community is to treat migration with the seriousness it deserves. We should be mindful that it does not affect only the one billion migrants in the world, but that the scope extends to an even larger number of stakeholders, including family members, businesses, labour market sectors and even national and transnational economies; all of whom stand to gain from an improved approach to the governance of migration.

The onus therefore lies with all states and other relevant stakeholders – in origin, destination and transit countries alike – to choose the high road scenario on human mobility as they deliberate on the post-2015 Development Agenda. The imperative to promote a rights-based and gender-sensitive approach to migration must not be negotiable. Migration is, indeed, the drive to improve. No effort should therefore be spared to ensure that, as a final outcome, migration is an integral part of all our development policies.

This is a goal that all of us who claim the mantle of develospment activists must expend energy and effort into to ensure its realisation, lest we are judged harshly by history for neglecting to do the obvious.