An ambitious agenda: migration and the SDGs

Migration26 Nov 2015Chris Richter

As European leaders seek to address the challenges of complex migration flows, it has become abundantly clear that only a holistic and comprehensive approach will produce positive outcomes. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations in September offers a framework for such an approach. It is an opportunity that governments must grasp if they are to meet today’s complex challenges surrounding human mobility.

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Dramatic images of overcrowded boats crossing the Mediterranean, of the fatal consequences of dangerous sea voyages and of desperate crowds making long overland journeys on foot have captured global attention this past summer. These harrowing news reports and the personal stories they highlight have also triggered a political debate that has overshadowed many of the other issues facing European leaders, and that at times has been seen as a threat to the cohesion of Europe itself.

However, the movement of people as a means of escaping poverty, conflict or natural disaster is nothing new. Human mobility has long been a distinguishing feature of human endeavours, even before it occupied the headlines. Moreover, mobility and migration has been, and can continue to be, overwhelmingly positive.

The extent to which migration is positive depends largely on the policies that governments put in place. It also hinges on the level of recognition given to the broader environment and circumstances in which migration occurs. As the current political crisis has shown, nothing short of a comprehensive approach to migration is sufficient to address the current crisis. But what would such an approach look like and what should it address?

A development framework for migration

Even before European leaders began grappling with the migration challenges currently facing their continent, diplomats at the United Nations were busy crafting what is being lauded as a ‘transformational’ new development framework. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals) contains 17 goals and 169 targets focused on achieving progress in a vast number of development fields including poverty eradication, health, education, gender equality, economic growth, inequality, climate change, and peace and justice. Importantly, the SDGs address issues specifically related to migration, notably the promotion of safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration; migrant remittances; human trafficking; migrant worker rights; and the impacts of displacement caused by natural disasters and climate change.

In the context of the ongoing debates about how to manage the impacts of mass migration, the 2030 Agenda should be seen as a critical framework for guiding international action. On the one hand, it offers a way of effectively managing migration-specific challenges, particularly by calling for the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies. On the other hand, it also addresses broader structural issues, such as poverty, inequality, lack of access to health, employment and education, peace and justice and so on, all of which are deeply connected to migration and can make migration necessary in the first place. Recognizing the value of the 2030 Agenda in this context is critical to addressing the challenges currently facing Europe, and indeed, many other parts of the world. Giving effect to this agenda in the context of migration requires holistic policy approaches that focus on two broad objectives: addressing the drivers of forced migration and promoting the dividends of migration.

Address the drivers of forced migration

The first objective considers how development interventions can be planned to respond to the root causes of forced migration. Policy-makers must acknowledge that migration is an inevitable consequence of an increasingly interconnected world, and that an exclusive focus on physical or legal barriers to movement is both ineffective and counterproductive in the long-term. With the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic now in its fifth year, and with ongoing conflict and insecurity in places such as Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Nigeria, as well as persistent rights violations, poverty, environmental degradation and climate change, people will continue to seek safety in countries further afield.

Governing migration well, therefore, means promoting peace and stability, education and employment opportunities to produce resilience, thereby enabling individuals to make a choice between staying and migrating. These are all critical aspects of the 2030 Agenda in their own right.

Promote the dividends of migration

The second objective would focus on promoting the dividends of migration – such as remittances, knowledge and skills – to contribute to economic growth and social stability and to maximize benefits for migrants and their families. Even if the drivers of forced migration were eliminated, individuals could still choose to move, for example, to seek different or greater opportunities or to reunite with their families. In that context, host governments would still have an interest – and indeed a responsibility – to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all individuals in their territory, including migrants.

Governments would also have an interest in responding to domestic labour market needs, building communities and supporting social and cultural development to foster strong socioeconomic outcomes for migrants and societies. In other words, governments would have a strong interest in creating the conditions that empower migrants to fulfil their potential.

A need for political will

The beauty of the 2030 Agenda is that it offers a broad framework through which governments can meet the challenges and promote the benefits that migration presents, through long-term, holistic and integrated measures. Making real progress in this area also requires the political will to effectively implement the framework, as well as broad-based and inclusive partnerships. This may be challenging, as the European experience demonstrates. But, by adopting the 2030 Agenda, governments have committed to an ambitious and transformational vision.

Although European leaders have begun to recognize that a holistic and comprehensive approach is the only viable way to address the economic, social and political challenges posed by complex migration flows, their responses to date have not seized upon the opportunity this ambitious agenda presents. Yet Europe would be wise to look to the 2030 Agenda as a way of achieving better migration outcomes – for migrants and societies alike.