Taking the ‘high road’

Development Policy20 Dec 2013Chris Richter

There can be little doubt today that migration is a significant and integral factor in sustainable human development. Migration offers individuals a means to expand their income, opportunities and livelihoods overseas and to escape dire economic, social, political and environmental situations. It also contributes to economic growth and innovation, and can help to address demographic imbalances, and labour and skill shortages. When it is not well managed, however, migration can also leave people vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses, or can exacerbate inequality.

Migration therefore has a strong impact on development, on the wellbeing of migrants and on their host and home communities. If migration is well-managed, this impact can be strongly positive; if not, it can be negative for individuals and societies. Yet, although the relationship between migration and development has long been in evidence, migration has been conspicuously absent from development plans and frameworks, including the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

A crucial factor may be that migration policy is often influenced more by domestic than international policy concerns. These include changes in the local labour market or demography, or concerns about social cohesion, issues to which politicians are particularly responsive. While these are certainly important and legitimate issues, they are often perceived as being incompatible with external considerations. Balancing the domestic and international aspects of migration – often (and inaccurately) seen as competing priorities – is therefore perceived as a challenge, and the promotion of ‘development friendly’ migration policies often loses out – with negative impacts for migrants and the societies in which they live.

At the same time, migration is often highly politicized and marred by negative associations. This is particularly true when governments are faced with domestic constituencies that are ambivalent towards newcomers, particularly those from different ethnic, religious, or other backgrounds. Public opinion has a significant influence on immigration policy, and it is often easier to mobilize public support for policies that are based on populist notions about migration, even though they may produce negative outcomes over the long term. For instance, many of the potential benefits that migration can produce for development are ‘left on the table’ due to poor policies.

As the international community embarks on the process of establishing a successor framework to the MDGs, migration practitioners must therefore take a multi-pronged approach to advocating for migration to be included. They should simultaneously present the evidentiary case for migrants and migration, while also promoting a more balanced, factual discussion about the impact of migration on development and addressing some of the negative perceptions that persist.

In particular, governments must be reassured that adopting migration and development policies will not limit their capacity to address domestic concerns, but expand their capacity to do so whilst also enhancing the potential benefits for migrants and their countries of origin. How migration is governed – the conditions under which migrants move, live and work – will determine what kind of outcomes can be achieved for origin and destination countries alike, as well as for migrants themselves.

To do this, governments would need to adopt more informed migration policies – or what IOM Director General William Lacy Swing calls a ‘high road’ approach – that are sensitive and responsive to the opportunities and risks inherent in migration, but that still recognize national interests and objectives.

Concrete ‘high road’ measures might include lowering the costs associated with migration, such as remittance and recruitment fees, promoting skills recognition and the portability of rights, combating discrimination against migrants, safeguarding their labour and other human rights, and ensuring equitable access to health, education and employment.

Importantly, policies of this nature would need to be supported through global partnerships. Migration is a phenomenon that cannot be managed effectively through national policies alone. Improved partnerships – between and amongst governments, the private sector, civil society and migrants themselves – are needed to address its diverse impacts and to realize its full potential to drive development. In the context of the post-2015 UN development agenda, this would mean incorporating migration as part of a renewed MDG 8 – a global partnership for development.

It will also be important to ensure that migrants – who are often marginalized – are not left behind in goals regarding universal access to health, education, decent work, etc. Disaggregated data and indicators to this end could go a long way toward ensuring that the new development agenda truly provides a life of dignity for all. The human rights and development potential of migrants are intrinsically linked.

Fortunately, there are promising signs that the mood on migration is changing, albeit slowly. Through various fora – such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development – the international community has discussed and debated the links between migration and development, and states have explored collaborative approaches to enhancing its benefits and mitigating its negative impacts on human and societal development. More and more are incorporating migration in their national development plans and strategies.

In October 2013, UN member states met in only the second High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development ever convened by the UN. This event – which resulted in an outcome declaration negotiated between and endorsed by Member States – is widely regarded as having enhanced the quality of the migration debate at the UN, having been conducted in a spirit of pragmatism and cooperation.

Yet, further progress can still be made.

While the spectre of negative public opinion and political sensitivity still looms large in discussions about migration, there is at least growing recognition that sustainable development cannot be achieved without taking migration into account. The challenge moving forward is to convince governments that the link between migration and development can be enhanced through effective policies, but without limiting the sovereign prerogative to manage mobility across borders.

As a recent report by the UN Secretary-General has stated, ‘[w]e are on the threshold of a new era of international cooperation on migration’.1 But crossing that threshold requires us to translate positive discussions on migration into tangible outcomes. Governments must commit to including migration in the post-2015 development agenda. They must commit to taking the high-road on migration.


  1. United Nations 2013, ‘International migration and development’, Report of the Secretary-General, A/68/190, New York.