Migration gets a bad rap. Leaving aside, for a moment, the arguments about migration as a threat, even those who support migrants’ rights tend to frame the conversation around its problems: irregular migration, undocumented migration, the dangers of trafficking, and migration’s negative impacts on those who migrate and their families, and on origin and destination countries. If migration is truly such a negative thing, though, why do millions of people do it? In this week’s piece, we’d like to take a closer look at the beneficial aspects of migration, how it can positively impact destination and origin countries, and its inevitability. There is a case to make–and important international bodies like the UN’s International Organization for Migration (or IOM) are doing so as part of its 2030 Agenda–about the importance of reframing migration to help us better cope with its impact and to better support the people who move.
There are a wide variety of reasons why people move.
As a recent IOM guideline paper frames it, these reasons can include development factors such as job or educational opportunities, environmental factors such as pressures stemming from climate change and disruption, political factors such as conflict or humanitarian crises, or social factors like wanting to be closer to family or to escape discrimination.
According to this paper, the trends in migration a clear: millions of people migrate, and that number only increases. In 2020, “there were 281 million international migrants globally, an increase of 108 million international migrants since 2000.” So, the number has almost doubled in just 20 years. Furthermore, “almost 82.4 million people have been displaced – or forced to move – because of conflict, violence, human rights violations and environmental factors.” We know that climate change, alone, will force much more migration in the coming decades. Those who are forced to move are especially vulnerable to a host of rights violations. And, of course, the negative aspects of migration are well-discussed (from trafficking to racism and xenophobia, security risks, “brain drain,” and strains on infrastructure).
But the positive aspects are less known. People move because migration can be a powerful poverty reduction strategy for themselves and their families, thus making it a form of protection, empowerment, and resilience. As the paper argues, “migrant remittances can provide direct development support, through transfer of money, skills, technology, values and ideas. Migrants can open new markets, economic activity, innovation, and bring new cultural experiences for societies.” They can contribute positively to savings and investments, as well as improve access to services. (One small example is a well-known coffee shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the owner migrated to Australia to train as a barista, came back home, and was part of bringing the “third wave” of coffee to the area and elevating latte art in the city’s cultural scene–a personal business boom for himself, but it also created positive knock-on effects for other local coffee artisans who had begun growing coffee in Northern Thailand alongside the Royal project which helped local farmers move away from opium farming to other income-generating produce.)
The paper goes on further to argue that “well-managed migration can have net positive fiscal benefits, with positive effects on labour productivity and GDP. Beyond these economic impacts, migration can also contribute to societal gains.” In many countries, there are sectors that benefit significantly from migrants as a source of labor. The paper argues that “migrants are often of working age and can relieve demographic pressures in ageing economies while also generally contributing more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits.” Labor shortages in the healthcare sector are a major concern for several Western democracies, for example, as they intensify while the population ages. More people move into the elderly age group, and when there is not enough replacement in the working age population, there become not enough carers to serve the elderly group’s needs. In these cases, there are important incentives to make it easier for trained healthcare workers to migrate but also to regulate it carefully to ensure skills are transferred and recognized appropriately and that training meets certain standards for patient safety.
Therein lies a key caveat to reframing migration.
In order to ensure migration is a positive force rather than a negative one, it must be safe, orderly, and regular. The problems of migration come when forces pressure migrants to move illegally and when societal institutions cannot bear the strain. Keeping migration a positive force requires governments to make it possible and accessible and keep it well-regulated, which in turn also requires global partnerships to ensure matched goals and coherent systems and matched goals. These partnerships must balance the interests of origin countries, destination countries, and the workers who migrate.
It’s a tall order, that requires a “whole of government approach” (which means mainstreaming migration into national-level policies all the way down to local-level governance) and a “whole of society approach” (which means equipping community leaders and local authorities, including nonprofits and other civil society organizations, with the capacity to maintain and ensure social cohesion). It means empowering migrants with the capacity to integrate effectively into their new society and contribute positively to their home communities. It also means keeping at the forefront of technologies such as digital tools that facilitate migration, for example, communication technologies that connect prospective workers and migrants to opportunities and sources of support.
While migration can have national and international impacts, the experience of migration is ultimately a local one, felt most intensely by the migrants, the bureaucrats they encounter, and the local communities in which they attempt to integrate. The experience is shaped simultaneously by the federal and state systems that govern access and the idiosyncratic attitudes of individuals.
For those working to serve migrants, including NGOs and similar social service organizations that support their rights, it’s critical to understand the troubles migrants encounter, but also critical to refrain from letting that focus lead one to inadvertently convey the sense that migrants are themselves the problem. Too often in anti-trafficking, the concerns about trafficking are so high, it can convey the sense that migrants are a problem to be solved, rather than provide the sense that migration is a process to facilitate. Messaging about the dangers of migration should be balanced with awareness-raising about safe migration and tools for it–so people know how to do it, have resources that facilitate it, and know where to seek help.