A Challenging Road Ahead – International Migration and the Post-2015 Agenda

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    As progress is being made in defining the contours of the next global development agenda to be in place after 2015, a variety of stakeholders have put forward new aspects to be considered. International migration and mobility has been one of them – for compelling reasons, given their potential for the achievement of development outcomes. 

    While migration was not included in the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework, there is some renewed attention to the issue in the context of the post-2015 development framework. The UN post-2015 Task Team has described migration and mobility as an important enabler for inclusive and sustainable development. The European Commission has equally described migration and mobility as a ‘driver’ for inclusive and sustainable growth. From the sustainability side, the Rio+20 outcome document calls upon states to address international migration through cooperation while protecting migrants’ human rights. 

    The next two years are important for global debates and policy processes concerning the migration and development nexus. Feeding into the post-MDG and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) processes, which are likely to merge in an overall post-2015 agenda, in October the UN High Level Dialogue (HLD) on International Migration and Development will take place. This aims to identify ‘relevant priorities in view of the preparation of the post-2015 development framework’ through assessing the ‘effects of international migration on sustainable development’

    Migration matters

    Currently, there are 214 million registered international migrants, most of which have moved for work and of which a large amount live in developing countries. Short-term cross-border mobility seems to have increased and many more are moving within borders. The relationship between these migratory flows and development is complex. While there has been a lot of attention on the impact of international migration on development in both the country of origin and destination in the past years - e.g. exploring issues such as remittances, diaspora engagement, brain drain, contribution of migrants to the host-economy -, there has so far been less emphasis on how development and development initiatives have influenced mobility and migration. Yet both these are important in finding policy responses to maximise the potential of migration and mobility for sustainable development while reducing negative effects – the overall theme of the HLD 2013. 

    Often, the act of crossing borders itself is to escape from poverty, thereby transforming the lives of the migrants and their families for the better. International mobility and the remittances migrants have sent back have had a significant impact on poverty reduction. Nepal is a case in point, as the case study conducted for the European Report on Development (ERD) 2013 highlights: ‘Almost 20% of the decline in poverty in Nepal between 1995 and 2004 can be attributed to work-related migration and the remittances sent back home.(1) Compared to other financial flows, the scale of remittance-flows is enormous. In 2010 a recorded $325 billion of remittances directly reached people living in developing countries, this is approximately three times greater than the total official development assistance (ODA) for that year. World Bank estimates on informal remittances assume that actual flows are at least 50% higher than recorded flows. In Africa, remittances represent about 3% of total GDP (2). And there are observed positive effects of international migration and remittances on education, health and gender-equality. 

    Estimates of the potential global economic gains from liberalised international labour movements are also large, ranging up to 150% of global GDP – and are likely to surpass annual gains from full trade liberalization, ODA and debt relief together. Economies of developed, developing and emerging countries of destination have benefitted from labour immigrants contributing to economic activity and performing important functions. For example, Cote D’Ivoire, one of the case study countries of the ERD 2013, has relied on migrant workers during the period of economic growth from 1960 to 1978 to fill jobs at cocoa and other crop plantations. This enabled the economy to grow and was a factor in allowing Ivoirians to leave farms and move to urban areas, where they formed a more educated and prosperous middle class. In Thailand, migrant workers have positively contributed to Thailand’s’ GDP. In most OECD countries as well, ‘immigrants have made an important contribution to employment growth during the past decade’. (3) 

    Addressing negative effects

    Despite the enormous potential of migration for development, one cannot ignore that international migration may also entail negative implications, which need to be taken seriously. These include negative effects on the health, security and well-being of migrants due to inadequate right provision and enforcement as many labour migrants take up so called ‘dirty difficult and dangerous’ jobs. Others may relate to socio-economic effects for sending societies such as ‘lost labour’, ‘brain drain’, or to the possible negative effect on the psychological well-being of children due to outward migration of their parents. In Nepal, social phenomena such as an increase in divorces and elopement of spouses have been associated with high levels of male outward labour migration. In countries of destination concerns have been raised about negative implications for social cohesion and about the constraints additional immigrants can place on institutional capacity to provide services (e.g. health care) in developing countries. With regard to economic benefits, there are distributional effects at play and not all countries or all groups within countries may immediately benefit or benefit to the same extent. Whether economic impact is positive in destination countries depends on the match between skills and labour market needs and the way migrants are integrated in the host country. Yet, negative associations with mobility and migration are not always based on sound analysis and are often exploited for political purposes in developed as well as developing countries. 

    Rather than responding to negative aspects by putting in place further restrictions on migration and mobility, emerging negative phenomena associated with migration should be taken into account in the design of policies. More so because it is reasonable to assume that pressures and demand for international migration will remain. Future demographic developments are characterized by ageing populations and declining work forces in many countries. The positive role of migration in maintaining the size of the labour force in OECD countries is expected to become more important in the future, especially in the European Union, where the share of young people has declined steadily over the last decades. But also China, for example, may soon aspire to attract international labour migrants (4). On the other hand many developing countries will experience a youth ‘bulge’ entering the labour market in the coming years. In addition, environmental change will interact with migration patterns in complex ways. 

    Elements to consider in the post-2015 context

    In terms of substance, the case for acknowledging migrants’ rights and the opportunities that global mobility and migration can offer in a post-2015 development framework is strong. Yet how migration and mobility might feature in a framework based on a limited number of measurable goals and targets is a challenging question. Various options can be envisaged, such as having a stand-alone goal related to migration and mobility, implementing separate (sub-) objectives for migrants under other thematic development goals such as health, gender or education, mainstreaming migration as an enabler at the local, national and global level, and committing to stronger global partnerships on migration and mobility.

    Independent of the discussions on goals and indicators for migration and mobility and the form migration might enter a post-2015 framework, the ERD 2013 provides a number of elements that can help to strengthen the role migration and mobility can play for development in the post-2015 context. 

    The first element concerns the rights of migrants. Despite the wording of the Millennium Declaration to protect migrants, progress has been disappointing. The International community has made little progress in granting migrants rights in line with international Conventions such as the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All migrant workers and members of their families or the Conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) focused on labour migrants (C97 and C143). Apart from the intrinsic value of protecting migrants’ fundamental rights, this is ‘essential for reaping the full benefits of international migration’ (5) for sustainable development. Besides increasing ratification numbers of existing rights instruments, the information on migrants’ rights collected by the UN and the ILO should be complemented by a comprehensive global migrants’ rights index. Such an index could assess the rights migrants receive in countries, both by law and in practice, and help increase pressure to comply. 

    Second, more data and research are needed in various areas to advance the potential of migration and mobility for sustainable development outcomes and provide clear evidence on linkages of the nexus. Collecting necessary data can be at times quite easy: it may only involve adding a few questions to a national census (6). There is also scope to explore data to better match labour supply and demand on an international scale, which could be combined in the future with global agency that focuses on matching skills and jobs, ensure minimum labour standards and facilitate the issuing of visa (7). This can help creating new opportunities to the benefits of migrant, sending and receiving countries. 

    Third, in order to put migration and mobility higher on the agenda and to give migrants a voice and deal with the sectoral cross-cutting issues of migration independent of the type of goals pursued, better governance structures and institutional capacity need to be in place. This is not only the case at national or regional levels, but also at the UN level. Establishing a migration and mobility unit at the level of the Secretary General’s Office could for example help to link various thematic sectors and closely cooperate with the existing Global Migration Group, international and regional institutions as well as governments to improve migration governance for development. Moreover, as the European Commission has pointed out, there is a need to make migration an integral part of a whole range of sectoral policies, increase awareness within national governments departments (8) and increase policy coherence for development in this area.

    International migration does and will continue to have a significant positive impact on poverty reduction and sustainable development – an impact a post-2015 development framework should not ignore and upon which global partnerships for sustainable development should be build. 

    Anna Knoll is Junior Policy Officer at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), and a co-author of the Migration chapter in the European Development Report of 2013. 


    1. Pandey, P., Adhikari, R. and Sijapati, B. (2012) ‘Nepal Case Study’. ERD 2013 Background Case Study.
    2. Ncube, M. (2013) ‘Harnessing remittances for Africa’s development’. African Development Bank Group Blog, March 4th, 2013. 
    3. OECD (2009): International Migration Outlook 2009. OECD, Paris. 
    4. Bruni (2011).’China’s new demographic challenge: From unlimited supply of labour to structural lack of labour supply: Labour market and demographic scenarios 2008-2048. Center for the Analysis of Public Policy. 
    5. UN General Assembly (2012). International Migration and Development – Report of the Secretary General. A/67/254.
    6. Center for Global Development, (2009). ‘Migrants count – Five Steps Toward Better Migration Data’. Washington: CGD. 
    7. See European Report on Development, 2013.
    8. European Commission (2013) ‘Contribution from the European Commission Services to the Preparations of the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development’. New York: UNDESA.

    This article was published in Great Insights Volume 2, Issue 3 (April 2013)

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