BANGKOK — Amid the economic recession, lost jobs and ever greater burdens on health care and other public services, migration has become a hotly debated issue in many of the countries that attract migrants.
Unfortunately, much of that debate focuses on the apparent burden migrants place on troubled economies. Fear and xenophobia can come to the fore. Lost in the debate are the largely positive outcomes of migration for the majority of people concerned.
This should not be the case, because mobility — the ability to seek out better opportunities elsewhere — is a key element of human freedom. Migration policies can meet domestic requirements and concerns as well as help to enhance mobility’s contribution to human development.
Migration is a process to be managed, not solved, argues the 2009 Human Development Report, an independent report commissioned by the U.N. Development Program. This groundbreaking study, “Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development,” carefully examines the evidence on internal and international migration from the perspective of migrants, their families and the communities from which they came and in which they live and work.
It demonstrates the potential gains for all concerned as well as the dangers and costs that can arise, particularly for the poorest. Benefits for the countries of origin may be substantial, although the study warns that migration is no substitute for homegrown development. And it shows the barriers that impede movement — absolute prohibitions, the high cost of the “paper walls” involved in moving between countries, and the discrimination and disadvantages many migrants face at their destination.
The study debunks many myths that surround debates over migration. Most of the nearly 1 billion people on the move do so within their countries. Contrary to received wisdom, the share of the world’s population moving across borders has been remarkably stable over the past 25 years. Yet, more of these migrants are now going from developing to developed countries, and the impacts can vary enormously between one region and another.
The report challenges stereotypes that portray migrants as “stealing jobs” or “scrounging off the taxpayer.” Migration is rarely an easy process. Conflicts, natural disasters and economic hardship compel many people to move. Some fall into the hands of traffickers, with often terrible consequences.
Overall, however, evidence strongly suggests that for the bulk of people on the move the costs, difficulties and stress of moving are more than offset by improved livelihoods — not just in income but in other areas of well-being such as health, schooling and empowerment.
The skills, ideas and diversity brought by migrants are largely beneficial for destination societies. The report finds no evidence of large-scale job losses by locals due to migration. The contribution of migrants to economic growth can be high, while the impact on public services is small or even positive in general; although some local communities do face heavier burdens. Importantly, the report presents evidence that public opinion in many countries is receptive to migration — provided jobs are available.
Jobs are often the crux of the debate under way in destination countries. The report puts forward a package of labor demand-linked measures that could improve access for migrants. Now is the time for a new deal on migration, one that will benefit those who move, those in destination communities and others that remain at home. Based on best practices, the proposed measures are politically feasible, especially as economic recovery gathers steam.
Renewed growth opens up more jobs, and a well-managed migration policy benefits migrants and societies at large. For the aging populations of many developed countries, particularly in Europe, ensuring such a labor flow is a must for sustaining economic growth.
Realization of this mutual interest must take place with wider development imperatives in mind. Migration is driven by large and growing inequalities. The poor have the most to gain from moving. Increasing access for the low-skilled, for example, could help to maximize gains for human development. As important is ensuring fair treatment of migrants.
Combating discrimination in wages, for example, benefits local workers as much as it does migrants. The rights of migrants must be protected, including those of irregular migrants.
Such a balanced policy toward migration is available. The challenge facing governments is not an easy one. Many — though not all — were moving in the right direction, although there have been signs of a rollback during the recession. A long-term perspective is needed in which employers, trade unions and civil society each has a huge role to play. The Human Development Report contributes to more balanced and informed public debates on this controversial issue.
Jeni Klugman, Ph.D. in economics, is director of the Human Development Report Office at the U.N. Development Program and lead author of the research team since 2008. She has held various positions at the World Bank.