Lowering the Costs & Amplifying the Benefits of Migration

The evidence is clear: Migration contributes more powerfully to development than any other means we know. When states and stakeholders gather in October at the second High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, they need to build on this knowledge by committing to concrete actions. If more states work together and make better-informed policy choices, they can generate large economic and social gains from migration, while ensuring decent living and working conditions for migrants.

International cooperation on migration has made remarkable progress since the first High-Level Dialogue in 2006. Seven years ago, the situation was grim. Distrust among states was commonplace. The notion that migration could be constructively discussed at the UN was widely dismissed. But the creation of the state-led Global Forum on Migration and Development, which was born at the 2006 HLD, has fundamentally changed the calculus of cooperation.

In its first six years, the Forum has proved a safe harbor, a place to discuss the challenges of migration in a collegial and non-binding manner. Old paradigms have crumbled; myths have been shattered. Evidence has mounted. Relationships and trust have begun to grow. States and other stakeholders, grounded in fact and practice, are fostering a common understanding of migration and migrants.

The Forum’s value is now self-evident: Approximately 150 countries gather every year to analyze common challenges. Countries that were once silent on migration in international debates are now vigorous participants. Civil society, too, has become a strong and persuasive interlocutor on policy issues.

Now, given everything we know, we must act in more resolute fashion.

Remittances capture migration’s impact in a compelling way: Migrants sent $401 billion to developing countries alone in 2012, triple the amount of overseas development assistance. These flows are far more reliable than other funding sources: When the global financial crisis hit, FDI in developing countries plunged 89%, while remittances dipped just 5%; today, they are growing 9% annually. And remittances go directly to the people who know how to use them best. In Bangladesh, just 13% of households that receive remittances are below the poverty line, compared to 34% of those that do not.

But remittances tell only a small part of the story of how human mobility is shaping our world for the better

Receiving communities, for instance, rely on migrants to help meet critical needs for laborers. They perform the most fundamental tasks, from building roads and homes, to taking care of the very young and the very old.We also know migrants spark innovation: In the US, patent issuance rose by 15% with each1.3% increase in the share of migrant university graduates. Consider as well the taxes migrants pay, the investments they make, and the trade they stimulate.

We have learned, meanwhile, that migration does not take jobs from natives (in net terms): According to one recent study, on average, every new migrant creates one new job, thus expanding the overall economy. In origin countries, migration supports the balance of payments, making it easier to pay for critical imports, access capital markets, and reduce interest rates on sovereign debt.

All this makes our nations and communities more prosperous and resilient.


We have denied the lessons of history and the truth about the human spirit for too long. People will move. It is in our restless and inventive nature.

The 21st century is built on mobility: Capital, goods, and information circulate at low cost and lightning speed. Yet, paradoxically, international migration has become more perilous. It is governed by outmoded notions about human mobility. It is hampered by inadequate policy and legal frameworks. And it is stifled by overriding security concerns.

So while our globalized labor markets seek migrants, and as ever more people seek to move to escape poverty, our patchwork system of international mobility hampers them. Instead, it empowers those who exploit migrants—smugglers and traffickers, crooked recruiters and venal employers. It has severely compromised the human rights of migrants, too many of whom must travel, live, and work outside the protection of laws. It has depleted public trust in the effectiveness of government. And it has undermined our ability to design policies that allow migration to help us achieve our development goals.

Simply put, the current system does not work. There is no good reason, for instance, why some states can protect the fundamental labor rights of their workers abroad and others cannot. It is not acceptable that only about 20% of international migrants can take their social security benefits with them when they return home. And the lives of migrants should never be in jeopardy.

It is now time to begin building a system of human mobility that responds to the realities of the 21st century. Piece by piece, carefully and systematically, we need to create an adaptable architecture that allows individuals to develop their full potential, communities to better integrate newcomers, companies to access the workers they need, and governments to regain public trust.


A decade ago, we the lacked evidence and trust needed to take broad action on international migration. Today, that has changed. The Global Forum on Migration and Development was a critical milestone. Also important was the creation of the Global Migration Group—which brings together 14 UN agencies, the IOM, and the World Bank to coordinate their migration-related work. Regional consultative processes, meanwhile, are proving valuable as places where ideas can be tested and habits of cooperation fostered.

Broader forces are at work as well: Intensifying demographic pressures, globalizing labor markets, and the economic ascendance of the developing world are fundamentally changing how and where migrants flow across the globe. Practically every country in the world must confront the challenges and opportunities of migration, and they can no longer be divided neatly into countries of origin and destination, with opposing interests. Today, developing countries receive as many migrants as do those in the developed world.

As a result, our interests as states and stakeholders are converging, just as a growing evidence base is shedding light on the actions we should be taking.

Success is already evident. On September 5th, the Domestic Workers Convention will go into force, offering critical protections to tens of millions of the most vulnerable workers, a great many of them migrants. Importantly, the convention has been ratified by countries that did not sign the migrant workers convention of 1990, signaling a new openness to treaties related to migration. Remittance fees, meanwhile, have dropped significantly in recent years.

Also, countries are becoming much more proactive in working with their diasporas: Today, there are 77 offices, bodies, and posts that governments in 56 countries have created specifically to formalize engagement with their diasporas. These initiatives encourage migrants to thicken ties to their countries of origin through investments, human capital transfers, philanthropic contributions, capital market investments, and tourism.  In each of these areas, there is a growing richness in ideas of how to mobilize migrant communities.

Now we must transform this common will and evidence into a more systematic effort to draw out the advantages of migration and blunt its ill effects. The High-Level Dialogue must produce more than new processes like the Global Forum and the GMG. We should conclude our deliberations in October with clear commitments from states and stakeholders for action on specific issues.


Migration was not included in the original Millennium Development Goals. But migrants have been instrumental in meeting of the MDGs—from reducing poverty, to improving gender equality, and preventing infectious diseases. Now it is time to make migration a formal part of the post-2015 development agenda.

Migration, indeed, is a test of the relevance of the post-2015 debate. Its inclusion will help us break free of our preconceived notions of how development happens. It is human centered, placing the individual at the heart of our concerns, rather than the agendas of states and development actors. It is universal, as it impacts nearly every country on earth, and its benefits flow both North and South. It is a test of fair governance and effective government, demanding coordinated action not only among states, but also at all levels of government, from the local to the regional to the global.

And by including migration in the post-2015 agenda, we can finally bring migration under the aegis of the United Nations.

The potential ways for doing this are many. Over the past decade, for instance, we have made great progress in reducing remittance costs from almost 15% to under 9%. We have a long way to go on this front. But the scope for action ranges well beyond remittances. The international community could, for instance, make a commitment to innovative polices that reduce fees workers are forced to pay recruiters.

Possible targets, meanwhile, need not be measurable only in economic terms. The post-2015 agenda could aim, for instance, to eliminate discrimination against migrants who are legally present in their territories, particularly with respect to equal wages for equal work, decent working conditions, and access to education for migrant children. Among other targets could be a sharp reduction in human trafficking—as indicated by the volume of prosecutions of traffickers, the number of states offering special legal protection to victims of trafficking, and the number of companies screening their supply chains for forced labor; increasing the share of migrants working at their highest skill level; and reducing the proportion of migrants lacking legal authorization to reside in their country of residence.

Migration stakeholders have developed many ideas for how governments, the private sector, and civil society can build partnerships around mobility policies that (i) reduce discrimination against migrants and protect their rights; (ii) lower the human, social, and economic costs of migration, including those related to recruitment, remittances, and obtaining documentation such as visas and residency permits; (iii) expand opportunities for migrants to more productively invest their earnings and share their knowledge; and (iv) enlist migrants and diaspora organizations in enhancing development in their communities of origin and destination.


If integrating migration into the post-2015 agenda demands enormous effort, it is instructive to recognize how limited, in fact, this effort is: It entails persuading development stakeholders to better understand how migration can help them achieve their goals, while showing those responsible for migration how to craft policies that amplify the development impact of migration.

But building a truly dynamic, effective system of human mobility suited to the 21st century will demand action on all fronts: education, health, housing, and labor, to name a few. This is the next frontier of effective migration governance: coordinated, collaborative action across—and between—entire governments.

If we take on the challenges of migration one by one, they can and will be solved.

Last year, for example, I called on stakeholders to address the plight of migrants affected by acute-onset crises, such as civil conflicts or natural and manmade disasters. My efforts to focus attention on this issue has inspired states to take action. In particular, the United States and the Philippines have offered to lead an initiative to create a framework for action on assisting migrants in acute-onset crises. They are being joined by independent experts, civil society, the IOM, UNHCR, and other states, too.

This issue is not the single most important one we face. But it is a problem where we can envision real, practical solutions. It takes global cooperation from the realm of rhetoric to that of action. It expands the conversation beyond the strict migration and development framing, in the same evolutionary way that the Global Forum has catalyzed international cooperation. It compels more complex coordination that involves not only international organizations, but primarily states, as well as employers and civil society.

We need to take on many more such challenges. Our success will breed more success and greater confidence, reducing the perception that migration-related issues are the third rail of politics. And success also will allow us to more effectively address the legitimate fears publics harbor about the change migration brings.

As such, I urge states to come to the High-Level Dialogue prepared to engage in a vigorous debate on the problems and opportunities related to migration that we believe we have the will and knowledge to address.

We must work tirelessly from the bottom up, solving practical problems related to migration. Smaller groups of states and stakeholders can develop and test solutions to common challenges that might eventually become global standards. This eventually will enable broader collective action. The bottom-up practical approach and the top-down normative one share a common cause: To improve outcomes for migrants and our societies.

The list of challenges we face is daunting. We must develop ways to address the specific needs of women, who now make up half the world’s migrant population; to equitably invest in skills development; to make rights portable; to engage diasporas as development actors; to gather useful data; and to create innovate approaches to mobility like multi-entry visas and migration insurance, to name just a few.

Even if we were to conquer all these challenges, those that remained would be formidable. In the next generation, we must reject—absolutely—the notion that we can have second class citizens in our societies; it is a poisonous idea that has ruined civilizations. A child, no matter where she is in the world, must never be considered “illegal” or placed in detention. No man or woman should ever be jailed for a migration violation—and certainly not in conditions that violate their basic rights.

We are on the threshold of a new era of international cooperation on migration. The High-Level Dialogue is our chance to cross over it.

This article first appeared in the UN Chronicle.