Migrants and development policy

Tasneem Jamal Featured, Forced Displacement and Migration

Sustainable Development Goals offer the world a tool to respond to the migration crisis

In 2015 there were 244 million international migrants (UNFPA 2016), the majority crossing borders in search of better economic and social opportunities. More than 60 million others were forced to flee conflict and violence in the largest exodus since the end of the Second World War. The start of the Syrian war in 2011 accelerated displacement; this war is now the world’s single largest driver of displacement (UNHCR 2015). The numbers demand international attention—and are getting it. Mass displacement, migratory movements, and refugees are today at the forefront of the international community’s development policy agenda.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 2 Summer 2016 by Sonal Marwah

Currently, many developed countries are dealing with population flows from war-torn and politically unstable countries in the global south. Their immigration policies are largely focused on distinguishing between economic migrants and refugees. How these people are classified matters, because states have different obligations to them under international law. While all can claim basic human rights, only refugees have a right to seek political asylum.

However, while distinctions between refugees and migrants may appear straightforward in international law, in practice they are not (Marwah 2015). Economic migrants and refugees increasingly move together in mixed-migratory flows. And recent arrivals to Europe show us that economic inequality and poverty drive people from their home countries just as steadily as war does (Jones 2015).

Given the magnitude of migration flows, there is an urgent need for the world to address the root causes that drive people from their homes. One set of tools that can assist in such a task are the freshly minted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) found in Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN-DESA 2016a), agreed to in September 2015 by 193 member states of the United Nations (UN). The SDGs include migration, refugees, sources of migrants and asylum seekers, and recipient countries in the framework that makes up the international community’s development agenda.

What are SDGs?

The SDGs, also known as the Global Goals, are a universal set of 17 goals with 169 targets relating to development. They follow and expand on the themes of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). All UN member states have agreed to all goals, which came into effect this past January and are expected to frame and guide countries’ development policies until 2030.
Although migrants have existed throughout history, the rights of migrants and the human development aspects of migration were not covered by the MDGs. This omission was significant because migration, forced or voluntary, has a significant and documented impact on key MDG targets relating to the relief of poverty (GMG 2013, p. 3).

Bringing migration into mainstream development policy

Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees. The traditional solutions offered to refugees—voluntary repatriation, local integration, and resettlement—are being employed at historically low levels (UNSG 2016). Increasingly, displaced persons find themselves in a state of limbo for protracted periods of time. Political impasses prevent refugees from either returning home voluntarily in safety and dignity, or from fully integrating into countries of asylum, where they often lack access to legal employment in local labour markets (U.S. Dept. of State 2016). Over time these neglected people can fall into ever more precarious lives of extreme poverty.

After weighing the few and inadequate legal options available to them, a minority of migrants and asylum seekers will attempt to reach countries in the global north through irregular migration—employing smugglers, for example. Only those who can afford such a journey, which can involve paying the smugglers and multiple middlemen, will try. Most first move to neighbouring countries and look at settlement options there, hoping to return home soon.

Many migrants move to another country to find work that will allow them to support families in their homeland. Such remittances are seen as drivers of economic development for the migrants, their families, and developing countries. The World Bank (2015) predicted that in 2016 migrants will send $601-billion to their families at home, with developing countries receiving $441-billion. While this money is unquestionably important on many levels, we also need to consider the social and personal costs associated with migration (MADE 2015, p. 5).

In response to migrant and refugee inflows, developed countries have adopted increasingly restrictive immigration policies. They often refer to these “unwanted” new arrivals as “bogus” and “illegal” migrants. Some European government officials and leaders have gone so far as to characterize asylum seekers and migrants as a threat to the European Union. Such language and attitudes contribute to xenophobia, anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments, and even violence against migrants.

Such negative portrayals diminish public empathy for migrants and asylum seekers. Germany, for example, has taken in the highest number of migrants and refugees in the European Union, with the strong support of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government. Yet even there government policy has been challenged. Growing anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany supports the anti-refugee protest group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West), which has been blamed for a rise in dangerous attacks against refugees (Connolly 2016).

In general, refugees and migrants are easy to blame for the social and economic ills of society, including rising crime, terror attacks, and unemployment in host countries.

The global community is well aware of the spreading migration “crisis”; the Syrian exodus has epitomized it for everyone. The failures of international humanitarian organizations to respond adequately thus far are also generally acknowledged. Such organizations depend on the political willingness of member states to implement their mandate and fund activities, and such support is sorely lacking. For example, the UN-supported Syria regional refugee response plan is only funded at seven per cent of the $4.5-billion required to support refugees in camps and host countries (UNHCR 2016). Over time, the world has come to recognize the need to integrate migration issues into mainstream global development policy. Clearly, migration cuts across development goals related to poverty, social injustice, and human rights.

Integrating migration into the SDGs

In June 2014 civil society organizations and networks signed the “Stockholm Agenda” on migrant and migration-related goals and targets to be included in the post-2015 development framework. The agenda starts from a position that “SDGs must address root causes and conditions that force people to migrate, especially surging global inequalities driven by current development and economic paradigms.”

In December 2014 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented a synthesis report on the post-2015 agenda (UN 2014), which highlighted migrants, refugees, displaced persons, and persons affected by conflict and occupation as important stakeholders in the SDG framework. The report recognized that a person’s legal status should not be a prerequisite for access to rights and development (Bloom 2015).

The MDGs targeted developing countries in particular, although they were, theoretically, applicable to all nations. The SDGs recognize that all countries—countries of origin, countries through which migrants travel, and countries of destination—have a role in resolving the problems migrants face. Five of the 17 SDGs directly link migration to development and human rights:

  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Target 5.2 calls on states to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, including trafficking and other types of exploitation.
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Target 8.8 calls on states to protect labour rights for workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants.
  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries. Target 10.7 calls on states to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.” Target 10.c aims, “by 2030, [to] reduce to less than 3 per cent the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 per cent.”
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Target 16.2 calls on states to “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.”
  • Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. Target 17.18 calls on states to enhance data collection efforts and disaggregation, including by “migratory status” and “other characteristics relevant in national contexts.”

In Transforming our world, migration is viewed from the perspective of human rights. The specific rights of refugee populations set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention must be respected. At the same time, the SDGs are a reminder that the basic human rights of all migrants must be protected. All migrants—indeed, all humans—should be treated humanely and with dignity.

It is encouraging that SDGs and targets focus specifically on vulnerable female refugees and migrants, who risk gender-based discrimination and violence. This group includes single women travelling alone or with children, pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied children, child brides, and elderly women.

Since the implementation of the SDG agenda, stakeholders have been deliberating over the indicators to monitor progress, inform policy, and ensure the accountability of all stakeholders (UN-DESA 2016b). Attention to at-risk migratory groups will help to shape the appropriate indicators to measure progress on those specific goals. The International Organization for Migration (2015) has proposed the development of a Migration Governance Framework; debates over potential indicators and definitions of terms for this index continue.

Canada’s role going forward

Migration and mobility are not new and have only increased in a globalized world. Recognizing the humanitarian and development challenges of large-scale refugee and migration flows, the creators of the SDGs produced tools that all countries can use to address migration-related inequities and risks, while supporting the opportunities migration offers. Through the use of the goals and targets set out in the new UN development agenda, the global community will attempt to address the root causes of migration that lead to displacement and risky migratory journeys.

Today, protracted conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Afghanistan continue to force people to flee from their homes. In the future, climate-related disasters will be a growing cause of displacement.

Global Affairs Canada notes that the time is right for Canada to “re-examine” and “re-imagine” its role in relation to the 2030 Agenda and evolving global challenges (2016, p. 10). A core development policy focus is responding to humanitarian crises and the needs of displaced populations. Canada recognizes the plight of displaced persons and has responded; it has fulfilled its commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees and is committed to resettling more. Canada also aims to work with other countries to expand resettlement and build global migration capacity (p. 22).

All UN member states have the legal and moral responsibility to assist and protect those fleeing desperate circumstances—whatever their legal status. The new Global Goals, which give states tools that they can use to improve the lives of millions of people on the move, are now complete. Next comes implementation. Success will depend on the political willingness and hard work of states, individually and collectively.


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