I Am a Migrant Worker. But How Do I Fit in the Migration–Development Narrative?

FROM: Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 02. June 2019

It was close to 2000 when I decided to leave my country of origin – to migrate or emigrate, depending on from which angle you see it! During that time, the term “agents of development” described migrants, both to the benefits of countries of origin and destination.

Fast forward: migration has become a reality and it touches nearly all corners of the globe. More people seem to know, or they’ve heard about opportunities in once distant lands. It’s no longer simply moving from one place to another or crossing international borders.

I’ve witnessed two significant trends over the past twenty years. First, the evidence on migration–development nexus has grown but it’s still thin. Second, the migration–development discussion has ever more found entry into public debate and shifted to security–migration–development nexus.

But first let me start with some of the generally accepted beliefs about migration which, in my view, need to be questioned.  

Conventional wisdom on migration

Migration is a newsworthy topic – for good or ill. Millions of people are on the move and this captures the attention of policy makers and citizens. In 2017, there were 258 million international migrants worldwide compared to 220 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000.

This leads us to think that… migrants always cross international borders.

Yet, a much larger number of migrants are moving within countries and not between countries. Migration within countries is still an important livelihood strategy of individuals, households and communities. And there is no one single reason for migration; it can be due to a combination of familial, economic, social, political and security considerations.  

But who hosts all the migrants?

We most likely assume that it’s developed countries in Europe or North America….

Not necessarily true; Asia receives over 60% of all international migrants. Intraregional migration within Asia is still high and has increased significantly over time.  South-South migration continues to be as relevant as South-North migration. This’s because moving regionally is becoming attractive for economic but also social motivations.  

Perhaps we also have an image of a typical international migrant…

And this probably is an African on a rubber boat….

Actually, it’s Asia that remains the world’s largest continental source of international migrants. The number of Asian migrants has grown steadily to about 87 million. International migration from sub-Saharan Africa has grown dramatically since 2010, but most African migration takes place within Africa, and not between Africa and European or other countries.

Lastly, the story is one-sided; it is all about migration and not emigration….

A survey of 14 countries in Europe in April 2019 shows that European countries are more concerned about emigration than immigration – i.e., more worried about people leaving the countries than those coming in. Population levels in countries such as Spain, Italy, Romania and Greece are either flatlining or falling sharply. Since the 2008 economic crisis, young Europeans from these countries have more and more left their countries of origin.  

Evidence on the migration-development nexus

The 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sees migration as a transformative force to achieve sustainable development and inclusive growth. Since 2000s, the evidence supporting the migration-development nexus is growing – to show that benefits of migration outweigh losses.

Here’re three “Rs” – remittances, returns and recruitment – that are at the heart of migration and development.

Remittances: Like millions of migrants, I’ve sent money to support the education and other basic needs of family members, contributing to their improved wellbeing. The money that migrants send is also a source of foreign currency for the countries of origin. Worldwide, remittances amount to around 445 Billion USD and hence triple the amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Most remittances are used for the wholesale sector (stores, bars, and cafés) and real estate and tourism and small-scale agricultural activities. There’re examples from Nepal, Ethiopia, Ghana, the Philippines and Mexico showing improved wellbeing of households due to remittances. In the long run, however, consumption-driven growth opens a large current account deficit, reduces competitiveness and weakens export industries in a more regional and global economy. The result is jobless growth – inflated Gross Domestic Products (GDPs), but not substantial contribution to growth. A good example is Moldova or Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Returns: Another example of a one-sided narrative about migration is that once people leave, they don’t’ return to their countries of origin. Beyond sending money, migrants also transfer resources, technologies, knowledge and ideas to their home countries. Increasingly, circular migration has (re)gained prominence. It’s a repeated migration experiences between countries of origin and destination.  

Migrants have an emotional attachment and strong desire to contribute to the development of their countries of origin. Returnees also have the local knowledge/networks and higher motivation because of collective memory and the myth about the homeland, including the desire to “return home one day”.

Yet, the role that returnees can play in the development of their countries of origin has been short of its potential. While there’re few cases like in India and South Africa, the contributions by returning migrants are often carried out on ad hoc basis, relying many times on informal networks. There’re also cases that significant regulatory barriers seem to discourage potential returnees’ desire to contribute to their countries of origin.    

Recruitment: People migrate, except for forced migration, because either they don’t see a future in their countries of origin, or they have higher aspirations for better-paying jobs somewhere else that match their skills.

The challenge is skills development through improved levels of education and training may not necessarily keep aspiring migrants from leaving. This’s called the “migration hump” – people with better skills may not be satisfied with the benefits they get in their local labour markets and hence decide to leave. This means that labour market development initiatives will need to be holistic – that is, they shouldn’t just address skills development but also other dimensions of labour market systems like job matching services and career guidance, as well as the creation of decent and well-paying jobs. Even if people decide to leave, they’re better off if they leave equipped with different types of skills to meet the challenges  of life in the countries of destination and to contribute meaningfully to their newfound “home”.

Making sense of the migration-development nexus

My experience and the stories of others suggest that migration is a reality and not a problem to be solved. This’s a sobering fact to those who don’t want to take seriously that migration has increasingly become a complex phenomenon affecting social, economic and political aspects of regions and countries. It’s one of the defining features of the 21st century.

Yet, we should go beyond naively celebrating or demonising migration. The question is: how can development practitioners integrate the perspectives of migrants or those left behind in their work and contribute to durable and large-scale development impacts?  

First, migrants don’t exist in isolation from (in)formal rules and norms. In other words, it isn’t simply the interaction between migrants’ origins and their destinations that determines the outcome of safe and orderly migration. Complex networks of services and rules are often at play – in countries of origin, transit and destination. Working around the “ecosystem of migration” in a more facilitative manner to make migrants more informed, empowered and protected perhaps offer better opportunities for a more improved migration management than simple “immigration control”.

Second, effective governance of migration is possible through partnership between countries of origin, transit and destination. The Global Compact for Migration seeks to achieve such an objective through creating conducive conditions that enable all migrants to enrich societies through their human, economic and social capacities.

Third, there’re many blank spaces on the regional and global evidence on migration-development nexus that needs to be built through improved, accurate and comparable data. This’s critical for (a) debunking the many misconceptions about migration and its link to development and vice versa, (b) assessing worldwide levels and trends of migration and (c) advocating for evidence-informed policy-making and public debate.

Additional sources

Cover photo: @HELVETAS

Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies