‘International law requires that the human rights of all migrants, whatever their status, are respected’
LONDON – In 2000, the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to drive progress on important development objectives, such as reducing poverty, promoting gender equality, and curbing disease. But the architects of the MDGs neglected one critical issue: migration. Fortunately, it looks like world leaders will not make the same mistake with the post-2015 development agenda.
The scale of remittances alone should be enough to convince the world that migration deserves a prominent spot in the post-2015 agenda. Last year, migrants from developing countries sent an estimated $414 billion to their families – triple the total of official development assistance. More than a billion people rely on such funds to help pay for education, health care, water, and sanitation. As if that were not enough, remittances have important macroeconomic benefits, enabling countries to pay for essential imports, access private capital markets, and qualify for lower interest rates on sovereign debt.
But many of migration’s benefits are squandered. Financial intermediaries extract 9% of remittances, on average, for an estimated total of $49 billion in migrant earnings last year. Rapacious recruiters, who often keep one-third of a migrant’s pay, skim billions more. Meanwhile, smuggling, trafficking, exploitation, and discrimination take an incalculable human toll.
This is where the post-2015 development agenda comes in. With the right incentives, governments and companies can be encouraged to pursue policies aimed at ensuring that more funds reach poor families, while working to protect migrants’ rights and prevent discrimination.
At the same time, the agenda can help to transform perceptions of migrants. As it stands, migration is often viewed as a sign of a home country’s failure to offer adequate opportunities, while locals in destination countries believe that migrants are stealing their jobs, depressing their wages, or exploiting their welfare systems.
But the fact that 9% of British citizens live abroad demonstrates that people move regardless of their home country’s wealth. Moreover, evidence shows that migrants contribute more than they appropriate, as they foster knowledge transfers, trade, tourism, investment, and even job creation through entrepreneurship, while doing important jobs – from caring for children and the elderly to staffing hotels and restaurants to picking crops – that are undesirable to locals.
Given the undeniable benefits of migration, it might be surprising that it was not included in the MDGs. The problem is that, in 2000, there was neither enough evidence about migration’s effects on development nor sufficient political support to secure its addition to the agenda.
That is no longer the case. A group of countries, international agencies, and NGOs has made a strong case to the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (the body responsible for facilitating deliberations on the post-2015 agenda) that migration can help reduce poverty and generate economic growth.
The group’s proposal – which includes lower remittance costs, increased pension portability, and strong action against human trafficking – calls for a specific set of targets and indicators, which would substantially enrich the next development agenda. It even calls for migrants to be considered when measuring progress toward other goals, such as ensuring decent work and equitable access to health-care services.
There is a groundswell of political support behind this effort. Last October, when the UN General Assembly met to discuss migration for only the second time, member states unanimously approved a declaration that called for migration’s inclusion in the post-2015 agenda. The International Organization for Migration Council issued a similar resolution in November, and the campaign has attracted additional support from civil-society groups and international organizations.
The international community has pledged to place people at the center of the post-2015 development agenda. There is no better expression of this commitment than recognizing the indispensable role that migrants play – and protecting their rights. To this end, the agenda must create the basis for sustained and meaningful global partnerships on migration and human mobility, similar to efforts under the MDGs, to make trade and technology transfer work for development.
But not everyone stands behind these goals. A handful of national leaders could veto the inclusion of migration, owing to misplaced fears of its domestic political consequences.
To avoid such an outcome, it is important to note that opinion polls usually reveal public anxiety about unregulated migration, not legal migration or legitimate asylum-seekers. Even in Europe, where populism is on the rise, citizens are more enlightened than their leaders: 69% of Europeans say that they are not worried about legal migration, and 62% do not believe that migrants take jobs from locals. Governments like those in Germany and Sweden that manage migration well and invest in integration have the strongest public support.
The number of migrants that a country welcomes is a matter that only it can decide. But how migrants are treated, whether they are allowed to keep what they earn, and what they contribute to social and economic development are issues that matter to everyone. International law requires that the human rights of all migrants, whatever their status, are respected, which is also a fundamental precondition for individual and collective development.
Migration – when it is safe, legal, and voluntary – is the oldest poverty-reduction and human-development strategy. It seems that this long-ignored reality is finally sinking in, pushing discussion of the post-2015 development agenda in the right direction.
Peter Sutherland, Chairman of the London School of Economics, non-executive Chairman of Goldman Sachs International, and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development, is former Director General of the World Trade Organization, EU Commissioner for Competition, and Attorney General of Ireland. William Lacy Swing is Director General of the International Organization for Migration. ©Project Syndicate, 2014.