“Migrants can help economies recover faster”

William Lacy Swing

Upon the publication of the IOM’s biennial Migration Report, William Lacy Swing talks to Global about the positive benefits of migration, international efforts to prevent human trafficking and the challenges facing migrants

Global: The numbers of people migrating worldwide have been increasing dramatically – as much between countries of the South as between those of South and North. You commented recently that this amounts to the ‘third wave’ of globalisation, and yet it is apparent that the pressures of migration are being met with less tolerant policies on the part of governments of transit or destination countries. In the context of the economic downturn, the tightening of restrictions and quotas seems likely to continue. Do you think this is a temporary phenomenon or a longer-term trend?

William Lacy Swing: There is no doubt that in Europe, as in other parts of the industrialised world, there has been a slowing down of regular and irregular migration flows as a result of the economic crisis and the tightening of restrictions for migrants. High unemployment rates and rising anti-immigration sentiments in many countries have also led to migrants suffering disproportionately from unemployment despite being the key drivers behind three decades of economic growth. Nevertheless, migrants and migration have shown a remarkable degree of resilience to the economic downturn.

Faced with today’s harsh migration realities in countries of the North and new opportunities in the South, new migration patterns are fast emerging. Emerging economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America are now seeing considerably greater migration flows than OECD countries. The future of migration, the so-called ‘third wave’ of globalisation, is already being defined by relentless demographic, economic and labour market dynamics. Other factors, such as climate change, also contribute to making migration a ‘mega-trend’ of the 21st century.

If migration continues to grow at the same pace as over the past 20 years, some analysts predict there could be 405 million international migrants by 2050, up from today’s estimated 215 million. This anticipated sharp rise includes a significant growth in the labour force in developing countries from an estimated 2.4 billion in 2005 to a projected 3.6 billion in 2040.

The positive benefits of migration for countries of origin and destination are all too easily overlooked. How does IOM go about promoting a more enlightened view of the advantages especially for the countries of destination?

For many years, IOM has advocated on behalf of the positive contribution that migrants and migration make to both countries of origin and destination, both economically and socially. It is less of an issue for countries of origin to accept the value of migration. You only have to look at the year-on-year increase in remittances to the developing world and the role they play in poverty alleviation and socioeconomic growth and development in home countries to see why. We work with countries of origin on ways to make remittances more effective in socio-economic development and on engaging their diaspora to invest their skills, experience and finances back home.

Migrants, however, do also make a very important socio-economic contribution in the country of destination. IOM research into previous financial crises has shown that migrants can help economies recover faster out of depression. Skilled migrants help create jobs and pass on skills to native workers while lower-skilled migrants fill labour holes in sectors that contribute to the well-being of a host population. These are all messages IOM has long promoted. However, over the past few years, I have voiced my concerns many times on the negative public perceptions of migrants and migration that are also tied to the abuse of migrant rights. Responsible policy decisions and partnerships are now essential if human mobility is to be managed in a way that really does produce maximum benefits for all.

Is there now greater readiness to act in cases of so-called ‘sudden onset’ migration as a result of climatic or other disasters? Can you cite examples?

While humanitarian responses to extreme climatic events such as hurricanes and floods are usually funded to a degree by the international community, far less is being done to address the medium to long-term impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on human migration. In 2008 alone, some 20 million people were displaced by climate-related disasters. Millions more are affected by droughts, with Africa especially vulnerable.

Recent IOM reports show that most environmental migration already happening is internal. Several Asian countries are struggling to cope with considerable rural to urban migration as recurrent floods destroy agricultural livelihoods and force people to move to overstretched urban areas, with dramatic consequences for infrastructure, public services and health. Migration is already playing a significant role as a coping mechanism in these contexts. Mali, for example, is witness to internal migration from the country’s north to its south and to regional migration towards coastal areas of West Africa as a spontaneous adaptation strategy to drought.

Though attention to adaptation measures is growing, migration is most often seen as a failure to adapt, rather than as one of several adaptation strategies. Affected countries should integrate this consideration into their future responses. International support is also needed for countries that are most affected by internal and immediate cross-border environmental migration.

What kinds of actions does IOM support in the battle against the trafficking and smuggling of people, especially women and children?

Since 1994, IOM has been working to fight human trafficking worldwide. We are currently working in nearly 90 countries to tackle the problem and have so far provided comprehensive assistance to at least 20,000 victims of trafficking. Our aim remains to prevent human trafficking and to protect its victims while offering them options for safe and sustainable reintegration and/or return to their home countries. We also work day-in day-out to strengthen the capacities of our partners in government and civil society to tackle the issue and to create legislation that would lead to the prosecution of perpetrators. However, with human trafficking largely based on the global demand for cheap labour and services and because there are so few legal migration channels, we are increasingly focusing on tackling the demand side of this phenomenon.

Are governments in the South generally more open to accepting and accommodating new migration flows than governments in the North?

Interestingly enough, many countries of the South that were previously countries of origin or of transit have now become countries of destination. In many cases, they haven’t yet set up policies to address emerging migration issues. Partly as a result of the economic crisis, those countries also have to address anti-immigrant feelings among their own population.

In the case of South Africa, which experienced xenophobic attacks on foreigners in May 2008, IOM has been working with the South African government, civil society and the media on a social change campaign to reverse growing discrimination and racism. Of course, this type of activity can only be effective as part of broader human rights efforts to address xenophobic sentiments in host societies and fight a culture of impunity that all too often surrounds crimes against migrants.

In the years ahead, do you envisage any improvements in the ways global and regional migration is managed, or at least the possibility of greater understanding and cooperation between governments of countries at the different ends of the migration spectrum? Is there any possibility of an eventual global governance structure for migration?

A lot is already happening at a regional level through the 14 state-developed, state-led  Regional  Consultative  Processes (RCPs), which are playing a major role in addressing today’s migration challenges. The majority of countries in the world belong to at least one RCP, and several countries belong to more than one. From Bali to Puebla, these regional processes bring together countries of origin and destination, and sometimes transit countries as well. They provide a flexible, informal, non-binding framework for action-oriented responses at a regional level and beyond.

The recent creation of the African, Caribbean and Pacific States Observatory on Migration is in many ways a milestone in improving our collective knowledge about South-South migration – knowledge that will benefit countries, communities and migrants themselves. The establishment of the Observatory is a response to the exponential increase in governments’ interest in global migration. There is also the state-led Global Forum on Migration and Development.

All these developments clearly show that working in isolation does not work. IOM, as the only inter-governmental organisation with global reach whose mandate is exclusively migration, will continue to share its 60 years of expertise with all involved.

About the author:

William Lacy Swing is Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)


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