Alternative Ways of Thinking about Migration for Development: Lessons from Emerging Research

  • 2017•12•17

    Julia Blocher


    • Prof Ibrahim Awad, Professor of global affairs, Director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at The American University in Cairo
    • Dr Jessica Hagen-Zanker, Migration Research Fellow in the Politics and Governance Programme, Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
    • Dr Manuel Orozco, Director of Migration, Remittances and Development at the Inter-American Dialogue
    • Prof Melissa Siegel, Professor and Head of Migration Studies at the United Nations University – Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT)


    • Dr James Cockayne, Head of the United Nations University (UNU) Office in New York



    New global realities warrant taking stock of new ways of thinking about the relationship between migration and sustainable development, pushing the limits of knowledge on the role of migration in promoting skills transfers, in addressing global labour market imbalances, and in enhancing the benefits of globalisation. This seminar offered empirical evidence, practical examples and critical perspectives on the developmental impacts of migration.

    This event encouraged discussion of a number of questions, such as: what are the socio-economic effects of the increasing magnitude of migration between developing countries (South-South migration). How do refugees contribute to the infrastructure, economies, and social fabric of their host communities? What factors and behavioural biases influence financial decision-making, for example, a migrant’s decision to remit, save, adopt technologies, or invest in productive assets or intangible assets (such as health and education)? Finally, within regional structures supporting freedom of movement – such as the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States – how does the existence of different categories of migrants affect their access to labour opportunities, services and rights?

    Reconciling the Global North and South to Joint Policy Formulation

    Migration in today’s interconnected world cannot be considered in terms of bilateral flows. Many of the strengths in migration come from their transnational and complex connections. Yet our global migration governance system – or lack thereof – is largely based on bilateral and multilateral agreements among governments. When it comes to considering the links between migration and development, the discussion inevitably must include an approach taken jointly among origin, transit, and destination countries. It is well recognised that the distinction between these three ‘types’ is artificial, as most countries today simultaneously have elements of two or three of these.

    Panellists noted that when it comes to migration, countries of origin and destination each have their own interests and objectives in labour migration, which may be divergent. For example, labour migration in the Euro-Mediterranean region often puts Southern and Northern European countries at odds with countries of origin for unauthorised migrants arriving in Europe.

    European countries confront a number of political realities resulting from public perceptions of these migrant flows, while African countries are concerned with the human rights of their citizens as well as the average of 2 – 6% of GDP from remittances. For example, while a majority of North and West African countries have ratified or acceded to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990), no western European countries have done so.

    European countries have tended to exercise their ability to recruit migrants based on the criteria they set, while many African countries have espoused the benefits of easy labour migration and advocated for the rights of migrants. When it comes to international labour migration, panellists argued, countries of the global south could be characterised as policy ‘takers’ while countries in the global north are policy ‘makers’. However, the two sets of countries have a convergent interest in maximising the realisation of their own objectives, which can be achieved through the join formulation of policies.

    Panellists also acknowledged the rising prevalence of ‘aid to reduce migration’ around the world, whether through funds directly for employment projects, awareness raising efforts (typically alerting the public to the dangers of unauthorised migration, or of the risks faced upon arrival), or development cooperation grants. However, it was generally agreed that these efforts do not ‘reduce’ migration. Three reasons for that were identified. Firstly, information and communications around projects funded this way are flawed. Little information about these programmes flows down to households, and thus are unlikely to influence migrant decisions. In one example, most Syrian refugees in Jordan interviewed for a survey were completely unaware of an initiative through which they could receive work permits. Secondly, the nature of jobs created through aid programmes did not always occur quickly. In addition, they may not help meet the aspirations of the people they target, who have potentially invested significant personal and community resources into migration. Some jobs were not necessarily linked to specific skill set requirements and perceptions, such as whether they would be accessible geographically, enable family unity, or were perceived as demeaning. Finally, host communities, and disadvantaged groups within them, are often not taken into consideration in aid programmes. Differential treatment between migrant or refugee and ‘host’ communities can give rise to social tensions. In addition, host communities are integral to the rule of law, perceptions of security, and drive the governance and institution building that are key to job creation and uptake.

    Building on these concerns around migration-specific development aid, panellists noted there is often a disconnect between development programmes and strategies that can significantly impact migration. While many international and civil society organisations pursue a scaling-up approach, at the programme level there can be a disconnect, because aid is political. Panellists advocated for a development strategy that integrates a migration strategy. Such a strategy would recognise the wide array of development impacts migration has on host and home countries; for example, research shows that financial inclusion through transnational families increases the financial (and social) complexity in a migrant sending area and contributes to long-term economic development. The outcomes can include greater upward mobility, quality of life, and freedom of choice for target communities.


    Beyond Migration for (Economic) Development

    Panellists also argued that migration and development cannot be solely about economic growth. The impacts of credit access, improved savings retention, education, and so-called ‘social remittances’ – knowledge transfers, building of social capital, and the enrichment of the ‘knowledge economy’ – are important, if not more important for sustainable development. Networks between transnational families create more opportunities for migration and thus more opportunities for human growth in all communities involved. Yet the impact of migration on economic and financial growth cannot be understated, for example: the impact of financial remittances, migrant entrepreneurship, migrant philanthropy and investment in host and home communities, and the development of ‘nostalgia trade’ networks.

    Furthermore, the discussion focused on the understated impacts of refugees in development. In several empirical studies presented – most conducted in Sub-Saharan Africa in settlement settings, not looking urban refugee integration per se – the outcomes of refugee influx are positive economically, albeit nuanced. Positive socio-economic outcomes were measured through key indicators such as income, nutrition, and the quality of housing and productive assets. Overall, it was found that refugee settlements breathe new life and dynamism into the local and regional economy of the adjacent communities. This is in part due to consumer demand and in part due to infrastructure projects that often accompany refugee settlements.

    However, it was noted that there are often ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in migration and refugee movements. Migration (in the broad sense) can exacerbate pre-existing inequalities. For some already less-advantaged groups, such as low-wage, low-skilled workers, refugee movements increase competition. Already privileged groups are often able to take advantage; for example, skilled workers have benefited from aid agencies coming in due to the opportunities to work for internationally-funded programmes.

    However, it was noted that the perceptions of how refugee influx can affect local economies is often overblown. While in some places refugees are taken as a new form of cheap labour and thus can have wage effects on the local labour market, particularly for low-skilled work such as on farms, the story does not end there. Refugees are not necessarily ‘taking’ jobs, but helping economies to expand. Local workers are more able to profit from new employment opportunities and attain better-paid work.



     Overall, panellists suggested that it is time to dispense with the perception of ‘managing migration’ as dirty words among civil society – insofar as ‘managing migration’ is not perceived by governments as synonymous with ‘reducing’ migration. Migration can be better harnessed to deliver on the sustainable development agenda. For a global compact on migration, this may include lowering the barriers to [legal] migration, for example by lowering the financial costs of recruitment and of the migration journey. Information sharing and awareness raising about economic opportunities for both hosting and hosted communities – and, in particular, about employment opportunities and the risks involved in migration – can be improved through modern communications tools and strategies. Improving the right to work for both refugees and migrants, and portability of rights, are prerequisites to ensuring the full potential of migration to expand economies, for the benefit of all communities concerned. To ensure development programmes do not have harmful and unintended effects on migrant families, panellists advocated for sounder development strategies. This could include mainstreaming migration or scaling-up relevant projects into development planning.

    While countries of the global south may have historically been policy ‘takers’ while countries in the global north are policy ‘makers’, the two sets of countries have a convergent interest in maximising the realisation of their own objectives. This can be achieved through the joint formulation of policies, whether bilateral, multilateral, or global in nature (or all of the above). A greater recognition of the important economic contributions and human growth potential delivered through transnational families, social remittances, knowledge transfers and the entrepreneurial, investing, philanthropic migrants is paramount. To facilitate these, policies can be formulated to ensure communities around the world can access and integrate into credit markets. Availability and access to microfinance and financial tools such as mobile wallets have assisted these efforts.

     A number of recommendations addressed development cooperation and aid programmes targeting the ‘root causes’ of migration. For refugee and migrant households to make informed decisions, information should be shared in clear, transparent ways. Host communities must be engaged early and often in development and aid programming. In many cases, ‘host’ communities should be able to access projects to avoid distrust or resentfulness – for example, with nutrition, health, skills training, and employment projects.

    On the role of refugees in development, the discussants underlined the need for more rational economic planning, while balancing emotional tensions. Refugees should not be seen as threats. They should be recognised as important economic agents. It should also be noted that communities adjacent to refugee settlements don’t always objectively think their situation has improved, in part due to mistrust of outsiders; such subjectivity can lead to tensions and resentment. To counter these issues, awareness-raising about refugees and benefits to supporting refugees is important. Countering discrimination against migrants and refugees should underlie the points outlined above.