Although the Forum, in its Global Risks 2012 report, identifies unmanaged migration as a potential societal risk, I would argue that orderly and humane migration benefits migrants and societies.
We should all realize and accept that we live in an era of the greatest human mobility in recorded history. Numerically, there are more people on the move than at any other time in recorded history. More than 1 billion people- a seventh of humanity- are migrants, either international or internal migrants living outside of their home town, city or region.
Migration- what I call the “third wave of globalization” after the free movements of goods and capital- is fuelled by relentless dynamic forces, including demographics and labour market requirements, social and economic disparities and distance-shrinking technologies. Climate change, water supply crises, food insecurity and other resource depletion drivers will also contribute to increased future mobility.
Yet, while human mobility is now increasingly acknowledged as one of the defining features of our contemporary world, it remains one of the most misunderstood issues of our time.
Migration remains a catch-all issue that masks public fears and uncertainties relating to unemployment, housing, social cohesion and perceived threats to personal and national identity in host countries. This is especially during economic slowdowns when political discourse, media reports and public opinion on the nature, purpose and socio-economic impact of migration tend to be negative.
This dystopian view of migration tends to further feed harmful stereotypes, discrimination and even xenophobia against migrants as their overwhelmingly positive contributions to our societies and economies are overlooked or deliberately forgotten.
Part of the reason for such negative perceptions is that migratory flows are more visible and diverse than even before, generating questions about the changing compositions of our societies, and how to manage this greater cultural diversity.
Policies and political discourse can, therefore, play a major role in shaping the image of migrants in host societies. One of the biggest challenges in this regard is what and how governments communicate about migrants and migration policy to the wider public.
Informing and educating the public may be the single most important policy tool in all societies grappling with migration, since managing migration also involves how migrants are perceived in societies.
Let me end by saying that more attention needs to be paid to employers, who remain key actors in today’s global migration scene. I look forward to hearing their voices and engaging with them at the Forum.
William Lacy Swing is a diplomat and former United States Ambassador to Republic of the Congo (1979-81), Liberia (1981-85), South Africa (1989-92), Nigeria (1992-93), Haiti (1993-98), and Democratic Republic of the Congo (1998-2001).
He has served as United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Western Sahara (2001-03) and then Democratic Republic of the Congo (2003-07). In June, 2008 he was elected Director General of the International Organization for Migration. He is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Pictured: Passengers queue up in lines to board trains through waiting hall of Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan. REUTERS/Darley Shen