Global Governance

The biggest issues facing migrants today - and what we can do to solve them

Faris, from Sudan, learns French at "The New Jungle" camp in Calais, France, August 8, 2015.

The contribution immigrants make to their host communities is huge. So why are they still so misunderstood? Image: REUTERS/ Juan Medina

Ratna Omidvar
Independent Senator for Ontario, The Senate of Canada
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Global Governance

In the management of global migration, the world is clinging to outdated infrastructure and patterns of mobility, says Canadian senator Ratna Omidvar, member of the Global Future Council on Migration. The contribution immigrants make to their host communities is not widely understood, and countries need to begin showing an interest in all migrants, not just skilled labour.

How do you see the state of migration today?

In the management of global migration, we are clinging to outdated infrastructure and patterns of mobility. We operate reactively instead of planning for the future.

I look back at the major migration trends of the last decade, and I wonder what could be different had we been prepared. The last decade gave us the largest number of displaced people since the Second World War, a steadily rising death toll in the Mediterranean, populist politics that traded on fear of immigration, and new environmental factors driving people from their homes. With the clarity of hindsight, planning for these realities could have strengthened the wellbeing of host communities, supported immigrants to move and prosper, and even saved lives.

Which issues related to migration do you perceive to be misunderstood or inadequately appreciated?

The evidence of the contributions immigrants can make to their host communities is not widely understood or accepted. This is true of both camps: those who think immigration is bad, and those who think it is good. The impact of immigration on communities is nuanced, and in many studies we see evidence of different outcomes due to different policy and social contexts. Robert Putnam found evidence of ebbing trust leading people to “hunker down” in diverse American communities, while Keith Banting found the opposite effect in equally diverse Canadian communities, where trust and engagement bloomed alongside immigration.

Sometimes, perception and reality are at odds. For example, a community or country may demonstrate positive gains from immigration but public opinion stubbornly disagrees. Where these contradictions persist, it is important to think about how to change perceptions.

Image: UNHCR

What will be the most significant migration issues over the next 10 years?

One is the integration of displaced populations. Over 65 million people are currently displaced. The majority – 54% or 35 million – come from Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Their displacement will be long-term. They are in need of the basics of survival, employment opportunities, services, and community. Planning for integration instead of displacement means a shift from building temporary solutions to permanent infrastructure.

A second is tackling inequality in destination communities. Dissatisfaction at home and disillusionment with globalisation is a driving political force behind the recent rejectionist movement in countries that have swung towards closed-border nationalism. Inequality that builds a “marginalized majority” of native citizens boosts the power of anti-immigration narratives.

A third significant issue is preparing cities for ecological migration. The changing climate is causing people to move in mass and sometimes invisible numbers. City planners have not kept pace and internal migrants especially in the Global South are landing in slums and informal housing. As thinkers like Katherine Boo and Doug Saunders have documented, the fortunes of those who land in slums depend on policies that keep them in or help them out. Will these increasingly populated places of arrival become permanent homes, or temporary launch pads?

Fourth, planning for new patterns of resettlement should be a high priority. It is becoming clear that resettlement models in traditional destination countries like Canada, Australia and parts of Europe are in need of a refresh. They were built for cities not yet transformed by the defining socio-economic trends of the past decades: the growth of informal jobs, and the passage of poverty from inner cities to suburbs. Urban planning for integration means changing the physical centres of gravity in settlement.

Image: UNHCR

What do you think the Global Future Council on Migration can contribute to the global effort to help migrants?

Given the diversity of members and contributors, I believe the Council on Migration has a major role in framing the conversation, and injecting facts and evidence into the political conversations that tend towards emotional arguments. I hope that we can deepen public understanding of the benefits of migration, diversity and inclusion. We must do this soberly: migration is not a silver bullet to our problems, but it can lead to shared prosperity for migrants and for host communities under the right conditions.

Using our diversity, we can also find the global good practices that can be replicated in other jurisdictions, such as Germany’s upskilling for refugees in universities and the trades, or Canada’s private sponsorship of refugees programme.

What more needs to be done for migrants?

It’s incredible to imagine that, because of visa restrictions, people are willing to risk their lives to find safety and opportunity. They will pay ten times what a legal trip on an airplane would cost, huge sums of money, to make dangerous overland trips or flee on unsafe boats. This is because we are intentionally making it difficult for people to migrate. We need more channels of safe, legal migration.

Regarding refugees in particular, resettlement commitments need to be honoured and raised. Countries taking part in the leader’s summit in New York in September committed to roughly doubling the number of refugees they collectively admit through resettlement or other third country admission programmes to more than 360,000 refugees. This is a significant number, but it amounts to under 2% of the 21.3 million refugees registered with the UN.

What do you think the migration situation will be by 2030?

Unless we fix issues of global governance, migration risks tearing the EU apart. We are going to see the hardening of attitudes in certain regions because they don’t see the opportunity in migration. Part of that comes from the fact that people only see migration as a good thing when we think of the highly skilled. But highly skilled people are more likely to come, settle, and then get recruited elsewhere. The long-term solution is to give a hand out to people now. The payoff is that their children will succeed, and those children will build the next generation of lawyers, doctors and create prosperity in those countries.

In Canada, we have taken that approach. Once people get here, after a rigorous screening process, we throw the government behind them. We educate and upskill them where needed, teach them the national languages, help them get jobs and integrate into society. Finally, we put them on the path to citizenship.

Global migration will continue to become even more normalised. There will be leading countries that realise long-term solutions for integration helps natives and newcomers to prosper. There will be problems along the way, but I think we might be quite surprised by what happens next. We might see countries not currently on the map stepping up and becoming big players.

Have you read?

What would be your ideal migration scenario in 2030?

By that time, I hope that displaced people worldwide are considered a mainstream source for immigration to countries in need of economic and population growth. There are over 65 million displaced people, and yet advanced and emerging economies alike are struggling with labour shortages.

Second, I would like to see a global governance system that qualifies people professionally. One hurdle that still remains for migrants is coming to a new country where their qualifications are not recognized. On top of this type of structural barrier, we know that immigrants face discrimination and bias, which impacts their work and well-being. By 2030, I want people who move from one city to another not to have to worry about the colour of their skin or the barriers to requalify in their field of training. They will worry about what someone who moves from Toronto to Ottawa worries about: the restaurants, the rent, the weather.

The Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils is taking place on 13-14 November in Dubai.

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