“I’m a migrant, but didn't have to risk my life on a leaky boat or pay traffickers. Safe migration cannot be limited to the global elite.”
This was United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaking in September 2017.
With a memorable turn of phrase, Guterres captured one of the world's biggest challenges. While today’s privileged elite considers global mobility almost a birthright, such freedom is denied to countless others who are trapped in hopeless economic or conflict-ridden circumstances.
Not long ago, an insider/outsider paradigm meant that what the elite got barely mattered to the global poor. The latter were only dimly aware of the opportunities for a better life beyond their own country`s borders.
But the world’s greatest leveller - the smartphone - has changed that. More than two billion people now use one. In less than a decade, smartphones have given outsiders an intimate knowledge of what the heretofore “elite” get up to.
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Two co-existing, if starkly diverging, realities are now meeting on the same planet. The clash is making the hitherto somnolent politics of many countries unpredictable and sometimes volatile.
On the one hand, freedom of movement is virtually guaranteed for a privileged and surprisingly broad global citizenry. For them, it has become natural to move safely, freely and relatively inexpensively around the world. This includes tourists, students, visiting family members, migrant workers from the global south (i.e. over two million Filipinos and one million Sri Lankans) as well as the businesspeople who keep our globalized world humming.
What we so easily forget in the discourse about migration is that millions of people are already moving around the world. These people move in a safe and orderly fashion, passing through security on the way to the gate, checking Facebook feeds and instant messages as they go. Above all, they move with passports (and visas) in hand.
So why, given such global movement already exists, has migration become such a toxic issue, filling news headlines and fuelling populism?
Part of the answer may be how we skim over the challenges of integration. We can be too quick to judge popular hostility towards migration as irrational, or worse. Politicians ignore the values people adhere to at their peril.
Given that the global mass movement of some people is considered so normal, beneficial and orderly so as not to draw comment, we must figure out how to cope with would-be migrants denied mobility because of circumstances.
Hundreds of millions who are not part of the growing, truly global labour talent market find themselves on the outside looking in, onto a world they can only dream of. They face enormous income disparities and hardships, and no chance of getting a visa or a work permit.
It comes as no surprise that vast armies of hopeful young migrants climb aboard the “leaky boats” referred to by the Secretary-General. Pushed by lack of economic opportunity, often exacerbated by climate change, they are vulnerable to the siren song of social media.
It is on such media where smugglers, human traffickers and modern-day enslavers ply their trade with complete impunity. These cruel deceptions go unchecked, as the social media giants chase new markets in the global south.
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It is this form of migration that the news covers. At its worst, results include African migrants being sold as slaves and indentured servants, as revealed by IOM. Population growth and economic failure are driving migrants to throw caution to the wind and leave their homes. At the receiving end, the inevitable result is populism, as communities struggle with unemployment and identity issues.
This is why I place so much hope in a global compact for migration, expected to be adopted at the end of 2018. It will be negotiated by Member States under the auspices of the United Nations and aims to address international migration in a comprehensive manner - the first planned inter-governmental agreement of its kind. Crucially, it is not expected to intrude on nation state sovereignty, nor be legally binding. This is probably just as well, given the tinderbox nature of the subject matter.
There is a great deal of existing common ground. Much of this is the understanding that migration isn’t so much a problem to be solved, as a human reality to be managed. Strict and mandatory rules enable more than eight million flights to take off and land safely every year, carrying the equivalent of 44% of the world's population. Consequently, it should be possible to find some common rules in order to allow many more to travel, migrate and return home freely and safely.
We must offer hope to those facing economic despair, provide legal pathways for more migrants or circular migration options for those who wish to work then return home. If we don’t manage it, the smugglers will - at great cost to human life and to the fabric of our societies.