Economic Growth

Migration is a global strategic asset. We must not undermine it

A Venezuelan migrant holds a passport as he queues to get the needed paperwork for a temporary residency permit at Interpol headquarters in Lima, Peru August 21, 2018.  REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

As the global order shifts, we risk undermining migration and its critical role in the global economy. Image: REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Marie McAuliffe
Head, Migration Research, International Organization for Migration (IOM)
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  • The current data shows around 281 million international migrants — around 3.6% of the global population.
  • International remittances reached around $831 billion in 2022, and migrants are often dynamic and active contributors to their new countries.
  • As the global order shifts, we risk undermining migration and its critical role in the global economy.

The evidence is clear. The long-term trend data speaks for itself: migration is a major driver of human development globally. This “home truth” has even defied predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic would send international remittances to developing countries backwards, as it has done to foreign direct investment.

The reality is that migrants and diaspora are remaining on trend to positively contribute to the delivery of the sustainable development goals more than any other group of state and non-state actors.

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Why migration is a global strategic asset

International remittances have increased massively over time, rising from an estimated $128 billion in 2000 to reach around $831 billion in 2022. The flows to low- and middle-income countries have trended up to reach around $650 billion, despite COVID-19 immobility. While they have long outpaced official development assistance, remittances now also outstrip foreign direct investment to low- and middle-income countries.

Remittances from migrants and diaspora have been trending up while the world is becoming increasingly divided. Geopolitical division and obstacles to global solutions are increasing, whether on development assistance, trade policy, climate change or geosecurity, as we witness our universal global order transform into hypercompetitive multilateralism featuring regional and geopolitical nodes and expanding plurinational forums.

Remittances now outstrip foreign direct investment in low- and middle-income countries.
Remittances now outstrip foreign direct investment in low- and middle-income countries. Image: IOM

We also know from the latest UN report on trade and development that contrary to the 1990s and early 2000s, which saw foreign direct investment expand sevenfold and international trade fourfold, the last decade has seen these gains reverse. Foreign direct investment has stagnated since the global financial crisis of 2008 in the vast majority of developing countries, with COVID-19 dealing a further blow.

The evidence is also clear that migration is much more than just remittances. The new World Migration Report shows that migration provides a crucial skills boost, which can be critically important for destination countries experiencing population declines and ageing populations.

Research also shows that migrants provide a source of dynamism globally and are overrepresented in innovation and patents, arts and sciences awards, start-ups, and successful companies. The immigration of young workers can also help ease pressures on the pension systems of high-income countries.

We also know without a doubt that well-managed regular migration boosts public confidence in migration systems while protecting migrants.

Migration is not without challenges

Migration is clearly part of the solution to global equality, but it is not without challenges. And while most migration is safe, regular and orderly, we are also seeing the two major exceptions to this expand — one numerically and one politically.

Forced displacement is the highest on record in the modern era. The current data shows that there are around 281 million international migrants (or just 3.6% of the world’s population). Of this total, around 40 million are refugees or asylum seekers. And yet, the trend over time is also clear. Humanitarian crises due to displacement remain the exception, but they are also on the rise.

Cross-border displacement has more than doubled since 2000 (from 14 to 35 million refugees), while the number of internally displaced has seen an even greater rise (from 21 to 71 million internally displaced persons).

Meanwhile, humanitarian needs are outpacing funding support. As humanitarian needs rise and domestic fiscal pressures grow, many donor countries are under pressure to reduce their development and humanitarian budgets. Plus the risk of further conflict has not been higher in decades, as military spending reached a new record high of $2,240 billion in 2022, reflecting an ongoing reduction in peace globally, as well as rising geopolitical tensions.

On the political front, and notwithstanding its overwhelmingly positive impact, migration has become overtly weaponized. At a time when misinformation and disinformation about migration and migrants are both increasing and increasingly effective, political actors exploit the issue for their own gain, sometimes regardless of the impacts on the societies they serve. Proportionality is needed where hyper-realities and fear-mongering prevail.

We know that irregular migration must be tackled, but not at the expense of foundational values, including human rights. Irregular migration requires multi-pronged responses because it erodes public confidence in governance systems, places migrants at greater risk of harm and exploitation, fuels the toxic narrative on migration, directly benefits the global illicit economy through smuggling and trafficking networks and results in more and more missing and dead migrants around the world.

Migration in a rapidly changing world

To look forward, we must first look back. Empirical analysis of 25 years of international migrant data clearly shows that the regular pathways for migrants from developing countries have narrowed considerably, while pathways for those from developed countries have expanded. Therefore, for increasing numbers of people around the world, irregular migration—including the use of the asylum pathway—is fast becoming the only option available to them.

We are also in the midst of hyper-uncertainty as major global transformations take hold in the realms of environmental, geopolitical and technological change, with major implications for migration and displacement, as outlined in the new World Migration Report.

The narrowing migration pathways over the last decade, together with the global transformations underway, are placing one of the world’s most strategic global assets at increasing risk. International migration as part of a global system of peace, prosperity and equality is more important than ever before but increasingly overlooked and undermined.

With globalization evolving quickly and the new contours of a re-formulated global system emerging, there are major implications for migration in a post-human rights world, including on how we must act to preserve this critical asset for all our futures.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of IOM or any other organizations with which the author is affiliated.

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