Secretary-General says migrants “best and brightest’ in some countries, issues call in General Assembly to “harness their unstoppable force’

Published by rudy Date posted on May 20, 2011

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today opened the General Assembly’s first-ever thematic debate on international migration and development with a strong call for an intelligent, cooperative approach, focused on the positive “to harness the unstoppable force of migration for the greater good”.

The day-long informal debate, seen as a major contribution to the Assembly’s 2013 High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, was convened to provide a unique forum for Member States, experts and civil society groups to exchange ideas on migration and consider the numerous challenges migrants faced in an increasingly interconnected world.  It featured two panel discussions:  one devoted to the contribution of migrants to development; and another on improving international cooperation among all stakeholders on migration and development.

In his opening remarks, the Secretary-General told delegations the debate over migration devolved to loss:  migrants overstretched social safety nets, some said.  Others worried that they would overwhelm education systems and take away jobs.  “But statistics show that the economic contribution of migrant workers far outweighs any costs,” he said, adding that migrants often did the jobs that others would not, the so-called “3D” jobs — work that was dirty, dangerous and difficult.

Yet, in many countries they were the best and the brightest:  doctors, nurses, engineers and other highly educated professionals.  “It is easy to see the negatives, but it is much more difficult to appreciate the positives.  And those positives ultimately overshadow the negatives,” he continued, noting that nearly two thirds of the world’s 214 million migrants lived in wealthy countries and that the remittances they sent home totalled more than $300 billion a year.

That figure dwarfed global aid flows, and across the developing world, such transfers made it possible for families to get health care, send their children to school and start up small businesses.  Yet, he emphasized that enhanced cooperation would maximize the benefits of migration and address social concerns.  That was why it was so important to provide better and more regular funding to the Global Forum on Migration and Development.  That body, in its five-year existence, had opened up a space for informal and voluntary dialogue among countries, and he urged Member States to support Special Representative on Migration and Development Peter Sutherland’s forthcoming proposal to guarantee predictable resources.

Underscoring the major challenges facing the Global Forum because of “lamentably low” contributions, Mr. Sutherland said that only a small group of countries contributed to it consistently.  The deepening importance of migration meant that now was the time to expand the Forum, but rather than step up to the plate, three countries had recently pulled out as hosts, and the body now lacked a confirmed chair for 2012.  “Words are fine but deeds are important,” he said.

He said that the need for a comprehensive migration policy was illustrated by the popular revolutions and protests of the “Arab Spring”, which had caused many people in North Africa and the Middle East to flee their homes, exposing the lack of an established structure to deal with a crisis of that scale.  Those events afforded a “generational testing ground”, he said, stressing the need to put in place vocational training programmes in North Africa and to create opportunities for migrants from those nations to live and work in Europe and beyond.  The Southern Mediterranean had the ability to build new migration systems and never before had there been such a huge, immediate need to take action.  “This has to be one of the great issues of our time,” he said, urging the international community to use the opportunity to decide how to best bolster the Global Forum.

In his remarks, General Assembly President Joseph Deiss said the world was becoming more interdependent, and international migration, along with movements of capital, goods and services, was a driving force behind that increased integration.  The number of international migrants was constantly increasing, and that upward trend had not been reversed by the economic and financial crisis.

“It is essential, in the four years that remain before the target date for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, that migration should be made a positive force for development,” he said, adding that it should benefit the various parties involved:  not only the migrants themselves, but their countries of origin and countries of destination.

He stressed that finding balanced, coherent and global responses to the issue of international migration, in order to maximize the positive impacts, would involve facing up to numerous challenges.  The effects of the global economic and financial crisis were still being felt in many countries.  Unemployment and economic insecurity particularly affect migrants.  They also created a climate of anxiety and introversion and, sometimes, xenophobic excesses in the countries of destination, which has a negative impact on migratory movements.

“We must take into account absorption capacities, that is:  the social and economic capacities to cope with massive migration in countries of destination,” he said, but underscored that the international community must guard against the adoption of protectionist and isolationist policies:  “history has shown us the cost of those”.  Stakeholders must make sure to guarantee the rights of migrants and assure them of decent lives and working conditions.

That sentiment was echoed in both panel discussions, as participants voiced serious concern for the well-being of migrants and their families and repeatedly urged transit and destination countries to enact legislation that protected them from exploitation.  An expert panellist from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México said the most pressing concern was not how to provide better medical services for migrants or how to make remittances more effective; it was how to save migrants’ lives and prevent them from being kidnapped and sexually abused.

A representative of the NGO Committee on Migration agreed and chided Member States for perennially ignoring the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  He was also among those who emphasized the need to aggressively tackle the root causes of migration, such as human rights violations, imbalanced trade policies, harmful agricultural subsides, and environmental degradation, which was likely to become the single most important driver of population movements over the next decade.  Others highlighted issues including the impact of migration on national health-care systems; migrant entrepreneurship; the rise in bilateral migration-related agreements; and efforts to harmonize policies recognizing skills of migrants.

Panel I: The Contribution of Migrants to Development

The informal thematic debate’s first panel, chaired by William Lacy Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration ( IOM ), featured expert presentations by:  John Connell, Professor of Human Geography, University of Sydney; Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Minister of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Ecuador and that country’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations; Abdelhamid El Jamri, Chairperson of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and Member of the Council for the Moroccan Community Abroad; Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie, Co-Founder, African Foundation for Development ( AFFORD ); Göran Hultin, Chief Executive Officer, Caden Corporation, and Contributor to the Talent Mobility Project, World Economic Forum.

Opening the discussion, Mr. SWING said the panel’s objective was very straightforward:  to share best practices and lessons learned regarding migrants’ contributions to development and to identify ways to leverage those contributions to promote development and foster human growth in both origin and destination countries.

“We find ourselves, not only with a world on the move, but we find it moving amid a rising public wave of anti-migrant sentiment – in parliaments, at the community level, and in the media,” he said.  The result of that trend was that the overwhelming positive contributions by the overwhelming number of migrants was often overlooked.  He believed that migration was “the world’s oldest poverty reduction strategy”, and must be respected and nurtured as such.  Indeed, after the Second World War, migration had been largely responsible for building up the post-war economies of the “new world”.  In recent years, it had also contributed to building the economies and social fabric of European and other countries.

Yet, when Governments waxed nostalgic about being “migrant nations”, they were all too often talking about those migrants of yesteryear, and not the ones that were arriving on their shores in such large numbers today, he continued.  That new generation of migrants faced, not only mounting xenophobia, but isolationist policies that made it ever more difficult for them to live and work abroad.  But, Mr. Swing said:  “Migration is inevitable, unavoidable and necessary; and if intelligently and humanely managed, desirable.”

Focusing his comments on health impacts, Professor CONNELL said migration was a response to uneven development – low wages and lack of employment opportunities, as well as limited access to technology, among other social factors – and increased population movements had both positive and negative effects on national health-care systems.  Severe staff and skill shortages in the health systems of many countries fostered active recruitment of health workers from abroad.  For countries of origin, that outflow of health professionals put a strain on health-care wards and reduced health-care options.  For destination countries, incoming migrants filled gaps in health-care worker employment.  At the same time, those leaving home to provide care abroad could be subjected to low wages and poor working conditions.

So, he said, while it was necessary for all countries to train adequate numbers of national health-care workers – “understandably easier said than done for many” – the International Labour Organization ( ILO ) had adopted several important codes to address the myriad and complex challenges surrounding the issue.  Those codes tended to work best when they were backed up by Government and bilateral policies or agreements.  In addition, migrant support groups and information networks had helped migrants to understand their entitlements, their rights and their responsibilities and benefit, not just from living and working abroad, but from playing a full part in the societies of their destination countries.

For example, he said Senegal, like many African countries, had lost a significant amount of its health workforce in recent years.  To fill that gap, France-based non-governmental organizations and “do-it-yourself” health groups had initiated programmes to provide ambulances and other equipment, channel health-care professionals back to Senegal, and even provide cellular phones, which had opened up a new frontier in health care in the West African nation.

In her remarks, Ms. ESPINOSA shared some of Ecuador’s experiences in the area of migration, which, she said, had characterized her country’s existence for much of the past 40 years.  Ecuador had witnessed two major waves of migration:  one, in the late 1970s, as a result of drought that had gripped the country; and another, in the late 1990s, sparked by the meltdown of major financial institutions.  In the wake of those incidents, the country had begun to witness the benefits of the huge remittances from Ecuadorians that had moved abroad.

The Government had also institutionalized the principle of “good living” to address a range of social issues, including the needs of Ecuadorians living abroad, she noted.  The migration policies it adopted aimed to bolster migrants’ links to their families and cultural traditions, and simultaneously promote the rights of foreigners in Ecuador.  They also strengthened education and other support measures to generate conditions for Ecuadorians to remain at home.  Another major priority was to promote equitable political participation.

That exercise had led to the establishment of a national Ministry for Migration, which dealt with the situation of Ecuadorians abroad, so that, among other things, they might be able to return home as often as necessary.  It also served as a nerve centre for satellite “ministries” all over the world, in places such as Italy, Spain “and even in Queens”, she said.  Those facilities brought Ecuadorians together and kept lines of communication open back home.  They also served to address the “very sad phenomenon” of family fragmentation.

She went on to highlight the importance of bilateral support plans for transnational families and migrants with Spain and other countries; a youth employment and immigration programme; and special banks that handled remittances.  Migration did have “a sad face”, characterized chiefly by racism and xenophobia, but it also had another face, one of mobility, progress and human development.  The international community must be aware of both realities and must continue to address the issue within the United Nations, which her Government believed was the most appropriate forum for such talks.

Next, Mr. EL JAMRI said that, while he was pleased with the Assembly’s decision to hold today’s important debate, he was also concerned that all recent discussions on migration were “informal”.  He believed that the international community was ready to “begin a second phase”, wherein the issue was not only elevated to the appropriate level on the global development agenda, but was backed up by concrete legislation and other policies that protected migrants and better managed — and acknowledged — the contributions they made to the world as a whole.

He went on to say that, while remittances were admittedly a major focus of all discussions on migration and development, cultural transfers were also quite significant.  In other words, migrants’ cultural traditions were an undeniable but often overlooked benefit to destination countries.  Moreover, what were missing were policies that allowed migrants to actually play a more active role in contributing to the development of their destination countries.  There must be policies on “access to rights” that were beneficial to migrants, destination countries and home countries.  He called for the creation of migrant exchange networks that would facilitate such access.

National, regional and global institutions dealing with migration must better coordinate their activities, he continued.  That would not only lead to more policy coherence at the global level, but it might also make it easier for migrants to go back and forth between their homes and destination countries.  As for his home country, Morocco, migration had historically helped to bolster the labour market.  That situation had changed somewhat, as Morocco was now becoming more of a transit, rather than destination, country.

On migration and entrepreneurship, Mr. CHIKEZIE said remittances enhanced job and wealth creation, built stronger private sectors, and bolstered economic growth.  Remittances and economic growth were also part of migrants’ strategies to return home.  Diaspora entrepreneurs faced serious obstacles, including lack of information; lack of access to affordable capital; lack of social capital; maladapted skills; and clash of values.

To overcome such challenges, host Governments must provide migrant entrepreneurs with security of legal residency and freedom of movement.  “Better integrated migrants are better placed to leverage their accumulated skills and resources for investment in a business in the country of origin,” he said, also stressing the need to ensure an enabling environment for business.  Promotion of diaspora entrepreneurship should be seen as an integral part of the overall effort to create an enabling environment for business.

The final panellist, Mr. HULTIN said migration was a necessity for sustaining economic growth and development.  The World Economic Forum’s research had revealed that even against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, skills shortages were affecting every region of the world.  In a pre-crisis manpower survey, about 41 per cent of some 40,000 employers interviewed reported that they were having trouble finding skilled workers.

In the aftermath of the crisis, that number had dropped, but one in three of the survey’s respondents said they were still unable to fill critical jobs.  Research had estimated that those skills shortages were due to deepen, largely because of demographics ( in the global North ) and inadequate training ( global South ).  Emerging markets were being hit because, even while they had large numbers of workers, the education level of those workers did not match the skills level needed to fill critical employment gaps.  All that spoke to the need for, among other things, making migration easier; “moving work to where people are, instead of people moving to the work”; and addressing “brain waste”.

Specifically on brain waste, he cited countless examples where well-trained engineers were forced to drive cabs or sweep floors.  Comprehensively tackling that trend required targeted international labour and migration policies, and, at national levels, recognition of expertise and training.  With that in mind, he cited a World Economic Forum pilot programme set to be launched with the Vietnamese Government.  It would focus on pre-migration preparation, and, among other things, ensuring that migrant workers continued to upgrade skills through training or experience, and that they had access to an avenue for raising concerns or addressing complaints.  It would also aim to ensure post-migration preparation for return home, with requisite skills recognition and reintegration programmes.

In the ensuing discussion, many speakers from affluent countries highlighted their Governments’ efforts to address the complexities of migration, while delegates from countries of origin voiced serious concern about a sharp increase in incidents of discrimination and exploitation of migrants.  The representative of Argentina, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said that destination countries must refrain from enacting discriminatory legislative or administrative provisions, or those that were detrimental to family reunification or hampered transfer of remittances.  Speakers from European nations highlighted, among other things, the need to keep dialogue and cooperation at the heart of the global migration and development agenda and to support partnerships with countries of origin and transit.

A representative of the NGO Committee on Migration said civic actors were concerned by the overemphasis on economic contributions of migrants.  While such issues as remittances were undoubtedly important, more focus should be devoted to tackling the root causes of migration, such as human rights violations, imbalanced trade policies, deleterious agricultural subsides, and environmental degradation, which was likely to become the single most important driver of population movements over the next decade.  He was also disturbed that, in an international forum like the United Nations, there had been very little mention of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  “The United Nations is a multilateral Organization and the Convention is an international treaty, after all,” he said.

Panel II:  Improving International Cooperation on Migration and Development

The informal thematic debate’s second panel, chaired by Khalid Koser, Academic Dean and Head, New Issues in Security Course, Geneva Centre for Security Policy, featured expert presentations by:  Eduard Gnesa, Special Ambassador for International Cooperation on Migration Issues, Switzerland, speaking in his capacity as Head of Switzerland’s Presidency of the Global Forum on Migration and Development; Saqr Ghobash, Minister of Labour, United Arab Emirates; Anthony Lake, Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund ( UNICEF ), speaking in his capacity as Chair, Global Migration Group; Thetis Mangahas, Senior Migration Specialist and Deputy Regional Director, Policy and Programmes, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, International Labour Organization ( ILO ); and Rafael Fernandez de Castro, Founder and Chair, Department of International Studies, Istituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico.

Opening the discussion, Mr. KOSER said the discussion would focus on concrete outcomes and best practices by global and regional cooperation mechanisms for migration and development; good models and lessons learned in the context of bilateral agreements aimed at facilitating migration and protecting migrants’ rights; examples of development cooperation to support national efforts to integrate migration into development planning and projects; and good practices on the recognition of qualifications and certifications between countries of origin and countries of destination, in order to harness the socioeconomic contribution of migrants to development.

Speaking first, Mr. GHOBASH said lowering the cost of moving abroad for work was the responsibility of both countries of origin and destination and “makes good management sense and helps to leverage the benefits of all involved”.  During a recent workshop on that theme in Dubai involving countries of origin from Asia and Gulf Cooperation Council States that employed many of their workers, participants had agreed that fixing recruitment flaws could generate positive outcomes for migrants, employers and Governments.  Unilateral action by countries of origin and destination could be mutually beneficial; they could independently implement national strategies to ensure sustained development gains of contract labour migration.

For example, he explained, they could further develop national legislative and regulatory frameworks that governed contract labour migration and the capacity to enforce them.  Countries of origin could help reduce the cost of migration and increase its benefits by offering low-cost loans to departing contract workers, as well as comprehensive and accessible pre-departure information and orientation programmes.  The United Arab Emirates recently had introduced regulations for private employment agencies that recruited foreign workers and a wage protection system, among other measures.

Mr. GNESA said the Global Forum had developed an interactive and team-based method of preparing its annual meeting and had formed teams on issues of common interest.  That had helped foster and strengthen partnerships among countries and other stakeholders in various policy fields.  The Global Forum was reaching out to policymakers and practitioners, organizing a series of smaller meetings focused on key themes such as lowering migration costs, global care workers, irregular migration and development, and testing tools for evidence-based policies.  The Global Forum’s new web-based Platform for Partnerships offered a window to showcase its achievements and Government practices of interest to policymakers.

He noted that, traditionally, migration and development policies were largely disconnected, but the Global Forum’s recent surveys showed that more and more Governments had set up a unit for coordinating them.  He cited bilateral models that factored development into their planning, such as New Zealand’s migration programme with neighbouring Pacific islands and Guatemala’s seasonal agricultural programme with Canada.  Several European Union countries had introduced legislation on circular migration and programmes with third countries aimed at mutual development outcomes.  The United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and the Philippines had developed good practices in regulating migrant recruitment, issuing low-cost migrant loans, and creating social security packages for temporary labour migrants.

Mr.  LAKE said some 214 million people, or 3 per cent of the world’s population, lived outside their countries of origin.  In 2010, officially recorded remittance flows to developing countries were $325 billion, far exceeding official aid flows.  Migration could aid development and reduce poverty, but also create significant development challenges, such as the “brain drain” of skilled workers in countries of origin and exploitation and abuse among young migrants.  To address that growing trend, earlier in the week, the Global Migration Group had hosted a symposium.  It also had recently published a handbook on mainstreaming migration into development planning.  Under the European Union-United Nations Joint Migration and Development Initiative, it had allocated €10 million to 54 local migration and development projects in 16 countries, and $80 million to implement 14 projects on youth, employment and migration as part of the Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund.  It was creating indicators to monitor and evaluate the impact of those projects.

An increasingly coordinated global response to migration issues was needed, he said.  “Any international framework must embrace a proactive and human rights-based approach to regular and safe migration,” he said, calling for stronger steps to monitor, prevent and combat trafficking, and to aid trafficking victims.  He also called for stronger steps to protect the rights of migrant workers and their families and to maximize the full potential of migrant remittances.  He urged all States that had yet to do so to ratify and implement the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  He also called for rights-based, gender-sensitive policies for recruiting migrant labour, increasing the portability of pensions and health insurance, and prohibiting workplace discrimination and exploitation.

Ms. MANGAHAS said some 25 million Asians were employed in foreign countries.  More than 3 million left home in search of work abroad; an estimated 43 per cent of them migrated to neighbouring countries.  Governments in China, Japan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Viet Nam and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region increasingly were making strong efforts to review national laws and policies on labour migration and migrants’ rights.  In 2007, 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations ( ASEAN ) had endorsed a Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which called for, among other things, collaboration in data collection and the ability to access the services of each others’ embassies in times of crisis and displacement.

The vision of the ASEAN Economic Community for 2015 provided for free movement of skilled workers and called for mutual recognition of professional qualifications, she said.  In terms of return and reintegration services, she said the Philippines was a regional leader in forming systematic processes to improve employment prospects for returning workers.  Asian trade unions had entered into agreements with their counterparts in Middle East countries to facilitate access to legal and other social services for migrants in difficult situations.  Recruitment agencies across the subregion had adopted common codes of practice for better recruitment and employment of migrant workers.

Mr. FERNANDEZ DE CASTRO said that in the western hemisphere, the most pressing concern was not how to provide better medical services for migrants or how to make remittances more effective, but how to save migrants’ lives, and prevent them from being kidnapped and sexually abused.  Of particular concern was the welfare of the some 400,000 to 500,000 Central Americans transiting Mexico annually en route to the United States.  Three quarters of the 12 million undocumented workers in the United States were Mexicans or Central Americans.

Since 11 September 2001, he added, it had become more difficult for them to cross into the United States, and last year alone, 800,000 of them had been deported.  Moreover, organized criminals in Mexico in the past three or four years had increasingly turned to trafficking of migrants, who were invisible, easy prey.  The overtaxed Mexican judicial system could not keep pace with the number of cases of sexual and other forms of abuse of migrants.

Owing to gridlock in Washington, D.C., more than 10 states in Mexico, and the United States, were cracking down unilaterally on undocumented Mexican migrants and making their lives difficult, he said.  Mexican officials had taken steps in recent months to protect migrants, but dialogue with their counterparts in the United States and Central America was scant.  A recent regional conference on migration in Mexico had agreed on 21 points, but it was largely technical and lacked political clout.  He called for stronger regional cooperation and asked the United Nations to hold a conference on best practices in other places that could be applied to protect Central American trans-migrants.  He also called for steps to improve work conditions for migrants already living in the United States, and a new era in which bilateral and regional cooperation replaced unilateralism.

In the ensuing discussion, Mr. GHOBAS agreed with delegates’ calls for bilateral dialogues to ensure that people on the ground benefited from migration policies.  A more positive attitude was needed in that regard.  But Mr. LAKE rejected the notion that the United Nations was standing in the way of such discussions or simply waiting to take action until the Assembly’s 2013 High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development.

Both Mr. Lake and Mr. Gnesa stressed the value of holding regional forums on thematic issues, rather than one large forum.  Mr. Gnesa stressed that the Global Forum would hold 10 regional forums worldwide.  Mr. Lake said the events should be as practical as possible.

Regarding delegates’ concerns that skilled workers, albeit in great demand, often were not welcome in other countries, Mr. Lake said that in a rational world, those workers would always be welcome.  But the world was not rational, especially in terms of politics.  Xenophobia was common during times of unemployment.  That could be tackled through better analysis and by showing the benefits that skilled migrants brought to societies.

Ms. MANGAHAS said skilled workers theoretically were accepted and welcomed, but lower-skilled workers faced great resistance, despite high demand for their services.  That was where most irregularities occurred.

In closing remarks, General Assembly President JOSEPH DEISS (  Switzerland ) said migration was a global governance issue that required the commitment of the international community to implement better migration policies.  It was not only a question of cooperation; it was a question of co-responsibility.  Evidence was still lacking that migration was good for society.  While it might be a winning proposition, citizens and voters in many countries were still not convinced.  Governments must clarify their official messages and clearly state whether they were in favour of it or against it.  He expressed that such clarifications would guide the Assembly’s 2013 High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development.

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