244 Million on the Move and Counting: Five Ways to Understand the Dynamics of Migration

Detail from a mural in Paris. Photo by: Jeanne Menjoulet.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) present an ambitious opportunity to address global issues of poverty, violence, and environmental degradation. In recognition of the interrelated challenges posed by inequality, instability, and ecological threats, the SDGs address 17 areas the international community has committed to improving in order to foster greater global stability. Key to addressing some of these issues (such as peace and economic development) is tackling the many challenges posed when people feel compelled to leave their homes due to poverty or conflict, among other reasons. Mixed migration—both regular and irregular—takes many forms, including climate- or conflict-induced displacement, economic migration, asylum-seeking, forced labor, smuggling, or human trafficking.

Given the variety of reasons and pathways by which people move, as well as their impact on transit and destination countries, this blog series looks at international mixed migration from different governance angles. Some of the blogs in this series will even go beyond the traditional ways that migration intersects with economic growth, security, and development and focus on the gendered aspects of mixed migration, maritime-based migration, and perceptions of host communities. The recent media coverage of the Mediterranean migration crisis is just a snapshot of what happens elsewhere. And precisely because of its relevance to security and stability, it is important to understand how events onshore have an impact offshore, and vice versa.

Migration at the nexus of policy and development

Unsurprisingly, the multifaceted nature of migration requires a collaborative response. On the global level, a first step was to anchor mixed migration in the United Nations’ development framework. Indeed, eight out of seventeen SDGs deal with aspects of migration. And while the United Nations is working toward closer collaboration among its agencies, the Secretary-General points out that “there is still no centralized capacity in the United Nations to deal with migration.” In other words, the approach to migration is still fragmented and hinges on individual rather than collective responses.

But it is important to look at particular, regional dynamics to ensure responses are adequately tailored to the needs of both the host communities and the people moving within and across their borders. To address piracy in Somali waters, for example, coordinated efforts that brought together multiple stakeholders were an effective way to respond to security challenges. While efforts in Somalia were heavily built on security, the SDGs provide an opportune moment to connect the dots and develop systems to address mixed migration in a comprehensive manner.

What is missing in the debates, though?

If the situation in the Mediterranean has shown one thing, it is the volatility of singling out one problem. For example, securitizing migration has not stopped migration. On the contrary, it has altered the means by which people move, often at great personal risk. That’s because traditionally, the international community has viewed migration primarily through the prism of legal and safe migration, which understands the movement of people based on the binary distinction of regular versus irregular migration.

In the meantime, however, many international migrants struggle to survive in the interstices of this security paradigm; stuck in transit countries, many migrants are rendered vulnerable due to abuse and exploitation. This is especially the case for those migrants who travel on routes that lead them through conflict-affected countries. One of the key findings of One Earth Future’s Stable Seas project on maritime mixed migration highlighted that conflict actually enables smuggling networks to thrive. Given this predicament, a recent report by the International Organization for Migration realistically stated that “the complex dynamics of global migration can never be fully measured, understood or regulated.”

Who are the actors?

Part of the problem is the lack of a regulatory, coordinating body. The United Nations is developing a global compact that aims at aligning the work of different agencies and institutions to address mixed migration more holistically. This will become especially important in light of the ever-changing dynamics of migration.

For example, climate change continues to impact the movement of people, at times exacerbating the underlying factors that drive people to move in the first place. In fact, according to a recent United Nations document, migration is less and less about choice than it is about survival. While international mixed migration is not a new phenomenon, recent estimates by the United Nations indicate that “the total number of international migrants has grown by 49 per cent since 2000.” Of these millions of people, 52 percent are male, while 48 percent are female.

All these facts underscore the importance of looking at mixed migration from multiple angles and casting a wide net of actors to address each aspect, without emphasizing one issue at the expense of another. The Secretary-General rightfully stated in his recent report, “There is no one single answer, just as there is not one singular problem to solve.”

Where to next, then?

In our efforts to address mixed migration, it is important to take account of the very people who are affected. And that includes host communities as much as the migrants themselves. International mixed migration is not just about the provision of legal pathways for and protection of migrants but also about understanding the dual challenge of what migration means for countries of origin. For example, a recent news article on Burkina Faso highlighted that while “increasing prosperity at home may encourage some people to stay, it also enables many more to leave” because the net benefits of economic opportunities in destination countries are far greater, especially for an otherwise disenfranchised youth population.

At the same time, economically deprived and struggling communities, especially in urban centers, need to be addressed. But pumping in millions of dollars in the form of aid or increasing security in order to curb migration no longer seem to be viable solutions because they work in isolation. Moving forward, we need, first, to do a better job at collecting data and, second, to share information. Lastly, we need to come together and coordinate our efforts. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework that lays out both the challenges and the benefits of mixed migration. In the end, we live in a globalized world. People will continue to be on the move. We just need to make sure we recognize, protect, and enable them for both their and our own benefit.