GENEVA -- The 21st century will be defined by the movement of people from one country and continent to another. The number living outside their homeland already stands at some 200 million, the same as the population of Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world.
Looking to the future, it seems certain that the world will witness new and more complex patterns of displacement and migration.
Climate change and natural disasters will make life increasingly unsustainable in many parts of the planet. The growing gap between the winners and losers in the globalization process will induce millions more to look for a future outside their own country.
These developments have created a number of important challenges for the international community.
The first challenge arises from the increasingly complex nature of human mobility. The majority of people on the move are migrants who leave their own country because they are unable to maintain their livelihoods at home and because their labour is needed elsewhere.
Others are forced to abandon their homes as a result of persecution and armed conflict. Under international law, these people are considered as refugees. They have been granted specific rights, including protection from being forced to return to their own country. The responsibility of UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is to uphold the rights of this latter group. In many parts of the world, however, refugees and migrants are to be found travelling alongside each other, heading in the same direction, using the same forms of transport and lacking the passports and visas that states require them to carry.
Such ‘irregular’ movements have prompted many states to erect new barriers to the admission of foreign nationals. Regrettably, these measures have had the effect of preventing refugees from seeking the safety they need. We must therefore ensure that border controls enable people to exercise their right to seek and enjoy asylum in other states.
A second challenge, and one which falls beyond the mandate of UNHCR, is to provide more opportunities for people to move in a safe and legal manner.
Most states have now recognized the need for goods, services, capital and information to flow freely across national borders. But governments are apprehensive about applying the same principal to the movement of people, even if they have an evident need for migrant labour.
The result has been a massive growth in the expansion of an industry whose purpose and profit lies in smuggling and trafficking people across international frontiers. As well as cracking down on such activities, states should consider opening new channels and expanding existing programmes of legal migration.
In addition to reducing the number of irregular migrants who make use of the asylum system, such action would bring substantial economic benefits to receiving countries. They would gain from the presence of a young, active and tax-paying migrant population.
The forces that are prompting many people to migrate are deeply entrenched within the international economy. It is an illusion to think that their numbers can be brought down in the current and dynamic phase of globalization.
Greater efforts are therefore needed to prevent the emergence of situations where people are forced to leave their homes as a result of human rights abuses, armed conflict or other calamities that their disrupt lives and livelihoods.
If this third challenge is to be addressed in an effective manner, serious efforts must be made to promote environmentally-sensitive forms of development in countries where the struggle for survival threatens to lead to violence.
Above all, governments in every part of the world must be encouraged and supported to protect the lives and well-being of their citizens, thereby enabling them to live a peaceful and prosperous life in their own country.
When people move from one country to another, they should do so out of choice and not because it is the only way they can survive.
António Guterres is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.