A Decalogue for the UN Migration Summit

LONDON – This month, for only the second time in its history, the United Nations General Assembly will focus on international migration. The stakes are high.
Peter Sutherland
Peter Sutherland

LONDON – This month, for only the second time in its history, the United Nations General Assembly will focus on international migration. The stakes are high. In the balance rests not only the well-being of the world’s 232 million migrants, but also the health of our societies and economies. So governments should come to New York to make commitments, not just statements.

The first such UN summit in 2006 led to the establishment of the Global Forum on Migration and Development. The Forum was fiercely opposed by some, but it has since proved invaluable in building trust among states and fostering a common understanding of migration.

This year’s summit, however, will be a failure if it produces only rhetoric and process.

Much of the focus in recent months has centered on integrating migration into the UN’s development agenda. This is a crucial goal and will be a headline issue at this month’s High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development. It is vital to ensure that development stakeholders fully understand how migration can help us meet both the original Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals that are expected to succeed the MDGs in 2015.

But, regardless of what happens in the post-2015 process, there is enormous scope for states, international agencies, civil-society organizations, and other stakeholders to deepen their cooperation and make commitments that will improve migration outcomes – both for migrants and for their countries of origin and destination. Here are 10 commitments that governments could make:

Reduce remittance costs. A decade ago, migrants paid 15%, on average, to send money home. Today, they pay 9%, but a target of nearly zero is viable with the use of new technologies. The United States and Mexico, for example, have created a program that costs a flat $5 per transfer. Getting to 5% would save $16 billion annually – which, coincidentally, is the cost of achieving universal primary education.

Ratify the Domestic Workers Convention. Migration-related treaties have been out of vogue for decades, especially among destination countries. But this one should be obvious for all states to ratify and implement, given the horrendous conditions domestic workers often face. And, in ratifying it, states might want to reconsider the value of such specifically targeted treaties.

 Crack down on exploitative recruiters. The fees that migrants pay recruiters can be punishingly high, capturing as much as a third of their earnings. Migrants should not pay anything at all, because employers are desperate for their labor. This area is ripe for innovation that could save migrants billions of dollars annually.

Ensure that migrants keep what they earn. Too often, migrants pay into pension and health-insurance schemes from which they never benefit. Some countries defend their citizens’ rights to such benefits: Four-fifths of Turkish and Moroccan migrants, for instance, take their benefits home with them. But, overall, just 20% of all migrants do so.

Ban the detention of young migrants. Children should not be jailed, except in extreme circumstances; yet thousands of migrant children currently are in detention, including hundreds in solitary confinement. This should not even be up for discussion. If children must be held protectively, they should be in shelters or foster care. And keeping families together should be a top priority.

Give migrants equal labor rights. Unequal working conditions harm natives and migrants alike, allowing employers to pit one group against the other. All workers should enjoy the same rights, as well as recourse to legal means.

Prevent brain waste. Some countries do suffer when skilled workers emigrate. But the failure to create mechanisms that allow migrants to use their skills is causing even greater damage. Trained doctors should not be driving taxicabs. Establishing national, regional, and global standards is not easy, but it is absolutely necessary.

Accelerate eligibility for residency rights and citizenship. Too many migrants live precariously, because they lack residency rights – often despite spending decades in a country. They are frequently hobbled by strict naturalization policies or requirements to renounce other citizenships (which is like asking children to disown their parents before marrying). The best way to ensure that migrants have full rights is to create a clear, fast path to legal permanent residence and citizenship.

Give more responsibility to local authorities and the private sector. Migration is a highly politicized topic that national politicians tend to ignore or exploit. Local authorities, by contrast, have no choice but to contend with migration’s real-world challenges. They should play a larger role in policymaking. Likewise, given that most migrants spend the majority of their waking hours at work, employers have a crucial role to play – whether in helping them to integrate or in protecting their rights.

Engage diasporas. Far too few governments work with their diasporas. Those that do – for example, India, China, South Korea, and Ireland – have benefited enormously. More countries should establish effective programs to integrate diaspora skills and resources into their development plans.

All of these goals are realistic, and achieving them would enhance migrants’ contribution to development and improve our societies. We already have made significant progress on several migration-related fronts – for example, in prosecuting human traffickers. And, over the past year, I have urged states to define how we can better protect migrants affected by humanitarian crises such as civil conflicts and natural and manmade disasters. The US and the Philippines, working with international agencies and experts, have offered to lead an initiative to address this challenge.May this month’s UN summit give birth to many such initiatives.

Peter Sutherland, Chairman of the London School of Economics

Copyright: Project Syndicate