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DEVELOPMENT: Migrants Give More than They Take, Says U.N.

Suzanne Hoeksema

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 5 2009 (IPS) - Often vilified and mistreated, migrant workers benefit both the countries they move to and the ones they leave behind, says the latest Human Development Report released Monday.

The perceived negative burden of migrants on host societies does not correspond to reality, according to the report, produced annually by the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

The key message of the 217-page report is that large gains to human development can be achieved by lowering the barriers to movement and improving the treatment of migrant workers.

The report stresses that many people in developing countries have few other options than moving away from their homes to improve their lives, and migration can be hugely effective in raising a person's income, health and education prospects.

The study estimates that "approximately 740 million people are internal migrants, which is almost four times as many as those who have moved internationally."

And among those who have moved across national borders, "only one third moved from a developing country to a developed country". Nearly half of this group are women.

First published in 1990, the Human Development Report (HDR) puts forth an "agenda-setting analysis" and "calls international attention to issues that put people at the centre of strategies to meet the challenges of development today".

Having focused on climate change and the global water crisis in earlier editions, this year's report highlights the topic of migration for the first time.

Speaking to IPS from Geneva, Jean-Paul Chauzy, head of media at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – one of the contributors to the report – welcomed the "essential and extremely timely message in light of the current recession that has led many countries to raise rather than lower barriers to mobility".

Although discussions about migration often focus on people from the developing South who migrate to the developed North, the overwhelming majority of the people who move do so inside their own country.

Interestingly, new destination countries – or urban hubs within countries – have begun to emerge in the South, as migration flows from Central American countries to Costa Rica and from South East Asian countries to Thailand suggest.

The report shows that the poor have the most to gain from migration, but they are also the least mobile – less one percent of Africans have moved to Europe.

The overall evidence, both historical and contemporary, suggests that development and migration go hand in hand.

Director of the HDR division of UNDP, Jeni Klugman, noted that the border between the United States and Mexico does not only divide two states but also marks a significant scale difference on the Human Development Index (HDI): the lowest HDI in a United States border county [Starr County, Texas] is above even the highest on the Mexican side [Mexicali Municipality, Baja California].

The HDI measures the average achievements in a country using three basic indicators: life expectancy, adult literacy and school enrolment, as well as per capita GDP.

The report notes that migrants' gains are often shared with their families and communities at home.

"In many cases this is in the form of cash – remittances – but the families of migrants may benefit in other ways too. These 'social remittances', as they are called, include reductions in fertility, higher school enrolment rates and the empowerment of women," it says.

This year's HDI list of 183 countries is similar to last year – at the top are Norway, Australia and Iceland, while the bottom three are Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Niger. However, the data from 2007 do not include the effects of the financial crisis.

The HDR proposes a "core package" of reforms that aims to turn human mobility into an integral part of national development strategies, including liberalisation and simplification of legal channels for both internal and international migration that allow more people with low skills to seek work in better off places.

Flexible regulations have already been put in place in New Zealand and Canada where well-designed seasonal migrant programmes for the agricultural sector proved successful.

The high and often disproportionate administrative transaction costs associated with migration – to move from Vietnam to Japan is six times the annual income per capita – can have the unintended effect of encouraging illegal border crossings and human trafficking, which poses a particular threat for the security of women and children.

These costs, states the report, need to be reduced and at the same time benefits for both migrants and destination communities need to be improved.

The violation of migrants' human rights, among with limited access to health services and widespread discrimination, remain a problem in many destination countries and need to be dealt with more seriously by governments, civil society and labour unions, the report urges.

Migrants face particular challenges in the current economic climate, the report says.

Just as economies tend to invite migrants in times of labour shortages, they tend to lay off migrants first during recessions, most prominently in the current crisis in the United States, Russia and Germany.

For example, in countries like United States or Thailand, migrants can easily find ad hoc employment, but they lack access to basic services and risk deportation.

So what are the implications of the Human Development Report? A carte blanche for all those who seek to migrate?

UNDP acknowledges the controversy posed by the burden that migrants can impose on local workers by filling vacant jobs, and other concerns like the heightened risk of crime and the fear of losing and cultural cohesion.

Other problems include "brain drain" in home countries and a lack of determination to solve domestic problems first.

However, Klugman, in a briefing to reporters last week, said that research has found that "these concerns are often exaggerated by politicians".

The large body of evidence suggests that "negative effects are generally small and may, in some contexts, be entirely absent", she said.

Taking the human perspective, Klugman argued that the HDR aims to analyse how people can maximise their gains.

On the one hand, migrants – low as well as high skilled – make a positive contribution to the host country's economy, and on the other hand, they often become the main investors in their countries of origin, even when it is hit by financial crisis or natural disaster, Klugman said, thereby forming a development buffer that protects national economies.

The IOM believes that the report is "innovative in its approach" by placing human choices and freedoms at the centre of the analysis of human mobility.

Chauzy also considered the report a "powerful reminder that current restrictions to migration can be harmful to human development" while reinforcing the IOM's long-held belief "that migration can and should be managed for the benefit of all".

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