While human mobility has been an enduring feature of our global history, it is as pertinent today as it ever was. With 232 million international migrants in the world, according to recent figures released by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), migration is one of the most important and pressing global issues of our time.
According to UNDESA, the definition of an international migrant is a person living outside of their country of birth. Migration is often driven by the search for better livelihoods and new opportunities. Indeed, global and regional social and economic inequalities are expressed most powerfully through the figure of the migrant, as one who crosses borders in search of work, education and new horizons.
Many people who migrate, however, have not necessarily chosen to do so. Forced migration is becoming ever more prevalent as a result of civil, political and religious persecution and conflict. In 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there were 10.4 million refugees in the world. There is, moreover, a growing need to understand the important relationship between environmental change and forced migration and displacement, and the experiences of stateless persons.
Crossing borders and seas involves grave risks, with many migrants not able to complete safe journeys. We can see this most starkly in the numerous tragedies involving migrants that have occurred in recent years. As borders become increasingly securitised, the proliferation of recruitment networks that endanger and profit from migrants and the increasing use of private migration management agencies in border control and security are worrying trends. This ought to make us reflect urgently on how migration is being governed in the world today and on the responsibilities of states in this regard.
Addressing the challenges
As societies become more diverse, there are both opportunities and challenges. Experiences of discrimination on the basis of one’s socio-economic, cultural or religious background continue to be commonplace. A priority will be to promote the means for intercultural dialogue and the inclusion of migrants into the economic, social and cultural lives of the societies in which they live. It is also crucial to mention the striking feminization of migration. As women now comprise 48 percent of all international migrants, efforts to promote the inclusion of migrants must also adequately address the particular experiences of female migrants across the world.
There are key ways in which the international community is addressing these challenges. The October 2013 High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development recognized migration as a central part of the international development agenda. Under the heading of ‘Making Migration Work’, discussions revolved around how migration contributes to global development and to poverty alleviation. They also considered how migration could benefit individuals, families, communities and states. Migration will only work for all, however, if greater commitment is shown to eliminating all forms of exploitation and discrimination that migrants experience and to ensuring that their fundamental human rights are upheld.
While the role of migrants in economic development through remittance and knowledge transfers has been acknowledged, recent debates in civil society have emphasized an understanding of migration in human development terms. As the synergies between states, policymakers, researchers and civil society organizations gain momentum, it is imperative to remember the human face of migration and to keep migrants themselves at the centre of discussions.
In order to address these pressing concerns, the United Nations University (UNU) institutes have come together to form a migration research network. The network features migration research experts from different disciplinary backgrounds who examine the complexities of migration at regional and global scales. Current research themes include: the health of migrants, migrants’ inclusion and exclusion from social and cultural life, the consequences of migration on those left behind, human security, migration and development, and the experiences of vulnerable groups such as stateless persons and forced migrants.
The aim of this network is to ensure solid collaborations and the sharing of migration-related research across the different institutes of the UNU. The unique vantage point of the UNU means that research findings will also be shared widely with policymakers and civil society organizations. The launch of the UNU Migration Network’s website promises to be an important first step in the network’s activities to put migration at the heart of research and policy agendas.