Friday, 16 September 2016

UN draft Declaration on migration: A focus on internal migration and the generation and use of evidence are sadly lacking

By L Alan Winters

On the 19th September, the UN will hold a High Level Meeting of the General Assembly on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants. It will be informed by a draft Declaration of fairly broad principles accompanied by two Annexes making somewhat more concrete commitments.

The Declaration makes twelve references to ‘sustainable development’ and is heavily oriented towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The high principles of the 2030 Agenda led to concrete promises only in terms of achieving ‘orderly’ migration and the minor issue of remittance costs. The Declaration takes a more balanced approach to migration, by recognising more frankly the developmental benefits that it brings. However, the Declaration’s principal route to ‘balance’ is to mention almost any idea that exists which pertains to migration. Given such comprehensiveness, it is perhaps surprising that I was mainly struck by two omissions – one conscious, but nonetheless regrettable, and the other (I hope) by over-sight. 

Internal migration
The Declaration states that there were 244 million international migrants in 2015. But we know that there were also probably about 760 million internal migrants. The causes and consequences of internal migration are pretty similar to those of international migration, except that in most countries there is no formal legal barrier equivalent to immigration policies a country’s border. People move to try to raise their standards of life in economic or social terms. Because the physical and cultural distances between origin and destination are usually smaller for internal migration, it is cheaper and thus more open to poorer people. So, internal migration is more likely to help overcome poverty than international migration because most international migrants tend not to be poor in the first place.
The lower cost of internal than international migration also means that people will move for smaller rewards and/or with less concern for the risks - internal migration involves taking a smaller bet. As a result it is not surprising to see that some internal migrants fail to realise the gains they hoped for and face challenges finding decent housing and secure employment. This is no reason to discourage migration, however; rather it calls for policies to ease migrants’ transitions by countering discrimination, making public services accessible even to newcomers, and ensuring that potential migrants have access to better information.

Where is the evidence base?
The unconscious omission is to evidence, research or analysis; none of these words occurs at all in the Declaration or its Annexes! There is a hint (in Annex II para. 4.3) of ‘technical expertise’ being provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and reference to a role for civil society, but these are not commitments to evidence-informed policy and practice per se.

Given our profound ignorance of the process and parameters of migration this omission is rather disturbing. The shopping list approach of the Declaration, which lists nearly all possible migration-relevant approaches and activities, means that there is a desperate need to characterise the necessary trade-offs and priorities in deciding what sub-set of them to actually undertake.

In the Migrating Out of Poverty Consortium we have studied the process of making or changing policy in the super-sensitive field of migration. We find that, while politicians often rely more on narratives and myths than on hard analysis (for more on this see our work in Singapore and Bangladesh). Handled sensibly evidence can make an important, if not dominant, contribution to good policy outcomes. Moreover, in one case soon to be published on our website – South Africa’s Trafficking in Persons Act 2013 – the politicians themselves felt the absence of data and analysis acutely.

For sure, we need to act now on migration and to make policy with the best information we have now, but that does not excuse failing to seek more and better evidence in future. Thus in its debate I urge the General Assembly to make a special reference to undertaking research and policy analysis in migration on a deep and wide scale, not to see it as a mere technical afterthought to be managed by its latest recruit to the UN family (the IOM).

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