Well-managed Migration Benefits Us All
September 2016 | Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)
In 2015 over 98 million people from Asia and the Pacific were living outside their countries of birth, representing 40 per cent of all migrants in the world. In the region, migrants play a diverse, dynamic and productive role contributing to host and home countries, adding value to productive sectors and to the well-being of households and the strengthening of balance of payments.
Migrants fill labour market and skill gaps, bolstering competitiveness and growth. Migration is beneficial for countries facing shrinking working-age populations and it could also play a supportive role in solving youth bulges surfacing in some countries of the region. The former group of countries are demand generators, while the latter, if their skills are nurtured effectively, could serve as dynamic labour supply hubs.
In short, well-managed migration benefits us all. Yet perceptions of migration are largely negative, driven by fears of inequitable distribution of the costs and benefits; migrants “taking” jobs or inducing wage compression. Evidence, however, shows a more nuanced picture. Migration can result in higher GDP growth in countries of destination, increased wages for migrants, and widespread spill over benefits from remittances for countries of origin. The Asia-Pacific Migration Report of 2015, led by ESCAP, confirms that in Thailand migrants contributed up to 6 per cent of GDP – generating close to $6 to $24 billion in 2014. In Malaysia, an average increase of 10 migrant workers is associated with additional employment of 4 Malaysians. In Singapore, migrants have offset the declining working age population, and strengthened public finances through contributing up to 25 per cent of personal income taxes.
Barriers do not stop migrants, but change the way they migrate; shifting migrants into irregular and informal labour, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and locking national workers into a race to the bottom in terms of wages, working conditions and social protection.
This needs to change. As we recognise the benefits we gain from greater freedom of movement of goods and capital, we also need to recognise the benefits that flow to us all – migrants and non-migrants alike – from greater freedom of movement of people.
Positive outcomes are, however, not automatic. In the age of sustainable development, the developmental impacts of migration must be harnessed systematically through regional cooperative policies, with origin and recipient countries partnering to ensure the dignity of migrants, dismantle mobility barriers, upgrade skill bases, and reduce remittances’ transaction costs.
The good news is that this change is coming. United Nations member States have committed to making migration “orderly, safe, regular and responsible” in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This will not mean that borders will be thrown open to all, regardless of sovereignty or security, but rather represents a commitment to harnessing migration and mobility as a normal and beneficial part of the global economy in the 21st century.
Many countries in Asia and the Pacific are already showing the way. The creation of the ASEAN Economic Community is liberalising the movement of skilled service providers, a process I hope will continue to embrace more categories of workers. The Eurasian Economic Union has also taken positive steps to ensure that migrants can move freely and safely, and compete fairly in all countries of the region.
Along with this policy work, however, we must also change the current migration discourse. Inaccurate negative perceptions should be challenged to promote the rights of migrants and create the political space to take measures to improve their protection and productivity. Migration is not a problem to be solved and migrants are not the enemy. If we treat them as such, we will only succeed in holding ourselves back, and betraying our own values.
So let us go forward together, to develop a global compact on migration to help us achieve the 2030 Agenda; to put our promises into practice and ensure protection for all, migrant and non-migrant alike; and, perhaps most importantly, to recognize the social and economic value and worth of migration and migrants.