09/2006: Peter Sutherland

September 2006

Peter Sutherland
Special Representative of the
UN Secretary-General for Migration


The UN High-Level Dialogue on International
Migration and Development


Ü Eurasylum Ltd: In January 2006 you were appointed Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Migration, to assist in the preparation of the High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, to be held during the 61st Session of the UN General Assembly on 14-15 September 2006. Your mandate includes, in particular, assisting the UN Secretary-General in preparing a comprehensive overview of studies and analyses on the multidimensional aspects of migration and development, including the effects of migration on economic and social development in developed and developing countries, and on the effects of the movements of highly skilled migrant workers and those with advanced education. Could you guide us through the key issues, and their policy relevance, to be discussed at the High-Level Dialogue, and comment on the importance of this event for the development of sustainable and effective mechanisms to foster cooperation, at the highest government level, on key migration issues?

Ü Peter Sutherland: The Secretary-General’s request that I serve as his Special Representative was both an honour and a challenge of the highest order. Quite simply, I believe migration is one of the great issues of this century. Globalisation, together with advances in communication and transportation, has substantially increased the number of people who have the desire and capacity to move to other places. As a result, we have entered a new era of mobility, and it is essential that we grasp the ramifications of this.

First, we have to put our current situation into perspective. Migration is as old as mankind. Despite the alarmism often heard, the proportion of migrants in the world today  about 3 percent of the global population  is not even a historical high.

But while migration is a constant in this world  and will remain one  there are certain aspects of it that are evolving. Between 1990 and 2005, the world’s migrant stock rose by 36 million, from 155 million to 191 million, including refugees. The growth rate of the migrant stock has been accelerating, increasing from 1.4 per cent in 1990-1995 to 1.9 per cent in 2000-2004.

Migration’s geography is also changing: No longer do the vast majority of immigrants settle in just a small number of developed countries: About a third of the world’s migrants have moved from one developing country to another, while an equal proportion have gone from the developing to the developed world. Put another way, those moving  South-to-South are about as numerous as those going South-to-North.

So, more countries are now significant players in the international migration system than at any time in history. Furthermore, they can no longer split themselves so easily into countries of origin and countries of destination  to one degree or another, many are now both. Countries that are very different in other respects now face surprisingly similar migration challenges, which need no longer divide them into adversarial camps.

Meanwhile, the skills and behaviour of migrants are also evolving. Migrants are not just engaged in menial activities. Highly skilled persons  nurses, doctors, engineers, scientists  represent an increasingly large percentage of migrants on the move. Today we estimate that the number of highly educated immigrants living in OECD countries surpasses 20 million, 56 percent of whom originate in developing countries. Migration is also changing as labour markets and society become more global. A foreman from a company in Indiana resides in China to train workers in new production methods; a professor from Johannesburg chooses to live in Sydney, from where he commutes to a teaching post in Hong Kong; a nurse trained in Manila works in Dubai.

In short, migration is accelerating, it is becoming more fluid, and it is globalizing. Since it occurs not only between pairs of countries or within regions, but from almost every corner of the world to every other, migration requires our collective attention. As such, it was high time for the United Nations to become a more active force.

This new era of heightened mobility and fast-paced change has led to uncertainty among citizens and governments. The Secretary-General’s goal during the Dialogue has been to offer governments and other stakeholders a chance to reflect on the reality of migration. He is seeking to anchor the migration debate  which more often than not is overheated by emotion and rhetoric  in carefully researched facts. Because when you look at what is really happening on the ground, there is a great deal about which we can be optimistic.

Owing to the communications and transportation revolution, today’s international migrants are, more than ever before, a dynamic human link between cultures, economies and societies. For instance, it now takes mere seconds to transmit migrants hard-won earnings to remote corners of the developing world, where these remittances buy food, clothing, shelter, pay for education or health care, and relieve debt. The scale of migration’s potential for good can hardly be underestimated. To take just the most tangible example, the funds migrants send back to developing countries  at least $167 billion in 2005 alone  now dwarf all forms of international aid combined.

Migrants contributions are not only measured in money. Their skills and know-how are instrumental in transferring technology, capital, and institutional knowledge. India’s software industry has emerged in large part from the intensive networking among expatriates, returning migrants, and Indian entrepreneurs at home and abroad. After working in Greece, Albanians bring home new agricultural skills that enable them to increase production. They also inspire new ways of thinking, both socially and politically.

In eight months of meetings with scores of ministers, ambassadors, and other stakeholders, I have grown increasingly optimistic. The potential for migrants to help transform their native countries is capturing the imaginations of national and local authorities, international institutions, and the private sector. There is an emerging consensus that migration can be better managed for the benefit of all.

We now understand that migration is not a zero-sum game. In the best cases, it benefits the receiving country, the country of origin, and migrants themselves. It should be no surprise that countries once associated exclusively with emigration  from Ireland, to the Republic of Korea, Spain, and many others  now boast thriving economies which themselves attract large numbers of migrants. Emigration has played a decisive role in reinvigorating their economies, as has the eventual return of many of their citizens.

Yet despite all this evidence about how migration can contribute to development, at both the national and international levels, there hasn’t been the degree of coherence in policymaking that one would have wished. This is terribly short-sighted. The Secretary-General and I wanted to do whatever we could to jolt governments into action. By promoting the exchange of experience and helping build partnerships, the international community can do a great deal to increase  and spread  the positive effects of migration on development.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Two of the four round-tables to be organised at the UN High-Level Dialogue will focus, respectively, on the effects of international migration on economic and social development and the multidimensional aspects of international migration and development, including remittances. An adjacent objective of the High-Level Dialogue will be to foster the migration dimension of on-going international efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This includes sharing effective practices in the field of migration and development; mainstreaming migration into the MDGs; and promoting adequate M&D indicators. According to a report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2005, however, there is still a noticeable gap in research and analysis on the ways in which migration can contribute to the Millennium Development Goals, and there are no simple cause and effect relationships between migration and the achievement of the MDGs. This is particularly true in view of the fact that the impact of migration on development can be both positive and negative. Can you discuss, briefly, the key areas and mechanisms through which migration can act as a supporting factor towards the achievement of the MDG targets, and the role which the High-Level Dialogue can play in underpinning such a contribution ?

Ü Peter Sutherland: The international community has articulated a very specific set of global targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs make no commitments explicitly related to migration. But several of them are likely to come closer to realization if policymakers take account of and plan for the contributions of migration.

This is particularly true of the first Goal: to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Several robust studies show that migrant remittances reduce the incidence of poverty modestly, but have a much stronger impact on the depth and severity of poverty. Research also shows that migration provides insurance to poor families, allowing them to diversify the sources of household income, particularly in times of adversity. Remittances lift receiving families directly out of extreme poverty, while the broader developmental effects of migration may reduce it indirectly by stimulating higher economic activity over time.

Migration also contributes to the four MDGs concerning health and education. Again, studies show that households use remittances mostly for consumption, but also invest in education and health care. Migrant income is no substitute for national and international investment in health and education systems in low-income countries, but it allows more families to take advantage of the facilities that exist.

More women are migrating internationally today as independent workers, a trend that may help to realize the Goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women. Women who migrate to work in domestic service, hospitality industries, and the sex trade are, however, subject to particular risks of exploitation and abuse that may undermine their autonomy.

The final Millennium Development Goal is to develop a global partnership for development. Here, migration holds enormous potential to extend global partnership among nations into a new arena that promises benefits for states at all points on the development spectrum.

So there are clear and important links between migration and the MDGs. The High-Level Dialogue, beginning with the report the Secretary-General issued in June, has been concentrating the attention of politicians and policymakers on these links.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: According to the General Assembly’s Resolution A/RES/60/227 of 7th April 2006, the outcome of the High-level Dialogue will be a Chairperson’s summary, which will be widely distributed to Member States, observers, United Nations agencies and other appropriate organizations. Could you describe the ways in which this report, and/or other possible follow-up mechanisms, will have the potential to contribute to the long term objectives of the High-Level dialogue, namely to improve coherence in government migration policy making; to foster dialogue between sending and receiving countries; to support Regional Consultative Processes; and to strengthen coherence and coordination among agencies?

Ü Peter Sutherland: Two years ago, when Member States first began to discuss the possibility of a UN debate of some sort on migration and development, support for the idea was mixed. Certain countries were dead set against the very notion of bringing the topic of migration into the UN in any way whatsoever. In fact, more than a few observers predicted that the High-Level Dialogue would be the end of the migration debate at the UN.

We have come a long way since then. In fact, I am certain that the Dialogue will be the beginning of the UN’s involvement with migration and development, rather than the final act. Already, interest in the Dialogue is overwhelming: Over 100 Member States have signed up to participate, the lion’s share of them at ministerial level. And there is growing momentum behind the idea of creating a Global Forum on Migration and Development, which would be a way to continue this dialogue on a permanent basis.

Why this turnaround? There tends to be a reflexive fear on the part of governments in discussing migration. Migration is normally debated in national terms on the basis of how many immigrants we are keeping out. Since it is such a potentially explosive issue domestically, policymakers are reluctant to bring migration to the international level.

But the Secretary-General and I have tried to shift the focus from fear to opportunity. No one can gloss over or deny that migration has negative aspects  trafficking, smuggling, social discontent  or that it often arises from poverty or political strife. However, as a basis for improving international cooperation  and in order to prevent states from shrinking into their respective corners  we have been emphasizing three messages:

First, that it is essential for governments to fully understand the ways in which migration can advance their development goals; this holds for both source and receiving countries, since even developed countries have economic, social, and cultural ambitions that can be abetted by migration. Once they understand where the opportunities lie, they need to organize themselves their cabinets, their bureaucracies  to take advantage of them.

Second, that governments need to find a way to discuss migration that is not threatening to them. It is clear that making migration the subject of formal, norm-setting negotiations is not acceptable to most countries. There is no appetite for a World Migration Organization. Instead, we have argued for a voluntary, informal, consultative process that is non-binding and takes place in a collegial and trusting environment.

And finally, we believe that the basis for improved international cooperation is for states to begin by discussing the positive aspects of migration. There are certain issues that are inherently divisive; given that states still consider migration to be an area of strict sovereignty, it is simply not productive to focus on these. Instead, we should start by seeing how we can make the most of migration: For instance, by reducing the barriers to remittances. Or by building partnerships that bring high-quality education to the developing world. Or by learning from each other how we can better manage our diasporas. The list of such constructive issues issues on which nearly all states can agree they have something to gain and little to lose is a very long one.

These arguments, I believe, have helped to catalyze a promising response from governments. In his report on migration and development, issued last June, the Secretary-General called on states to consider creating a Global Forum on Migration and Development. Over the course of the summer, a dozen or so countries have taken up this call and sketched the outlines of how this Forum might function. I believe that their proposal, though still evolving, could very well garner the support of a great many states, and that the Forum could be inaugurated in 2007.

This would be a tremendous tribute to the Secretary-General’s profound commitment to migration. And it would also mark a sea change in the willingness of governments to address this complicated, volatile issue in a thoughtful, constructive fashion. For far too long, we have been making migration policy based on hunches, anecdotes, and political expediency. It is now time to turn to the evidence and use it to build a common understanding of how we can all gain more from migration.