Can Mass Migration Be a Good Thing?

Refugees and migrants arrive on Eftalou beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on September 21, 2015. (IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images)

With European ministers meeting in summits this week to discuss the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children fleeing conflict zones and landing on their shores, the conversation among leaders oscillates between how many to take in and how to keep them out. An astounding 473,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea in 2015 so far, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the scale and complexity of this crisis has shocked the conscience of citizens and has shaken institutions worldwide. Both the United Nations and the IOM report that migration has reached numbers comparable to Europe during World War II. Paradoxically, while in World War II the massive exodus was from Europe, this time people are seeking out Europe’s shores as a place free of conflict, violence, and human rights violations.

While some panicked European countries are hastily implementing policies meant to keep migrants contained, restricted, and barred from entry, these reactions run counter to research that shows immigration improves trade, entrepreneurship, and innovation in the host country, and that immigrants claim less benefits and pay more in taxes.

The United Nations has been critical of Europe’s reaction to the crisis. “The European Union should establish a human rights-based, coherent and comprehensive migration policy which makes mobility its central asset,” said UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau. “[It] is the only way in which the EU can reclaim its border, effectively combat smuggling, and empower migrants.”

“We are talking about men, women, children and even babies, who have faced traumatic experiences,” he said. “These are people just like you and me, and none of us have the moral high ground to say that we would never do the same if we were in their shoes.”

Additionally, while migration is often understood as an act by people who are marginal or have criminal intent, William Lacy Swing, head of the IOM explains that in reality, those leaving are often the brightest of their communities, the ones their families can depend on to send money back home.

Which leads to the first of three paths the international community could take to impact the fate of migrants in addition to leaning on countries to adopt humane policies. These three paths have some traction already and have been articulated in other spheres, including the Independent Commission on Multilateralism’s forthcoming paper on the topic, and and the Salzburg declaration, both initiatives of the International Peace Institute (which also publishes the GO).

1. Aggressively counter the toxic narrative around human movements  

A negative narrative on migration persists, even when there is overwhelming evidence that historically, migrants have been agents of development and have enriched their countries of origin, transit and destination. Experts say that the toxic narrative on migration derives primarily from fear;  sometimes, people don’t like to see others that dress, act and speak differently. Others view migrants as competing for jobs and resources. The UNHCR, the UN’s agency on refugees, reports that developing countries host disproportionately more refugees than wealthier countries, adding to the anxiety of smaller, more fragile countries.

In a recent interview conducted at the margins of a retreat of the Independent Commission of Multilateralism (ICM), the head of IOM, William Lacy Swing said, “We need to move the debate about migration from one of common identity to common values,” adding that it does not matter if people are different from you as long as they share a common vision for the future of the country. He emphasized that it is imperative to change the narrative on migration to one that emphasizes the research-proven, positive contribution of migrants to societies. For example, a 2014 World Bank report found that remittances reached $583 billion, “more than double the official development assistance in the world.” Remittances are already a tool that has been used to lift people out of poverty permanently.

Can the anti-migrant mindset be changed? There are recent examples of successful campaigns that have shifted people’s attitudes. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is credited with helping shutter over 200 coal plants in the United States. The United Nations’ HeforShe Campaign is a global solidarity movement for gender equality that is working to change attitude of men towards the equal rights of women. And the Freedom to Marry campaign was instrumental in changing American attitudes towards gay marriage.

While the issue of migration flows is a multidimensional challenge, perhaps it is time to launch a global campaign to change the toxic narrative and stigma around migration. There have been many steps in the right direction already: the IOM has launched a smartphone film competition to gather positive stories about migration, and coverage by The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and other news outlets are publishing stories that humanize the plight of refugees. This kind of documentation challenges the entrenched stereotypes that can lead to anti-migration policies and violence.

Both the Financial Times and Foreign Policy’s blog have published pieces recently that underline this point directly. With the demographic shift in Europe towards an aging population, and the fact that those that make it to Europe and fleeing conflict zones are often the smartest and most saavy—as the FP piece says, “We should all be competing to take in refugees.”

2. Renew political attention in the countries generating a mass exodus

In a recent op-ed, Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, said the world needs to practice “migration realism,” which includes the acknowledgment that migration is as old as our human civilization, human movements cannot be stopped, and they need to be managed with openness and compassion.

This past spring, a request to the Security Council to allow the European Union to destroy unworthy sea vessels before they let hundreds of people on board was not granted. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and world leaders have recognized the importance of managing migration more humanely and compassionately. Yet, the unprecedented increase in the number of migrants reported is creating political antagonism towards welcoming those seeking refuge.

While this crisis is global in nature, the 60 million people current in need of protection inside and outside their countries come from a short list of places: Syria, Afghanistan, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan and Ukraine, according to UN’s figures for 2014. (These figures do not include the latest emergencies of 2015 such as the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh). The massive exodus and human tragedy reported daily should renew focus not only on the humanitarian needs that have skyrocketed but also on the political tracks that could end these protracted crises. Renewing the primacy of politics ranked as the first priority recommended to the Secretary-General in the final report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations.

3. Use the UN’s convening power to bring more leaders to the table

On September 25-27, 2015, the UN will celebrate its 70th Anniversary by launching the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At this global gathering, member states will adopt a comprehensive plan for universal peace and sustainable development which recognizes the “positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development.” The outcome also has specific targets to reduce the transaction costs of remittances. This summit will provide an opportunity for world leaders to discuss the major challenges of the future and migration will be among them. Additionally in the fall, Turkey is hosting the Global Forum on Migration and Development.

It is time to have a high-level conference on the mixed migration flows. The last time the UN had a high-level meeting was in 2013. Mr. Lacy Swing has suggested that the Secretary-General could use his convening power to organize a gathering with all the regional organizations in order to tackle this global phenomenon for the benefit of the most affected people.

No one is saying these things will be easy. However, investment up front in the resettlement of refugees is critical to maximizing what they have to offer.  “There’s not any credible research that I know of that in the medium and long term that refugees are anything but a hugely profitable investment,” said Michael Clemens, a senior fellow who leads the Migration and Development Initiative at the Center for Global Development, in a Washington Post article.

In the end, no matter where you sit in the debate, migration is a defining issue of our time. If we do not establish a sensible approach towards human movements now, we can only expect that it will become more costly and more complex to manage in the future.