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5 steps to a more informed debate on migration

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In observance of the International Migrants Day, Dec 18

Today is International Migrants Day. It comes at the end of a year of mixed messages. On the one hand, economists at University College London demonstrated that migrants to the UK made a net fiscal contribution of £20 billion between 2000 and 2011; on the other hand more and more voters turned to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party, and the coalition government is considering restricting immigration from EU countries.

While the UN Refugee Agency reported the highest number of refugees and other people of concern since the end of the Second World War, countries around the world, from Australia through Denmark to the United States, enacted policies to limit asylum and reduce the rights of refugees.

In Switzerland in February, voters narrowly passed the federal popular initiative “against mass migration”; in November they convincingly rejected a proposal to further restrict immigration.

Asylum seekers were rescued from the Mediterranean by Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum, but turned away in the Indian Ocean by Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders.

The World Bank demonstrated that migrants send home more than $400 billion each year and that these remittances help lift people, families and entire communities out of poverty; and yet migration is not currently included in the proposed Sustainable Development Goals.

The list goes on; a casual observer would be forgiven for being confused. Are migrants a benefit or a burden? Should states welcome asylum seekers or send them home? Who is a refugee and why are there so many?

Much is required to begin to answer these questions: a clearer understanding of the differences between types of migrants and the rights that pertain to them; acknowledgement of the wider political and economic context in which voters are making decisions; resolving the tensions between national interests and international solidarity; and so on.

But at heart, what is required is a more informed debate on migration. To achieve this, we need to take at least five steps.

  1. There needs to be robust evidence on migration, on its impact and the effectiveness of policies. Often, the problem is less a lack of evidence, than the dissemination of existing evidence. Researchers need to do more to package their findings in a policy-accessible manner; and policy-makers need to listen more.
  2. States require a safe space to discuss international migration. International organizations, civil society and advocates are right to hold governments to account, but governments still need to govern. Space is required to share data, information and best practices, both to foster international cooperation and to improve national policies.
  3. Just as importantly, new perspectives on migration are required. The private sector has a particular role to play. International migration is no longer just between a migrant and the state: recruiters, relocation agents, lawyers and employers are all an integral part of the process, too.
  4. It is important to engage with another important actor, the media, which in many countries is driving the agenda on international migration. How to promote more responsible media coverage of migration is a vexing issue: one answer is to employ more journalists with a migrant background, but another is to understand the media agenda and engage with it.
  5. Finally, it is important that the debate on migration starts at the right point. All migrants have rights that must be respected. Migration is overwhelmingly positive for the global economy. Well-managed migration benefits states and citizens. Migration cannot be stopped.

The Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration has a New Year’s resolution: to help inform the debate on international migration. We will continue to support the World Bank Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD); contribute to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in Turkey in 2015 and Bangladesh in 2016; use our unique collection of influential global voices, from government, civil society, academia, international organizations and business; and continue to participate in public events such as Davos and other Forum events, using social media and websites such as this.

Hopefully, by 18 December 2015 we will have been able to remove some of the noise from the migration debate, and focus instead on the key signals.

Reposted from the World Economic Forum blog


Khalid Koser

Deputy Director and Academic Dean, Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva

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