The Migration-Development Debate: A Hot Topic from New York to Istanbul

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In mid October, many United Nations NGO representatives converged on Istanbul, Turkey for the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD). The forum, which began in 2007, aims to create a space for governments to engage with each other and with representatives of civil society in a voluntary, non-binding consultation on the subject of migration and the rights of people crossing political borders.

This year, the theme of the forum was “Strengthening Partnerships: Human Mobility for Sustainable Development.” States discussed allying with one another and with other stakeholders (international organizations, civil society, the private sector and migrants themselves) to effectively address international migration. The forum theme also sought to frame human mobility as a positive factor for development.

Among those gathered in Istanbul were colleagues who represent the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and the United Methodist Church. Also present was an ecumenical coalition known as Churches Witnessing with Migrants (CWWM), an international platform for advocacy and direct action that involves both migrants and advocates representing faith-based organizations from various traditions. They have a particular focus on forced migrations–those fleeing inhospitable climates, conflict, persecution, and extreme poverty.

Many NGOs were concerned about the way the member states framed the relationship between migration and development. Most recent inter-governmental conversation on migration has focused on the contributions to development made by migrant workers, emphasizing that their remittances support the wellbeing, education, and purchasing power of family members who still reside in their countries of origin. Civil society is concerned that governments are too focused on the migrants’ ability to send money home, rather than on their human dignity, as the basis for their value and the incentive for securing their rights.

We also fear this preoccupation with remittances indicates governments are shirking their responsibility to ensure ethical development and robust protection of human rights, and are disregarding the extreme sacrifices made by migrant workers. These workers live far from their homes and families—a sacrifice necessitated largely by governmental approval of unjust trade policies and rampant industrialization. We maintain that development must not come at the expense of the family. Furthermore, given the role of family as the fundamental unit of society, we argue that just development cannot be achieved at the expense of family life or without addressing the economic and trade-policy roots of wealth misdistribution that threaten it.

An additional case for responding to mass migration with root-cause analysis and action was made by Hein de Haas, a professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. In his presentation at the Center for Migration Studies’ 2015 Annual Academic and Policy Symposium in New York at the end of October, Professor de Haas described the history of political discourse on the relationship between migration and development as a pendulum swinging between optimism and pessimism.

“Migration optimists,” he explained, view migration from a functional neo-classical perspective as a phenomenon that results in reinvestment of remittances earned abroad to fund modernization, higher education, and development in countries of origin. They believe these reinvestments generate a net increase in wealth and education in countries of origin, which in turn establishes greater socioeconomic equality between nations and decreases rates of migration.

“Migration pessimists,” on the other hand, view migration from a structural, neo-Marxist perspective. They believe it leads to a net loss of educated people and wealth from low-income countries of origin to higher-income countries of destination, creating a system of dependency that leads to greater inequality between countries of origin and destination and increased rates of migration.

While he absolutely maintains that the concepts of migration and development are inseparable, de Haas believes that both perspectives are wrong for viewing migration itself as a problematic phenomenon and for believing that the reduction of migration rates would be a sign of global progress. Migration, de Haas argues, is fundamentally a manifestation of freedom of movement, which includes the freedom to stay home. This freedom is a good thing.

Migration has the capacity to aid or hinder development in a country of origin, but history proves that patterns of emigration that aid development occur in nations where a certain level of development progress is already in motion. Therefore, those at the tables of high-level policy creation ought not to treat migration (or migrants themselves) as problems to be solved. Instead, they should treat migration patterns as an indicator of people’s freedom of movement. Such treatment would mean protecting the right of migrants to freely move, while also addressing, in the case of forced migration, the causes of development stagnation in nations where so many clearly lack the freedom to stay home.


Teresa Blumenstein

Teresa is a second-year volunteer with the Loretto Volunteer Program. She serves as an assistant representative of the Loretto Community at the United Nations.