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Introducing key global development challenges
Introducing key global development challenges

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4 Migration: a global development issue

Migration - what does that word evoke for you? Why is migration a global development issue?

There is no internationally recognised definition of a migrant. The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines a migrant [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] as ”any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of (1) the person’s legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes for the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is” (UN, nd). Thus, migrants can include those who move internally within a county as well as those who cross national borders, and those with and without a legally recognised status. Determining the scale of migration is not easy due to the fluid and varied nature of the movements of people across places.

A black and white illustration of the first emigrant ship from Sunderland, UK to Australia in 1852.
Figure 8: Departure of ‘The Lizzie Webber’, the first emigrant ship from Sunderland, UK to Australia in 1852

In the 19th century, assisted passage was provided to encourage migration to Australia where labour was in short supply. Some sectors in the UK saw such migration as an opportunity to send the poor abroad and thus solve the problem of poverty in the country (Richards 1993).

Human beings have always migrated. Migration can be seen as a ‘normal’ and long-standing global process, and presents both challenges and opportunities for individuals, communities, and nations.

Yet migration, particularly across national borders, has become a prominent global issue. The right to migrate has been a cornerstone of the international order since the foundation of the UN, but the right to permanently settle in another country is not. Western media coverage in particular has increasingly highlighted what are framed as ‘migration crises’, such as those often identified in recent years along the US–Mexico border and across and around the Mediterranean Sea. Such coverage tends to emphasise the scale of the migration flows, drawing attention to what are generally seen as the large and unprecedented numbers of migrants, and articulating fears of being overwhelmed or ´flooded´ by unwanted foreigners.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) gives a figure of 281 million international migrants in the world in 2020, which is 3.6 percent of the global population. This is an increase from 178 million in 2000. Looking at the data from the other side, this means that over 96% of the global population stay in their home countries. However, migration is not evenly distributed across the world and shows specific geographical patterns. For instance, the 2020 data for international remittances - financial or in-kind transfers made by migrants directly to families or communities in their countries of origin - show that India and China are the top receiver countries with total inward remittances exceeding $83 billion and $59 billion, respectively. Mexico, the Philippines and Egypt are next in line. High-income countries such as the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Germany are almost always the main source of remittances (IOM 2022).

Migration is interwoven with global social, economic and political processes, both influencing them and being influenced by them. Globalisation facilitates the movement of people, but this is not a level playing field for all. Nation states play an important role in determining who can move across their borders and the degree of ease of doing so. Increasingly, technology contributes to exerting such control. The ease of migration is determined by the passport you hold - nationals from developed countries can travel visa-free to about 85 percent of all other countries. Regular pathways of migration are much more restricted for those from poorer countries forcing them to resort to irregular pathways (IOM 2022). Thus, migration becomes a global development issue as it is intimately bound up with connections between people and places, with social, political and economic change, and highlights the inequalities and inequities of the global landscape in terms of privileges and opportunities to create a better life (Mavroudi and Nagel 2016).

In the next section, you will explore the situation in the Greek island of Lesvos in 2015. Examining a specific localised case of migration that created controversy and difficulties for both migrants and resident populations, will enable you to appreciate such situations at the micro, everyday level. Using the four challenges will provide you with a powerful way to analyse global development. You will connect this specific case to the bigger picture of global development, and recognise the messy complexity involved.