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New Economics Foundation (NEF)

Migration and the remittance euphoria:
Development or dependency?

Susanna Mitchell

New Economics Foundation (NEF)


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“The long-term manageability of international migration hinges on making the option to remain in one’s country a viable one for all people.
The Cairo Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by states at the International Conference on Population and Development (1994)

Migration – the geographical movement of individuals or groups of people across the world – is as old as history. War, famine, political repression, lack of opportunity and employment, and severe economic distress have always driven large numbers of people from one specific area of the globe to another, and the intermingling of their genes, skills and cultures has played a crucial part in human evolution. Indeed, in the sense that our species originated in Africa, we are all migrants, and migratory movements will inevitably continue to be integral to our development. The extent to which their impact is or is not beneficial and who precisely benefits, however, depends on the cause, size and pattern of specific migratory flows.

Over recent decades, the proportion of migrants within the world’s rapidly increasing population has risen slightly. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there were 175 million international migrants in the world in 2000; that is, one out of every 35 people in the world was an international migrant. Between 1960 and 2000 the world population doubled from three billion to six billion while the total number of international migrants more than doubled (from 76 million). As a result, international migrants represented 2.5 per cent of the world population in 1960 and 2.9 per cent in 2000. The United Nations (UN) now estimates that there were almost 200 million international migrants in 2005.1 This figure shows an accelerating trend, with the percentage increase rising from 2.1 per cent per year between 1960 and 2000 to 2.7 per cent per year between 2000 and 2005.

Overall this percentage does not represent a dramatic increase in global migratory movement. However, although it is estimated that between 30 and 4 0 per cent of this migration takes place between developing countries and there is a small amount of North–South migration, there has been a particularly marked increase in the number of international migrants from developing to developed countries where the demand for migrant labour is strong. Whereas in the 1970s the developed countries absorbed only half the increase in international migrants, by the 1990s they were absorbing all the net increase, while the number of migrants in developing countries remained virtually unchanged.2 Developed countries gained nine million international migrants between 1970 and1980, nearly 15 million between 1980 and 1990 and over 21 million in 1990–2000.3 According to the UN, high-income countries, which have less than 20 per cent of the global labour force, accommodated over 60 per cent of all migrants in 2005.4 Skilled workers comprise a very large proportion of this migratory flow. In OECD countries, for example, the number of highly educated immigrants from developing countries doubled between 1990 and 2000 (compared to an approximate 50 per cent rise in the number of developing country immigrants with only a primary education).5

As a result, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to the subject, with international dialogues aimed at formulating strategic migration policy frameworks on a global scale taking place in Asia, Africa and Europe. The Geneva Migration Group (GMG), comprising heads of international bodies6, has established regular discussion sessions, and the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) was set up to examine the migration issue and report its recommendations to the Secretary General of the UN.

The outcome has been a proliferation of migration literature. During 2005, a large number of densely researched reports were published, among them the IOM’s World Migration 2005 and the GCIM’s Migration in an interconnected world. The World Bank dedicated the recent Global Economic Prospects to the subject, and the Bank’s Development Economics Research Group also published International Migration, Remittances and the Brain Drain. A number of studies, focusing on particular regions and aspects of the issue, have also been published, and the UN has held around 30 international events to discuss preparatory initiatives for a High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development scheduled to take place in New York in September 2006.

This research, and the discourse arising from it, takes place entirely within a prevailing economic paradigm that prioritises global economic growth, rather than equity and poverty reduction. The cause of the systemic inequality that drives the present migratory flows, although touched on in the literature, is never seriously addressed. This paper draws attention to this critical aspect of the issue, and briefly re-examines the question of migration as part of a call for a more radical and overarching reform of the global economy.

  1. Global Commission on International Migration (2005) Migration in an interconnected world: New directions for action, Report of the GCIM, October 2005.
  2. International Organisation for Migration (2005) World Migration: Costs and Benefits of International Migration (Geneva: IOM).
  3. IOM (2005) op. cit. Note that following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 15 new states were created and many migrants previously categorised as ‘internal’ became classified as ‘international’. These people are excluded from the figures given here.
  4. GCIM (2005) op. cit.
  5. Docquier and Marfouk (2004 ) quoted in World Bank (2005) Global Economic Prospects 2006: Economic Implications of Remittances and Migration (Washington DC: World Bank).
  6. GMG members are: ILO, IOM, UNCTAD, UNDP, UN-DESA, UNFPA, UNHCHR, UNHCR, UNODC and World Bank. The Group examines how migration cross-cuts with trade, development, health, security, crime and so on.

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