The world is now witnessing unprecedented numbers of people forced from their homes. Over 68.5 million people had been displaced by 2018, with over 22 million crossing international borders and becoming classified as refugees. And displaced people represent but a small fraction of global migration – in 2017 nearly 260 million individuals lived outside their country of birth.

People have migrated since the beginning of human history, usually motivated by pursuit of a better life. And while today human movement is at record levels, migration should not be viewed solely as a challenge. It is also an opportunity that, if handled well, will help meet many of the goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders in 2015.

Yet, of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets – covering a range of issues including poverty reduction, improvements in health, and climate action – only one, target 10.7, addresses migration directly: “Facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies”.

Since human movement can both challenge and promote sustainable development, migration should be acknowledged and integrated within efforts to achieve many of the sustainable development goals.

Mentao refugee camp in Burkina Faso. Photo credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermón/Flickr.
Mentao refugee camp in Burkina Faso. Photo credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermón/Flickr.

People migrate for many reasons, for example, in response to climate change such as sea-level rise and extreme weather; in search of employment; or to escape from persecution. Such climate, economic, and political pressures are unlikely to be reduced anytime soon, and good governance is essential to manage the resulting migration in ways that support sustainable development. These critical connections are explored below through three aspects of contemporary movement: environmental migration, urbanisation, and remittances.

Dealing with climate migration

Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and storms have displaced an average of 26.4 million people annually since 2008. The natural disasters with the highest degree of impact are almost entirely weather related: earthquakes account for only 10% of the displacement, with flooding and storm damage causing the rest. Migration due to more gradual processes such as long-term droughts and heat waves is projected to increase in the coming years. And sea-level rise is another slow-burning threat that will force people to relocate. By 2100, it is predicted that 1 billion people will live along the coastal strip less than 10 metres above sea level, making them highly vulnerable to sea-level rise and forced relocation.

Projecting future climate-related movement is challenging, since migration results from complex interactions between economic, political, and environmental factors, as well as other issues. A recent World Bank report suggests that by 2050 nearly 143 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be forced to move within their countries in response to slow-onset impacts of climate change. Millions of others may cross international boundaries.

The media often covers climate-related migration as a crisis. But with good governance, such movement can actually promote progress towards UN goals. For example, as people move in pursuit of decent work (Sustainable Development Goal 8), their remittances – earnings sent back to origin households – can improve climate resilience (Sustainable Development Goal 13) in their home communities through investments towards more sustainable agriculture (Sustainable Development Goal 2). For example, in North-East India, migrant remittances have enabled the purchase of tractors, allowing some households to increase agricultural productivity as well as to accelerate planting and harvesting, thereby lessening the impact of flood seasons on their harvest.

But climate-related migration can undermine other sustainable development goals, for example by overwhelming areas receiving large influxes of migrants, which may contribute to conflict and political instability, challenging Sustainable Development Goal 16 – peace, justice, and strong institutions.

Locals in Tebikenikora, a village in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. When tide is high the sea water very easily overflows the surrounding land making it impossible for people to use this land. Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe/Flickr.
Locals in Tebikenikora, a village in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. When tide is high the sea water very easily overflows the surrounding land making it impossible for people to use this land. Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe/Flickr.

Researchers continue to debate the complex link between climate, migration, and conflict, but environmental factors such as drought have played at least a partial role in migration from rural Syria, Mexico, and Tanzania. In some cases, these population movements have been linked to conflict, in other cases not. Even without a universal link between climate migration and conflict, a dialogue on security issues has emerged around this connection and, in some regions, continues to shape negative perceptions of immigrants.

Climate migration will continue. To leave their homes may be the only option facing residents of low-lying island states, such as Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. But the term “climate refugee” is not yet recognised under international law, so these migrants receive no international support or protection. However, this is beginning to change. At the UN Climate Change Conference 2010 in Cancún, Mexico, nations recognised climate change-induced movement and encouraged national, regional, and international “understanding, coordination and cooperation” in responding to climate-related displacement and migration.

In response to the climate vulnerability of low-lying Pacific states, New Zealand became the first country to propose a special refugee visa for island residents fleeing rising sea levels. We argue there is a human rights-based moral argument for relatively wealthy nations with higher per capita emissions to support those who contribute least to global warming but will be disproportionately affected by climate change. In addition, New Zealand’s proposed action pre-empts a humanitarian crisis that could result in high levels of rapid displacement and less opportunity for planning, likely resulting in greater costs. The climate visa programme would facilitate pre-emptive and voluntary “migration with dignity”, which offers better planning opportunities in receiving communities.

Expanding urbanisation

More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a focus for Sustainable Development Goal 11. At the same time, urban planners face huge sustainability challenges. The planet’s current urban population is 4.2 billion and continues to grow. Projections to 2050 show that nearly 90% of urban growth is expected to take place in Asia and Africa. As former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon once said: “Our struggle for global sustainability will be lost or won in cities.”

By 2050, urban infrastructure across the globe must accommodate 2.5 billion new city dwellers. Rapid urbanisation has brought growth in informal settlements lacking infrastructure, which makes it hard to achieve many of the sustainable development goals such as improved health (Sustainable Development Goal 3), quality education (Sustainable Development Goal 4), and clean water and sanitation (Sustainable Development Goal 6). Planning shortfalls also often increase the risks facing urban areas as natural disasters are projected to become more frequent and intense in many world regions.

Consider the slums of Nairobi. The city has experienced dramatic growth and today has nearly 4.5 million residents – 495,000 more than in 2015. It is estimated that between 60%-70% of Nairobi residents live in informal settlements that have poor access to clean water, sanitation, health services, schools, and social services. Slum residents have worse health than any other group of Kenyans, including rural residents. Although many people move to Nairobi in search of a better life, more households are falling into than moving out of poverty (Sustainable Development Goal 1).

Toi Market in the Kibera district in Nairobi. Photo credit: Ninara/Flickr
Toi Market in the Kibera district in Nairobi. Photo credit: Ninara/Flickr

Policies targeting “sustainable urbanisation” have gained attention. Curitiba in Brazil illustrates the positive benefits of planning for urban growth. The city’s leaders adopted a Master Plan in 1968, which stimulated innovation in urban planning. An example is the establishment of the Curitiba Industrial City, which underpins about 50,000 direct and 150,000 indirect jobs. The city is designated for industrial development but with strict environmental regulations. Thoughtful transportation planning has resulted in far lower levels of congestion, which can improve income generation by freeing up time. In fact, Curitiba’s congestion-related income loss is seven times lower per capita than that of Rio de Janeiro.

Part of sustainable urbanisation is viewing migrants not solely as an economic burden, but also as an asset to the economy, as countries need foreign workers to meet labour shortages. An ambitious programme in Chongqing in China trains rural migrants in skilled labour. The programme is part of the nation’s New Urbanisation Plan – the largest planned migration in history – that fosters rural-urban migration by offering compensation to rural residents for relocation. In addition to job training, rural-urban migrants can receive one-off payments for rural assets and school transfers, and can be prioritised for public housing.

Rotterdam in the Netherlands is also known as an innovator in integration policies. An ambitious “National Program Rotterdam South” targets deprived, ethnically diverse neighbourhoods with initiatives to improve educational levels and housing quality, while also reducing unemployment. The initiative links these three pillars and underlines the need for multi-sectoral efforts in urban planning and in support of migrant communities.

Tapping into the potential of urbanisation can speed up progress towards sustainable development indicators such as improved social, economic, and environmental well-being of urban migrants and non-migrants alike.

The importance of migrant remittances

In 2017, low- and middle-income countries received over $466 billion in remittances, three times the amount of official aid flows. And the money migrants send to family and friends contributes to several sustainable development goals: poverty reduction, food security, health services, education, and economic growth. A global study involving 71 countries showed that a 10% increase in remittances produces a 3.5% decline in the share of people living on less than $1 per day. Such poverty reduction (Sustainable Development Goal 1) is linked to food security (Sustainable Development Goal 2). In the Sudanian zone of Mali – where nearly two-thirds of households experience food shortage – remittances reduce short-term hunger, especially during droughts.

Remittances are also used for educational expenses such as tuition, books, and school uniforms; this cash influx can enable girls to stay in education longer, reduce child labour,and give people a better chance of finding a good job.

Remittances can also improve health (Sustainable Development Goal 3) and education (Sustainable Development Goal 4). Surveys by the World Bank in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda show that 10%-32% of the international remittances are used for education and healthcare. Mexican migrants report that an important motivation for sending money back home is to improve their family’s access to health services, with approximately 6 of every 100 pesos spent on health. Increased use of health services is also associated with remittances in Vietnam.

Remittances can be a lifeline for poor people, but many transfers are subject to high fees. Photo credit: WFP/Giulio d’Adamo/Flickr.
Remittances can be a lifeline for poor people, but many transfers are subject to high fees. Photo credit: WFP/Giulio d’Adamo/Flickr.

Since 2000, remittances have tripled, with India, China, and the Philippines receiving the most – $165.8 billion combined. Remittances are proportionally even more important in smaller economies, such as Tonga, Samoa, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal, where they can be the largest sources of foreign exchange, often exceeding 10% of the country’s GDP. In 2017, remittances to Kyrgyzstan contributed 35% of the country’s GDP.

Reducing the costs of sending remittances is a target within Sustainable Development Goal 10, aiming to reduce inequality within and among countries. Fees of up to 29% are still being charged in some countries, while the average cost is 7.1% – more than twice the 3% target set in Sustainable Development Goal 10. As explained by Maria Quattri, co-author of a recent report by the Overseas Development Institute on Africa’s remittance sector, “Fundamentally, the problem comes down to three related issues: lack of competition, insufficient transparency and restrictive business practices.” Two companies – Western Union and MoneyGram – have a stronghold on the global remittance industry.

While remittances can improve well-being of families back home, migration can also result in brain drains, as skilled workers seek employment elsewhere. A 2015 study of medical students in Uganda found that nearly half wanted to leave the country after graduation. The loss of such highly skilled workers has consequences for development. Proactive policy, such as investments in facilities and salaries, is necessary to stem brain drain and to keep skilled people at home and employed.

Humanising migration governance

Much of the global migration debate tends to emphasise the downsides. But instead of seeing migration only as a threat, the global community should consider migration as an inevitable opportunity. After all, the number-one driver of migration is the search for a better life, and migration has always been a strategy for adapting to change. These outcomes now need to be more systemically linked with an emphasis on sustainability, not least because we can expect rapid regional-scale environmental change that will challenge sustainability in both urban and rural areas.

Consideration of the links between migration and environmental change, urbanisation, and remittances leads to five recommendations:

  1. We need to turn the argument about migration around and consider it a legitimate adaptation by individuals and households. Considering migration as an opportunity can shape proactive policies in anticipation of movement to urban areas. Such a perspective can also inform programmes to improve migrants’ ability to contribute to local economies.
  2. Effective migration governance is needed at the international and national scale and must cross sectors such as employment, housing, and education, especially in light of climate migration. National governments must improve migrant integration to assure protection of migrants’ human rights and well-being. New Zealand’s proposed climate visa programme represents an important step.
  3. Urbanisation is an ongoing process with no end in sight. Integrated, innovative, and proactive urban planning is needed that optimises land use, and minimises transport needs, service delivery costs, and disaster risk while improving the social and economic opportunities for residents, including immigrants.
  4. Global markets are dominated by a few money transfer operators. The positive impacts of remittances must be maximised by increased competition, reduced transaction costs, and productive investments in communities that receive such cash transfers.
  5. To develop effective policies, policymakers, migration experts, development, and global sustainability researchers must collaborate to bring a variety of perspectives to the conversation.

Migration is of tremendous relevance to development priorities. People will continue to move and efforts towards sustainable development would do well to recognise and integrate the challenges and opportunities presented by migration. A more thoughtful, innovative, and realistic approach to migration governance will generate surprising gains in support of sustainable development and achieving the sustainable development goals.

This article first appeared on Re.Think.