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Migration and Development: Reframing the International Policy Agenda

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Migration and Development: Reframing the International Policy Agenda

The subject of migration and development is high on the international agenda. It has become a prominent theme in debates within the Euopean Union and in the work of international organizations (see sidebar), and the United Nations General Assembly will discuss the topic once again in its upcoming 58th Session. Thus, it is timely to consider the characteristics of the current policy discussion. What is its scope? Where is it taking place? How does it manifest itself? And what aspects of it warrant "reframing"? A review of the sources noted in the sidebar prompts several observations about the character of the broad discourse on migration and development.

Sources on the Policy Debate
As Kathleen Newland's article in this issue of the Migration Information Source suggests, the discussion of migration and development is wide-ranging. This broad scope is also reflected in the papers from the April 2002 Copenhagen conference on The Migration-Development Nexus (International Migration 2002). Other recent examples of the current policy discussion include the UN Population Division's International Migration Report 2002 (UN 2002), the recent Communication from the European Commission (Commission of the European Communities 2002), reports from the remittances project launched in 2000 by the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, the latest volume of Global Development Finance (World Bank 2003), and various internal UN reports. These are just some of the institutionally based examples of the discussion. In addition, there are a number of studies—published in journals, or in progress—by individual researchers that form part of the discourse.

Overview of Themes and Trends

First, the discussion in the literature tends to be not only state-centered but also developed country-centered. In part, this is a function of the audiences to which these documents are directed, and the nature of the organizations by which they have been commissioned. This is not to fault them; they are doing what they are supposed to do. However, one of the Copenhagen papers poses a trenchant question about the motives of developed countries: "Can partnership with developing countries be real if preventing further migration is the principal European migration policy goal?" (Nyberg-Sørensen et al., p. 49).

The motivation may be unpalatable, but if the intent is to promote greater consistency between migration policies and development policies and to engage developing countries as partners in this process, we may be well advised to ignore the motivations and applaud the objective. That said, the perspectives of, and policy options available to, developing countries are too often lacking in the discourse, and greater attention to these would be a welcome part of any "reframing." Further, at least some of the voices in the discussion of migration and development raise the important point that policy on trade (an important two-way relationship) is critical to development, and a much larger and more powerful tool than aid, so the subject is not absent from current policy discourse. In practice, however, trade policies of high-income countries are too often inconsistent with their policies to promote development in low-income countries, in part because trade policies are especially sensitive to domestic political forces.

Second, the broad discussion also frequently suggests that the subject of migration and development is "new" or has been neglected or marginalized until now. It is true that the salience of migration and development in multilateral organizations and international agendas has grown dramatically in recent years. But this should not obscure the fact that there is a body of literature on various aspects of the subject that goes back at least a decade or two. As we move forward in the policy discussion and in new research directions, we should not lose sight of the findings of previous studies, lest we "reinvent the wheel." Of course, some "old issues" are still with us. For example, we are not finished with understanding the "migration hump" (the relationship between income and the propensity to emigrate). Among other open questions, even if countries are better off in absolute terms (by per capita income and other measures of development), what happens to the propensity to migrate if their relative position with regard to other countries has declined with widening disparities in income between countries?

"Can partnership with developing countries be real if preventing further migration is the principal European migration policy goal?"

Third, there is room for more explicit and nuanced discussion of what we mean by "development." In much of the policy discussion, the term is not operationalized or defined. Recognizing that "development" appears on both sides of the equation—i.e., as both a dependent and an independent variable—a reframed discussion would benefit from considering not only changes in levels and distribution of per capita incomes, but also political and social dimensions of development, including, for example, democratic institutions, transparency, an active civil society, and equitable access to political participation.

Fourth, the integration of migration in external policies and programs, noted by the European Commission as "...a new field of action for the [European] community co-operation and development programmes" (Commission for the European Communities, 2002, p. 18), along with the growing attention to migration in globalization debates and in regional processes linked to the Berne Initiative are likely to open new opportunities for research and insights into the complexities and outcomes of these efforts in the realm of migration and international relations. Finally, new evidence provided by the UN Population Division indicates that 60 percent of international migrants (people living outside their countries of birth or nationality) are now in the more developed countries, whereas two decades ago more than half of all international migrants were to be found in the less developed countries. Admittedly some of this apparent population redistribution is the result of reclassifications following the breakup of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. However, this shift reminds us that the changing demographic factors underlying migration (including changes in rates of natural increase, overall population growth, and labor force size) will require continual reframing of the policy discussion about migration and development, albeit in ways that may not be readily foreseen.

Toward Prescriptive Policies

Remittances have long been a central factor in the relationship between migration and development. Arguably one of the most salient, and welcome, features of the current policy discussion is the participation of new voices from institutional actors, notably multilateral and commercial banks, non-bank financial institutions, and migrants' "hometown associations." Their engagement has led to greater attention to—and some progress toward—reducing the transaction costs of sending remittances, increasing the volume of flows through official channels, and developing new instruments (such as remittance-backed bonds), to facilitate leveraging remittances for development purposes. So, what is there to "reframe?" Much of the current discussion lacks an adequately updated and expanded knowledge base from which to derive meaningful, prescriptive guidance to developing countries about what policies are likely to enable them to make the best uses of remittances. To provide such guidance, we need more and better empirical, multivariate analyses to explore the efficacy of various policy mixes. For example, how do remittance flows, utilization, and effects interact with—and differ under—alternative approaches to macro-economic stabilization via fiscal and monetary controls, exchange rate regimes, trade, and institutional reforms in financial sector and state-owned enterprises? A better understanding of the relationships between remittances and economic policies would help inform the decisions of developing countries and strengthen their "agency" in dialogue with developed countries, although we should also bear in mind that there are, inevitably, limits to what we can expect policies to accomplish.

Maximizing the Benefits of Return and the Diaspora

The policy discussion about migration and development also addresses "circular" or "return" migration, concerning which there are three points that invite reframing. First, one thread of the current discourse focuses on the strategy of linking development assistance to the willingness of developing countries to take back ("readmit") migrants who originated from these countries, when a developed destination country seeks to return them. A recent example is the Communication from the EU Commission to the Council and the European Parliament in December 2002, which postulated that, "...presenting a global development package to developing countries will encourage them to enter into readmission agreements" (Commission of the European Communities, 2002, p. 5). Such language reflects the highly politicized nature of some types of returns and of EU thinking about migration and development. In all likelihood, this approach will not go away any time soon, in part because it is viewed (at least by some) as serving to reassure domestic constituencies that migration is being "managed." But in linking development assistance and readmission, all concerned would be well-advised to study and consider the consequences—at the household, community, and national levels in countries of origin—of state-initiated returns, both planned and unplanned. For example, there are deportations of irregular migrants, rejected asylum-seekers, unwanted migrant workers (such as those expelled from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States), and those suddenly displaced by wars. It will be difficult to evaluate the efficacy of EU efforts to link development and readmission until and unless there is sufficient funding devoted to development per se. Of the 934 million Euros programmed for external aid in 2000-2006, only 13 percent is allocated to "development," and that for only two countries, Morocco and Somalia. The major share of the budget is allocated to "management of migration flows" (read strengthening border control and mitigating illegal or irregular migration).

Second and more generally, in the past various studies have suggested that "return migrants do not fare well in the labor market. In many cases, their unemployment rate is higher than [that of] non-migrants." (O'Conner and Farsakh 1996, p. 23). Given the many forms of return now taking place, from deportations to "brain gain," it is time to revisit the experiences of returnees, disaggregating them by types of return.

Third, the increasing efforts on the part of governments in origin countries to reach out to their migrants abroad raise a number of issues that need to be explored. The subject and implications of dual citizenship are already on the agenda, but there are further, related topics that need to be addressed. For example, what are some of the challenges to governance posed by transnational communities? Do migrants abroad have the same "standing" in decisions about their home countries as those who have remained behind? "Who decides who decides?"


As the discussion of migration and development proceeds, it is to be hoped that at least some key issues will be reframed along the lines proposed here. Within the high-income countries, greater coherence between trade and development policies—and more attention to the implications of the former for migration—is warranted. More and better research is called for to strengthen our understanding of the relationship between migration and both income and other indicators of development, as well as to expand the knowledge base from which to derive guidance to developing countries seeking to make the most effective use of remittances. We need to assess carefully the risks and benefits of various forms of return migration and to address the myriad issues associated with governing transnational communities. Such reframing offers the potential to strengthen the partnerships between origin and destination countries.


Commission of the European Communities. 2002. "Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: Integrating Migration Issues in the European Union's Relations with Third Countries." Brussels: COM(2002) 703 final, 3 December.

International Migration. 2002. "The Migration-Development Nexus", Vol. 40 (5) Special Issue 2/2002. See also The Centre for Development Research (CDR), Copenhagen, www.cdr.dk.

Nyberg-Sørensen, Ninna, Nicholas Van Hear, Poul Engberg-Pedersen. 2002. "The Migration-Development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options", in International Migration. 2002. "The Migration-Development Nexus", Vol. 40 (5) Special Issue 2/2002, pp. 49-71.

O'Conner, David and Leila Farsakh, Eds. 1996. Development Strategy, Employment and Migration: Country Experiences. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

United Nations. 2002. International Migration Report 2002. New York: United Nations Population Division, ST/ESA/SER.A/220.

World Bank. 2003. Global Development Finance. Washington, DC: The World Bank