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Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility & Development
December 03, 2009

Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility & Development
Courtesy of UNDP
(Bangkok) – Allowing for migration, both within and between countries, has the potential to increase people’s freedom and improve the lives of millions around the world, according to the 2009 Human Development Report released by the UNDP. 

We live in a highly mobile world, where migration is not only inevitable but also an important dimension of human development. Nearly one billion — or one out of seven — people are migrants. The Report, Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development, demonstrates that migration can enhance human development for the people who move, for the communities they move to and for those who remain at home. 

“Migration can be a force for good, contributing significantly to human development,” says UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. “But to realize its benefits, there needs to be a supportive policy environment as this report suggests.” 

Indeed, migration can raise a person’s income, health and education prospects. Most importantly, being able to decide where to live is a key element of human freedom, according to the report, which also argues that large gains in human development can be achieved by lowering barriers and other constraints to movement and by improving policies towards those who move. 

Migration often liberates women and leads to significant gains in their income, levels of empowerment and education. But for too many women migration also presents risks of exploitation and harsh conditions, according to the report. 

“Equal opportunities along with rights and safeguards for women must be included in migration policy reforms in both developed and developing countries,” says the report’s lead author Jeni Klugman.

Obstacles and barriers

Women face many obstacles to migration and experience a number of dangers when they do migrate. For example, more than 20 countries do not allow women to apply for passports on their own while others, including Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, restrict the exit of women. When women do manage to migrate, some destination countries exclude migrant women from normal worker protections. For example, if a single female migrant in the Gulf Cooperation Council States becomes pregnant, she is deported. 

The most atrocious cases arise where promises of well-paid jobs abroad may lure women into a trafficking network. Victims may be stripped of their travel documents and isolated, making escape difficult. They may end up in debt bondage in places where language, social and physical barriers frustrate their efforts to seek help. With their irregular status, such migrants are usually reluctant to identify themselves because they risk legal sanctions or criminal prosecution. 

Extending the same rights of protection to these women that are already available to citizens and authorized migrants would help prevent and prosecute such crimes. Anti-trafficking enforcement has burgeoned in recent years and is an important avenue for protecting the rights of migrants. Effective ways to tackle trafficking are by educating migrant women about the dangers of human trafficking, giving them ways to seek help and improving their economic opportunities and status in their places of origin. 

Overcoming barriers provides a robust case for removing the obstacles that exacerbate inequalities and unfair work practices. It finds that reforms in this direction would give all migrants greater opportunities and protections, especially women. The report lays out a core package of policy reforms which stress protecting rights for migrants and ensuring benefits for migrants and destination communities alike, aiming to make it easier for people to move within their own countries. The report also recommends mainstreaming migration into national social and economic development strategies.

Challenging common misconceptions

The findings in this report cast new light on some common misconceptions. Most migrants do not cross national borders, but instead move within their own country: 

740 million people are internal migrants, almost four times the number of international migrants. Among international migrants, less than 30 percent move from developing to developed countries. For example, only three percent of Africans live outside their country of birth. 

Contrary to commonly held beliefs migrants typically boost economic output and give more than they take. Detailed investigations show that immigration generally increases employment in host communities, does not crowd out locals from the job market and improves rates of investment in new businesses and initiatives. Overall, the impact of migrants on public finances — both national and local — is relatively small, while there is ample evidence of gains in other areas such as social diversity and the capacity for innovation. 

In terms of international migration, the report does not advocate wholesale liberalization, since people at destination places have a right to shape their societies; but it argues that there is a strong case for increased access for sectors with a high demand for labor, including for the low-skilled. This is particularly important for developed countries because their populations are ageing—and this may increase the demand for migrant workers. 

Easing access and reducing the cost of official documents are other important steps towards lowering the barriers to legal migration. Rationalizing such “paper walls” will help stem the flow of irregular migrants, the Report argues, as people find it easier and less expensive to use legal channels. 

Overcoming barriers calls on receiving countries to take steps to end discrimination against migrants. The report stresses the importance of addressing the concerns of local resi

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