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UN Meeting Looks to Turn Migration From Burden to Boon

  • VOA News

Migrant construction workers watch an open air movie near their dormitories after a shift at a residential construction site in Shanghai, July 15, 2013.

Migrant construction workers watch an open air movie near their dormitories after a shift at a residential construction site in Shanghai, July 15, 2013.

New United Nations figures say more people than ever are living in countries other than the one in which they were born. That means more people than ever are spending money to leave home, as well as sending money back home. This week in New York, the U.N. General Assembly is hosting a special meeting to discuss how to capitalize on international migration.

For a long time, migrants were associated with phrases like “brain drain” and “asylum seeker” and “job stealer.” Bela Hovy, the U.N. chief of migration, said these labels may apply in some cases, but there’s another story to tell.

“They invest into businesses, they generate trade. When they go home, their experiences and skills can be applied in the country of origin. So we see in many, many ways, these diaspora groups contribute not just through remittances, but also with ideas and all kinds of things that are part of their migration experience when they return,” said Hovy.

Hovy will be telling this story in New York on Thursday and Friday at the General Assembly High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development. He’s meeting with international agencies and civil society groups in an effort to figure out how to turn what was once considered a development burden into a development boon.

“What we really are looking for is that countries identify good practices and share information,” he said.

It's information about how to lower the costs of migration, capitalize on remittances, and protect human rights along the way.

US gets involved

This week’s meeting, the second of its kind, is significant because the United States is formally taking part for the first time. International migration has become too big to ignore.

This year, the U.N. has counted 232 million people living abroad. That’s 3.2 percent of the world’s population. Remittances from migrants sending money home reached $401 billion last year, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And that’s just the money that can be tracked.

Demographic trends indicate that Asia increasingly is becoming a source of remittances, as well as a recipient.

Asians represent the largest diaspora group, and the Asian region has experienced the largest increase of international migrants since 2000.

Hovy says global development is no longer just about the United States or Europe. “In Asia, you see countries such as South Korea, we see Thailand, we see Malaysia, some of these countries that did not attract immigrants or migrant labor a few decades ago are really attracting quite a bit.”

Oil fields are major lure

The oil fields of western Asia are another draw, luring an estimated 13.5 million South Asians this year.

To make the best of the movement, Hovy says exploitive labor recruiters need to be kept in check, and remittance costs lowered.

Migrants can lose as much as 15 percent or more of their earnings to transfer fees. Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, said there are creative solutions to this problem.

“In some parts of world, some parts of Africa, they’ve reduced the costs of remittances down to next to nothing. And they basically transfer funds through mobile devices, like your telephones,” said Papademetriou.

Lowering fees

Once fees are lowered, more people are likely to spend money. And then, he said, the possibilities are endless. “The second innovation is to really start thinking about offering people who receive remittances a whole host of financial services.”

Bank accounts, loans, education accounts, health care.

"Companies that do the remitting, you know transfer funds, realize that if they manage to create a new client base at the other end, of people who will open bank accounts, begin to borrow funds, etcetera, etcetera, that is a much better, smarter way of making money than simply charging too much for the actual transaction,” said Papademetriou.

Hovy and Papademetriou warn that developed countries should not think of remittances as an alternative to international aid. People put their lives and families at risk to earn that money. But they say, once the world starts thinking of remittances as a linchpin to global development, migrants might start gaining the respect they deserve.