News / Economy

International Migration Remains a Bumpy Road

Immigrants working in the U.S. state of Vermont demonstrate at a legislative hearing for equal rights.
Immigrants working in the U.S. state of Vermont demonstrate at a legislative hearing for equal rights.
Terry Wing
This Tuesday, the United Nations and countries around the world will mark International Migrants Day, an event established a dozen years ago to acknowledge the contributions made by economic migrants. This week, takes an in-depth look at international migration from perspectives in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the United States.

People have always been on the move in search of a better life.  Today, it’s estimated that more than 200 million people worldwide are working in foreign lands, hoping for a future they couldn’t find at home.  And the numbers are growing each year.

Experts who study this mass migration are working to convince governments that, given the right policies, they have much to gain – whether they are the country migrants are leaving or the one that is their destination.

Select a continent: Americas | Africa | Europe | Asia | Australia/NZ/Oceania

Migrations from Americas.

Note: migration data covers both Continents but lacks a comprehensive breakdown. Arrows only represent combined volume.

Migrations from Africa.

Migrations from Europe.

Migrations from Asia.

Migrations from Australia, New Zealand and Islands in Oceania.

Data source: MPI data hub

But there are still societal roadblocks fueled by false assumptions about migrants that prevent the free flow of international migration.  Among them are persistent beliefs that migrants are a burden on host nations, even dangerous.
To the contrary, overwhelming evidence indicates migrants make vast contributions – not only to their host nations, but to their home countries as well.

“Immigration can be a force for good for individuals as well as countries of origin, transit and destination,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in commemorating International Migrants Day last year.

“In advanced and emerging economies, they play an indispensable role in agriculture, tourism and domestic work.  Migrants often care for the youngest and oldest members of society,” Ban noted.

On a macro level, policy makers have sold legal economic migration as a valuable tool for development. “In an era of globalization, it’s an economic issue the same as trade and finance,” said Kathleen Newland co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington. 

“Our challenge,” said Newland, “Is to make migration work for developed and developing countries, and to make it an empowering experience for people.”


Dovelyn Rannveig Agunias also delivers this message to governments in her work with Newland at the Migration Policy Institute.  She came to her calling through personal experience.

Growing up in the Philippines, the Agunias’ family had to make a tough decision every migrant has considered.

“As a little girl, my mom came and told us that, because my father was too sick to work, she would have to get a better paying job,” Agunias said.

Although her mother already had a job as a nurse, “She wanted the family to consider allowing her to move to Iceland, where she could make as much as the president of the Philippines,” said Agunias. 

Although the plan was sold as a family decision, Agunias says what was unspoken is that decision had already been made.  It was the only way the family was going to have the financial means to continue.

The thought of leaving home is never a first option for migrants.  It is a last resort.  In her case, however, Agunias found it would lead to opportunities in her life she had never expected.

“Years later, when I was old enough to work, I went to Iceland myself.  I worked in a factory and as a domestic worker,” she explained.  “And the money I made allowed me to return to the Philippines and enroll in college.”

Agunias went on to earn a degree from the University of the Philippines. That opened another door to attend graduate school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.  Her area of expertise: international development.  Her life story has become her passion.  She works as an immigration policy analyst with MPI, focusing on issues in Asia and Africa.

Agunias’ story is a familiar one in the United States.  In a nation of immigrants, the “land of opportunity” is a concept engrained in the minds of Americans.  It’s a shining example for migrants of the possibilities of taking a chance on moving to a new land.
In its 2011 report on the benefits of entrepreneurial spirit of migrants coming to the United States, the Partnership for a New American Economy found more than 40 percent of the top U.S. companies were founded by immigrants or their children.  The list includes some well-known brands -- Apple, Google, AT&T, eBay, General Electric, IBM, and McDonalds to name just a few. 

Immigrants are also behind the success of one of America’s most important industries. A recent analysis of census data in California’s Silicon Valley found Asians comprise half of the workforce in the high-tech region.

Wanting to get ahead in life is a common drive for people around the world.  That drive, and the resulting emigration to foreign countries in search of a better life, has contributed to a world that is increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual. 


The challenges migrants face in their new countries are formidable.  Chief among them are racism, xenophobia and discrimination. There are examples of discrimination, mistreatment and exploitation of migrants reported from every corner of the world:


The United States, the so-called “land of opportunity,” has a history of prejudice against certain migrants.

  • During the 1800s and early 20th Century, both Jewish and Italian immigrants were subject to extreme prejudice, and, in many cases, violence.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 barred Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. The act was not repealed until 1943.
  • Since September 11, 2001, people of Arab descent have been suspiciously profiled for special attention by authorities simply because they shared the same ethnic background as the 9/11 hijackers.
  •  In the recent presidential campaign, the phrase “securing our borders” not only referred to blocking terrorists, it meant blocking immigrants from entering though Mexico.  There was even discussion of building a gigantic wall to keep those of Hispanic descent from entering the country.  No one talked about building a similar wall on the Canadian border.

Human Rights Watch reports migrants face restrictions on mobility, substandard housing, food deprivation, excessive and forced work, as well as physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Nepal this year banned Nepalese women under the age of 30 from working in Persian Gulf nations amid increasing concerns over abuse and exploitation.


Moroccans think “they can do whatever they want to us,” one migrant from Niger recently told The New York Times. “The police rip off our identity cards and arrest us and people hold their noses when they see us.” Police raids and forced expulsions of migrants are on the rise in Morocco, and migrants in Algeria are being pushed to live in dilapidated housing, according to a new report published by the Jesuit Refugee Service. Human Rights Watch says the South African government has taken policy steps that risk worsening the human rights abuses that migrants already face.

Immigrant street vendors in Spain walk along carrying their goods as police stand guard in Madrid, SpainImmigrant street vendors in Spain walk along carrying their goods as police stand guard in Madrid, Spain
Immigrant street vendors in Spain walk along carrying their goods as police stand guard in Madrid, Spain
Immigrant street vendors in Spain walk along carrying their goods as police stand guard in Madrid, Spain
European countries have stepped up border control measures in an attempt to prevent migrants from reaching the continent. Amnesty International contends some migrants are forced back to countries where the risk of human rights abuses, including torture and arbitrary detention, are well documented.



The U.S. government has channeled millions of dollars into programs that combat violence, exploitation, and trafficking of female migrants. The State Department targets six countries in Southeast Asia: Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Human Rights Watch titles its report on abuse of migrants in Thailand “From the Tiger to the Crocodile.” Taken from a Thai proverb, the phrase describes migrants fleeing from one difficult or deadly situation to another that is equally bad, or sometimes worse.


Women and girls make up half of all international migrants.  Experts say their vulnerability to abuse is increased by a number of factors, including a lack of language skills and a limited knowledge of their rights, as well as issues related to gender inequality.

In a report on violence and discrimination affecting migrant women and girls, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says female migrants are especially vulnerable because of the lack of a local support system.
“Social isolation and diminished contact with family and community networks… may increase the likelihood of migrant women suffering from severe forms of violence and for longer periods of time,” the report said.


While it admits the global scale of human trafficking is difficult to quantify, the IOM reports as many as 800,000 people may be trafficked across international borders annually.  It estimates women make up 80 percent of trafficking victims.
Promising work to migrants, “middlemen” use fraud or coercion to recruit, transport, buy, and sell human beings into a life of what amounts to slavery – working in sweatshops, domestic servitude, or prostitution.
Government programs designed to help migrants may actually feed this pipeline.

“Temporary labor migration or ‘guest worker’ schemes, increasingly promoted by governments to fill demand for cheap labor, create a legalized system and structure for employers to exploit workers and increase workers’ vulnerability to human trafficking and other forms of severe labor exploitation, including forced labor,” Neha Misra of the AFL-CIO-sponsored Solidarity Center, charged in recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives.
Though Misra noted there are many ethical labor recruiters, she said too many “charge exorbitant fees for their services, forcing workers into debt bondage, falsify documents and deceive workers about their terms and conditions of work, increasing vulnerability to human trafficking.”


“The price of irregular (migration) is far too high, especially for women and children,” the U.N. Special Representative for Migration and Development, Peter Sutherland, said at a recent conference on International Migration in Reduit, Mauritius. “The benefits of migration are much higher when it occurs in a safe, orderly and legal fashion,” Sutherland added.

“Determining whether migration (is) a positive or a negative phenomenon depends on how it is managed,” Michelle Klein-Solomon, permanent observer of the International Organization for Migration, told a U.N. panel in November.
Noting that migration was likely to increase in the coming years, Klein-Solomon called on originating countries, as well as destination countries to share responsibility.
“Agreements between sending nations and receiving nations have enhanced the protection of migrants, both during transit and after they arrive in the host country,” said the Migration Policy Institute analyst Dovelyn Agunias.
When enforced, experts say international agreements can afford international migrants some aspects of human rights protection.  They often stipulate the wages migrant workers are to be paid, the conditions they work under, their rights to join a union, and their rights in case of disputes with employers.

There are economic benefits for creating bilateral agreements on migration. For sending countries, the benefits can be significant.  Not only do countries find helping their labor force find work abroad leads to reduced unemployment, it establishes an important source of capital.

In 2011, the World Bank estimated legal immigrants sent a reported $350 billion to developing countries.  Across the world, these “remittances” amount to more than twice as much as all foreign aid. The top recipients of officially recorded remittances in 2011 were India ($64 billion), China ($62 billion), Mexico ($24 billion), and the Philippines ($23 billion).

Receiving nations also find that hosting migrants benefits them.  Immigrants tend to fill jobs that their own labor force can’t or won’t.  Labor costs tend to be lowered, benefiting both businesses and consumers.  Host governments find they are better able to control illegal migration. And as previously noted, they benefit from the productive energy of a pool of risk-takers and potential entrepreneurs. 
But these partnership agreements between nations can be short-lived.  They can be subject to political change, making trends difficult to predict. 


Policy experts suggest governments become more agile in dealing with migration issues.
Rather than being locked into one specific policy, migration experts hope that by working with a number of different scenarios, nations will be prepared to switch direction when a change happens.
“Immigration should be treated as an aspect of foreign policy and economic policy reflecting the interests of both source and destination countries rather than as a problem to be solved,” according to the Migration Policy Institute’s co-founder, Kathleen Newland.   
Policy experts urge a long-range view that acknowledges the realities of globalization.

“Most wealthy, developed countries still have higher levels of emigration than developing countries, even as many have become major destinations of immigrants from poorer places,” said MPI’s Aaron Terrazas. “Both emigration and immigration are part of every country’s participation in the global economy,” Terrazas said.
Understanding these tenets is important, the experts say, because one thing is clear.  International migration is here to stay.

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