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The Best Ideas for Making Migration Work

As the world plans for future migration, it’s important to remember that the benefits are not automatic. Economist Michael Clemens highlights the ideas that hold the greatest promise.

Written by Michael Clemens, Katelyn Gough Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Peeking out from their cramped quarters, three illegal immigrants squashed into the trunk of a car are discovered on the U.S.-Mexico border. Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As the United States is engulfed in an ugly brawl about immigration, the rest of the world is building a consensus plan to sensibly regulate migration in the years to come.

By the end of this year, the world – without the U.S. – will agree on a Global Compact for Migration. This non-binding agreement will not touch nations’ sovereignty to exclude migrants. It will explore ways in which different countries can cooperate to make migration safe, orderly and regular.

In plainer terms, the compact will propose how countries can voluntarily collaborate to keep migrants from dying and keep them from resorting to the black market, while maximizing the potential for shared benefit. It is about how countries can shape migration in ways that work better for everyone.

The U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres just published his recommendations in a paper called Making Migration Work for All. It calls on states to harness the economic and social benefit potentials of migrants, together with pragmatic policies on legitimate security concerns and emphasizes the need for a rebalancing of migration rhetoric.

The report also stresses that creating new opportunities for regular, mutually beneficial movement is hard work. It won’t happen automatically. It requires due diligence for national security. It is made less likely by some politicians’ facile generalizations about migrants.

The secretary-general gets specific about where to direct that hard work. Among other things, he urges all U.N. countries to try out an idea proposed here at the Center for Global Development: Global Skill Partnerships.

A Global Skill Partnership is a voluntary agreement between two countries to shape migration for mutual benefit. It’s an exchange. Firms and governments in the migrant-destination country agree to support training both for non-migrants and for potential migrants – before they migrate – in return for cooperation from origin-country governments and training centers.

Such an agreement gives destination countries what they want: migrants with the skills to integrate and contribute quickly in specific needed occupations. It gives origin countries what they want: job opportunities for energetic youth, strengthened training centers and increased human capital, not “brain drain.” And it opens up a world of opportunities for migrants to make their best contribution and build a future for their families. Global Skill Partnerships could be built for either temporary or permanent migration.

Global Skill Partnerships have never been tried, though many aspects of the model have been shown to work. They should be tried, and the Global Compact for Migration should commit governments to testing them out on a small scale.

This is one way forward for governments wishing to expand pathways for regular migration, but who understand that simply ushering “more migrants” through existing channels is deeply unpopular and insufficient. We need new kinds of migration, designed to offer tangible, visible, mutual benefit. Global Skill Partnerships should be tested as one way to do that.

There is a lot more in the report, which is required reading for anyone concerned about the future of migration. Fostering development, economic and otherwise, is critical in countries of origin and an immense profit of migration. But development should not be misconstrued as a means of curtailing migration. Recent research shows no proven impact of foreign aid on deterring emigration. Increased development assistance is very unlikely to succeed as a broad strategy for deterring migration. Nor should it: Migration is integral to development, and a product of development. While counterintuitive to some, the research is clear that development in low-income societies typically spurs more migration, over a timescale of decades or even generations.

Demographic realities in the coming decades mean migration pressures will certainly increase, including and particularly in places such as sub-Saharan Africa. As Europe continues to age, important ranks in its workforce will leave the labor market. As the working population in sub-Saharan Africa booms, young people – equipped with the right training and skills – can migrate from oversaturated labor markets in their home country and fill critical gaps in the host economies of Europe. That is an opportunity for mutual gain, but realizing that potential will require innovation.

An entire section of the report is devoted to confronting the toxic narrative around migration today, calling for a “respectful and realistic dialogue about migration.” The U.N. special representative Louise Arbour, who has shepherded much of the compact process thus far, has likewise been an important voice for reshaping the migration narrative. While easier said than done in the current climate, the report makes a strong statement regardless of the need for states to come to the table prepared to tackle the reality of migration as it is, and not how one might want it to be.

The benefits of migration are not automatic. They arise largely from how policymakers choose to shape migration. Without innovation to create new and more tangibly beneficial kinds of migration, the world is likely to lurch from one irregular migration “crisis” to the next.

Those interested in a better path should think through the many great ideas put forward by Guterres and Arbour. They should contribute their own ideas as the international community starts finalizing the Global Compact later this spring. And above all, they should commit to trying, evaluating and adapting brand-new ways to regulate migration. The tools we have now are insufficient to the scale of this challenge.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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