We should welcome the dawn of the migration age

By Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations (THE GUARDIAN, 10/07/07):

It is a commonplace to say that we live in a globalised world. Less well understood is that globalisation is taking place in stages. We are in the second: the age of mobility. In its first stage, as flows of capital and goods were liberated, the benefits of globalisation flowed primarily to the developed world and its principal trading partners, among them Brazil, China and India. As we enter the age of mobility, people will cross borders in ever greater numbers in pursuit of opportunity and a better life. They have the potential to chip away at the vast inequalities that characterise our time, and accelerate progress throughout the developing world.

To take just one example: last year migrants sent home £131bn, three times all international aid. In some countries, a third of families rely on these remittances to keep them out of poverty. Across the developing world, remittances underwrite healthcare, education and grassroots entrepreneurship.

The freer movement of people oils the global economy. When a hospital in London needs nurses, it recruits from Ghana or Sierra Leone. When Google seeks programmers, developing nations are often the source. Until now, this flow has mostly benefited richer countries and generated worries about a brain drain in poorer ones. But our knowledge is growing about how to make the migration equation work for everyone.

Yet rather than looking at potential developmental gains from migration, governments have been slow to adapt. The result is accelerating illegal migration, social tension, discrimination, loss of faith in government and empowerment of criminal networks. Earlier eras witnessed migration on a similar scale. At the turn of the 20th century, approximately 3% of the world’s population was on the move. A hundred years later, the United Nations estimates that there are 191 million international migrants, a roughly similar ratio. And this number is growing. A new OECD report says that developed countries saw permanent migration rise in 2005 at an annual rate of about 10%.

Today migrants move quickly and easily thanks to low-cost transportation. The internet, affordable telephony and satellite television keep them in constant touch with home. Banks instantly transmit hard-won earnings to their families. Globalisation, meanwhile, has radically transformed our labour markets, while growing economic inequality (together with natural and man-made crises) prompts more emigration. It is this fluid tableau that makes ours the age of mobility.

Almost all these changes can be harnessed to reduce poverty and inequality. Remittances are a case in point. Until just a few years ago, migrants were paying exorbitant fees to send money home, losing as much as 20% in transaction costs. But then governments, civil society and the private sector mobilised to drive down those costs. The British government, for instance, stoked competition by setting up a website (https://www.fxcompared.com/) that allowed users to compare transaction costs. Banks created prepaid and debit cards specifically for migrants and their families. Mobile phone companies are introducing technologies that allow money to be transferred by phone.

These innovations underscore migration’s potential to contribute to development. Last September, for the first time in its history, the UN held a migration summit. Many predicted that developed and developing countries would come to blows – the latter would decry the brain drain and the violation of migrant rights, and the former would simply walk out of the room. Instead, more than a hundred countries engaged in a constructive exchange. The experience was so positive that they embraced a proposal championed by my predecessor to create a Global Forum on Migration and Development. The inaugural forum began yesterday in Brussels, with some 800 delegates from more than 140 countries.

The global forum represents an important first step in our efforts to harness the power of migration to advance development. We will learn of efforts such as IntEnt, in the Netherlands, which has helped migrants to establish some 200 businesses in their native countries; of microbanks in Mexico that allow local communities to leverage remittances for investment in education, health and business; of the UK/South Africa international code of practice on the ethical recruitment of health workers; and of how dual citizenship laws ease the way for migrants to play a bigger role in development by bringing their capital, knowledge, and networks back home.

We cannot hide from the fact that migration can have negative consequences. The global forum on migration provides an opportunity to address these problems in a comprehensive and proactive way, so that the benefits of migration are fully realised both in developing and industrialised countries. The keys to making this happen are fundamental to our shared global humanity: tolerance, social acceptance, education and mutual openness to cultural differences.

Migration can be an enormous force for good. If we follow the evidence, and begin a rational, forward-looking conversation about how to better manage our shared interests, we can together help to usher in the third stage of globalisation – a long-awaited era where more people than ever before begin to share in the world’s prosperity.