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International Migration and Development

Gumisai Mutume

While it is the movement of capital and goods that command the most attention, perhaps the most striking aspect of globalization is the extent to which people are crossing international borders. More and more people are traveling to visit other countries, work, study or escape political, social or economic problems back home. There are an estimated 200 million migrants worldwide.

Such movements pose serious policy questions for all countries, and managing international migration is one of the most complex challenges facing development planners. Skilled personnel, trained at great expense in poor countries, leave for richer nations. At the same time, money sent home by emigrants is an increasingly important source of development finance. In wealthier countries, demand for foreign labor is growing while, at the same time, governments worry about the economic and security implications of migration. Recent changes in the volume, routes and types of migration have heightened its impact resulting in a more focused discussion among governments, international development agencies and academics on the complex relationship between migration and development, especially on how it can be used to benefit – rather than hurt – poor countries.

 In the mass media, the story of migration barely scratches the surface, focusing instead on the sensational. News headlines often focus on border jumpers and electric fences, “boat people” drowning in the Spanish Straits or controversial legislation to keep immigrants out of richer countries. The coverage is often weak on analysis and tends to feed stereotypes about migrants. It rarely examines the causes of migration such as conflict, human rights abuses and global inequality. Important context is often missing: for example, the links between rich countries which manufacture and sell arms to poorer nations, fueling conflicts and subsequently, the mass movement of people from these countries.

Analyses of the links between growing poverty in the South and macro-economic remedies recommended to poorer nations by their wealthier development partners are also weak. How can journalists achieve a balanced consideration of immigration issues and their relationship to development policy? For starters, they can delve more deeply into some critical aspects of the topic, analyzing the “brain drain,” remittances and their economic impact; trade liberalization and labor mobility; and growing calls for an international agency to manage migration.

Brain Drain

For many developing countries, the most immediate impact of migration is the brain drain: the phenomenon of highly trained and educated people leaving their countries to settle elsewhere – often in richer countries. The result is a loss of skilled workers, impeding national efforts to fight poverty. Nurses, doctors, scientists and academics leave developing countries in large numbers, creating a shortage of people qualified to provide even basic services such as health care and education.  As many skilled workers leave South Africa it has became a magnet for the rest of the region so that professionals move to South Africa to fill vacancies created by South Africans who have left their country.

Africa is one of the regions hardest hit by the brain drain. The International Organization on Migration, an intergovernmental agency, estimates that 20,000 skilled professionals leave the continent each year. And the cost is high. In financial terms, Africa spends an estimated $4 billion each year employing 100,000 expatriates to carry out critical functions. And there are deeper, far-reaching non-monetary consequences, such as the cost to development due to the loss of skilled manpower. Consider, for example, the challenge faced by Ghana’s health care system: that country has lost 60 percent of the doctors it trained during the 1980s.

Many developing countries are seeking ways to staunch the outflow of their highly skilled citizens. Some impose prohibitive restrictions, such as adding extra years to medical students’ training, or taxing emigrants when they leave the country. Another, less restrictive approach, is for countries to view emigrants as assets and find ways to use their skills for national development. In a growing trend, developing countries set up networks of skilled professionals who can be called upon to serve their mother country. Instead of full repatriation, some countries are opting for “sequenced visits,” whereby experts, such as medical specialists, regularly return home to provide vital services. Using new information and communication technologies, academics can offer virtual classes to students back home, while doctors can analyze patient information from remote locations and offer expert advice. Countries are adopting many innovative strategies, hoping to lessen the negative impact of the brain drain and actually benefit from having citizens abroad.

 An example is the South African Network of Skills Abroad (SANSA). The network invites South African professionals living abroad to register on its database and contribute their skills and experiences to the development of their country. Members perform various functions, such as training other South Africans back home, facilitating business contacts or transmitting research results of studies that are not available back home. More than 40 other countries have set up similar networks with their highly skilled expatriates.

Things Watch Out For

  • How are these skilled professionals received in their host countries? Do they find opportunities in their areas of training or do they end up wasting years doing odd jobs unrelated to their professions?
  • What are the social and cultural effects, for poor countries, of losing so many skilled people?
  • What is being done in your country, at the policy level, either to lessen the brain drain, or to derive more benefit from skilled citizens working abroad?


Migrant remittances – funds sent back home by citizens working abroad – can be seen as one of the potential benefits of the brain drain. Many poor countries are realizing the potential benefit of these transfers and are seeking ways to use them for national development. In some countries, remittances have become so significant that they have surpassed foreign investment or aid and become a stable source of foreign currency. Mexico, home to the majority of new immigrants to the United States, earns an estimated $20 billion annually in remittances.

In many developing countries, most remittances come through informal money transfer systems. The United Nations estimates that between $100 billion and $300 billion dollars is transferred through informal systems annually, with between $10 billion and $20 billion in India alone. Governments are increasingly trying to channel these flows through official lines in order to earn revenue. The largest informal money transfer methods in use today are offshoots of two pioneering systems: the hawala, (an Arabic word) which was developed in South Asia, and the fei ch’ien, which began in China. The hawala system is widely used in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Some researchers say it was developed more than a century ago by immigrant Indian communities in Africa and Southeast Asia to make it easier to settle long-distance accounts. Others believe it is thousands of years old, originating in Egypt. Whatever its origins, the system is widely used in developing countries. A client approaches a hawaladar (broker) in one country and requests that he transmit a sum of money to a recipient in another country. The hawaladar then instructs a counterpart broker in the recipient’s country to pay the equivalent sum of money to the designated recipient, who presents a pass code to withdraw the funds. The broker receives a small commission (between 0.25 to 1.25 percent of the sum involved). The hawaladar in the recipient country uses his own funds to settle the account and sender’s hawaladar promises to settle the debt at a later date, on the honor system. The debt will eventually be cleared, often through remittance requests in the opposite direction. Under this system, money is exchanged between people in two different countries but cash does not necessarily cross the border and the money does not enter the conventional banking system.

Another widely used transfer system is the fei ch’ien, which means “flying money.” It evolved between 600 and 900 A.D. in China, as a result of growing commodity trade in the country and has developed into an extensive underground banking system linking Chinese retail shops, travel agents and money changers across the world. Some experts believe that the fei ch’ien system transfers more money in and out of China than the official banking system. The transfer of money works in much the same way as in the hawala system, and in a similar way, the brokers keep a tally of debts to one another, checking in and settling up about once a year.  It is swift and secretive, as there is no paper trail and users can avoid currency control restrictions and hefty transfer fees. The system is free, but the shops use the extra cash flow to buy consumer goods, which they sell for a profit.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, there is growing international scrutiny on informal transfer systems because of well-publicized fears that because they leave no paper trail, terrorists can use them. Governments of developing countries, meanwhile, are increasingly trying to channel these flows into official venues in order to earn revenue. Such concerns need to be balanced with the very important economic functions that these systems perform. They are fast, simple and cheap methods of sending money to people who fall outside the formal banking system. Because of this, these networks are often referred to as “the poor man’s banking system.” Operators of these systems are usually not registered and work as part of an underground economy.

Some governments have tried to regulate the transfer networks. Because of the secrecy of the transfers and the perceived ease with which organized crime syndicates can use them, officials in many countries, including Hong Kong, China, Colombia, have placed greater scrutiny on these networks. Others, including Bangladesh, South Korea and the Philippines, have tried to mandate that citizens working abroad send a set minimum of their remittances through formal channels. Yet it is ironic that while some governments oppose the informal networks, they often indirectly promote them through the lack of adequate government controls, or by government policies and regulations such as currency controls, overvalued currencies, high tariffs and transaction costs. For example, if the official exchange rate is overvalued, it can function as a kind of tax on those who use formal channels. In a study of six countries, the UN found that a rise in the black market premium of 10% in these countries resulted in a three percent decline in remittances received through formal channels. A 2002 United Nations report on the subject noted that the difference between the official and black market exchange rate is perhaps the strongest factor determining whether people use the formal or informal system. In some countries, conventional banking systems are too weak to support international remittance services (for example, the official currency market may be unable to meet the demand for foreign currency in the country).

Things to Watch Out For

  • What are the main types and characteristics of informal money transfer systems in your country?
  • What is their impact on the economy?
  • What is the government’s policy toward them?
  • What are some of the reasons for the continued existence and use of these systems?
  • In your country, what is the government doing or not doing to encourage the use of the formal system?

Labor mobility

One of the most visible signs of globalization include the removal of restrictions on trade in goods and services. Another is the liberalization of capital flows. Many of these areas are governed by policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, there is growing tension among WTO countries on how and whether to liberalize the mobility of labor. Many developing countries charge that while their richer counterparts support the free flow of capital and goods across international borders, they are less eager to do the same for labor –which poorer countries possess in abundance. When rich nations do allow the mobility of labor, they often do so only to address their own economic needs for skilled personnel shortages, such as  doctors, nurses and scientists.

Labor mobility is covered by the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) – one of a series of agreements that emerged from the Uruguay Round of negotiations, concluded in 1994. Analysts believe that GATS, some new provisions of which have been undergoing further negotiation, has the potential to effectively regulate the temporary, short-term movement of individuals for work. Although the agreement requires WTO member countries to progressively open up more sectors for trade, discussions on migration have been slow. Industrial countries, sensitive to their electorates, view migration as politically charged and are reluctant to open it up for debate. They are afraid that temporary migration may offer a path to permanent immigration, or that an anxious public may view it that way.

In WTO language, labor mobility is covered under “Mode 4” of GATS, which allows the temporary movement of service suppliers. This provision only applies to specialized workers, such as expatriate executives. In its present form, GATS is not helpful to poorer nations who want such mobility extended to low-skilled job seekers, many of them resident in rich countries from the developing world. In the absence of effective multilateral global agreements, some countries are signing bilateral pacts allowing seasonal migration of low-skilled workers. But as demand for labor grows in wealthier countries due to ageing populations, and supply grows stronger in developing countries, this issue will become even more pressing. However, with the onset of the global financial and economic crisis in 2008, the question of migrant labor became caught up in protectionist and other emergency policy measures related to the rapid growth in unemployment, the extent and consequences of which might not be known for some time.

Things to Watch

  • How do current restrictions on labor mobility affect your country? Your region? Your town?
  • What would be the effect of liberalizing migration on workers in your country?
  • What is the debate on labor mobility in your country? Is there disagreement among different economic and political interests? Who from your country advocates for changes in international agreements like GATS?

International framework

It is also important to examine the international framework governing migration. At present there is no single body that designs policies or monitors compliance.
National governments are reluctant to relinquish formal regulatory authority over migration to a global supra-national authority, even though in an age of globalization they are losing control over borders.

Some prominent academics and policy makers have called for the creation of something like a World Migration Organization. They include Columbia University’s Professor Jagdish Bhagwati and the late legal scholar Arthur Helton.

The Global Commission on International Migration, an advisory body set up by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2003, recommended the establishment of an inter-agency Global Migration Facility to coordinate international policy. However, broad consensus on such cooperation has yet to coalesce. The Commission warned that countries receiving large numbers of immigrants were not treating them humanely. Although many of the receiving countries were signatories to UN rights agreements, they were nonetheless failing to prevent the “exploitation, discrimination and abuse” of migrants. The Commission reported, too, that for their part, poor countries were not doing enough to encourage the return of their overseas nationals. The proposed international body could help states work together to stem illegal migration without violating human rights and or curbing the ability of refugees to seek asylum. Such an organization could also facilitate international cooperation to combat cross-border crimes such as migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

Things to Watch

  • As part of the debate around the need for an international agency governing migration, journalists need to ask what type of organization, if any, is needed? What functions would it perform? Is there need for a negotiating body such as the WTO, or a standards-setting body like the International Labor Organization? How about using existing resources that are currently available? Some have called for the International Organization for Migration to be transformed into a UN agency.
  • If there are large numbers of migrants in your country, how are they treated? What are their work conditions? How do they live? What are the conditions in detention centers and at the border? How well are they integrated into the rest of society? Has this become an issue of national interest? Are there national policies to deal with it and if so, how are they being implemented?
  • What challenges do large numbers of migrants create for your country, and what benefits?
  • If your country sends many migrants elsewhere, what, if anything, is your government doing to bring them back, or encourage more people to stay?

Female Migrants

As women increasingly join the ranks of international migrants, there is a need for more coverage of issues affecting them. Female migrants now constitute nearly half of all migrants. What is fueling this growing trend, often referred to as the feminization of migration? More and more women are migrating independently for their own economic needs. Potentially, migration may promote greater gender equality. Despite this, women are generally invisible in articles on international migration, except as victims of trafficking. More than ever there is need for journalists to document and collect data on female migration, and to put a human face on the phenomenon. What are the gender-specific challenges that women face? More and more women are migrating independently for their own economic needs. Potentially migration may be a factor that promotes gender equality.

Things to Watch Out For

  • What is the male/female ratio about emigrants from, or migrants to, your country?
  • What specific challenges do female migrants face in your country?
  • What is causing the so-called “feminization of migration” (either to or from your country)?

Migration Patterns

Migration is not just a North-South issue, and migrant flows are not unidirectional. Turks migrate to Germany, Greeks to the United States, South Africans to Australia and Malawians, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans seek work in South Africa. In fact, most African migrants do not go to Europe or America, but settle in other African countries. The numbers may surprise many readers. At the end of 2005, the numbers of international refugees had declined from 2001 when refugees flooded into Iran and Pakistan because of the conflicts in Afghanistan and problems in Iraq. But in 2005, Pakistan still hosted more than 1 million international refugees, Iran 716,000 while Germany hosted 700,000 and the UK 293,000. Often it is countries that lack adequate resources even for their own citizens that harbor relatively larger proportions of refugees, such as Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, and Uganda due to conflicts in the subregion.

South Africa has millions of illegal immigrants. There is no official figure for illegal immigrants but the country's Human Sciences Research Council estimates that there are between 2.5 and 4.1 million persons living in the country illegally.

Things to Watch

  • For developing country journalists: How many immigrants does your country receive? Does your country have the economic capacity to absorb high levels of migration?
  • For journalists writing for readers in rich countries, which often have vocal controversies over migration, more coverage of migration among developing countries could help put domestic debates in context.

Illegal Migration

With an estimated 38 million migrants, the United States is world’s leading host nation. Of these, an estimated 11 million are undocumented immigrants, according to the U.S.-based Urban Institute. Worldwide, it is estimated that 15 and 20 percent of migrants are undocumented. Europe has between 6 and 7 million such immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute in the United States.

Undocumented migration presents many challenges to a society, including national security problems, such as crime, and overstretched social services as hospitals and schools struggle to cope with the additional influx of people. Undocumented migrants often do not have access to state programs, and often have no recourse to justice when their rights are violated (most commonly by their employers). In other countries, undocumented migration has been criminalized and “illegal immigrants” are rounded up, detained and deported, often at a huge cost.

As a journalist your responsibility is not only to report but also to analyze, and to engage the public in debate over, migration policy. 

Things to Watch

  • In your region, how are states addressing the conditions that promote illegal migration? Are they providing opportunities for regularized migration, for example, by sanctioning employers who hire out-of-status migrants? If not, why not? Is it due to lack of state capacity or political and economic pressures?
  • What is the debate on illegal migration in your country, and who are the important actors?
  • What are the effects of hard economic times, such as the global crisis of 2008 and beyond, on the immigration debate and policies in your region and in the countries to which people from your region traditionally migrate?

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