High Level Dialogue Civil Society meeting, July 2013 (Photography by Texty.nl).
High Level Dialogue Civil Society meeting, July 2013 (Photography by Texty.nl).

Guest blog by: Imelda M. Nicolas, cabinet-rank Secretary of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) under the Office of the President of the Philippines.[1]

Unprecedented in United Nations history, the 2006 High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (HLD) tackled the politically sensitive issue of migration, with a particular focus on exploring the synergy between the movement of people and development both in the source and destination countries. Although the first HLD ended without offering firm conclusions on the exact nature of this synergy — or with definite policy paths governments can and should take — it established two important facts: that migration has linkages to development and vice versa and that these linkages are complex and worthy of further exploration and dialogue. Indeed, following the HLD, the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) has been convened annually to explore the complexity of the migration and development link and to help policymakers, such as myself, in identifying best practices, gaps and viable policy and programmatic options.  

About 150 governments attended the last GFMD meeting in Mauritius, revealing the growing appetite for an international dialogue on migration and development issues. This October, the United Nations will once again convene another HLD.  Given the success of the GFMD, many governments, including the Philippines, will attend the gathering in New York with understandably high expectations.

Two Pressing Tasks : Looking Back, Moving Forward

As we see it,  the most pressing task in this year’s HLD are two-fold : to take stock of what seven years of international dialogue on migration and development have and have not achieved and, even more importantly, to chart a more definite future course of action. Although the confidence and trust on the GFMD process has never been higher, there is still much that remains to be done in order to fully translate the progress governments have made inside the confines of the  conference halls into real and tangible changes on the ground. Unfortunately, the challenges migrants and their families face have changed  very  little from 2006. For instance, the Asia-Pacific region (where the Philippines belongs) which is home to three-fifths of the world’s population,  cites that its largest migrant flows consist of  low-skilled, low-wage, temporary  migrant workers. A significant  number are undocumented, while many continue to suffer from abusive and exploitative practices of private recruitment agencies, especially those who are not effectively regulated and monitored.  Women, who comprise almost 50 percent of the region’s labor migration, work primarily in low-skilled occupations where they receive little protection. Furthermore, many of the people from the region continue to cross borders involuntarily due to conflict, natural disasters and other environmental factors. In fact, the region currently hosts the largest number of refugees in the world.  

In view of the above situation, during the Asia-Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting for the HLD held in Bangkok last May 29 to 31, the member-states of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) stressed that the HLD should “ensure respect for and protection of the rights of all migrants and promote legal and orderly labor migration”.

Four Issue Areas Ripe for Collective Action

Truly leveraging migration for development requires more enduring attention in specifically addressing these seemingly intractable challenges that are in many ways not unique to the Asia-Pacific region.  Indeed, the 2nd HLD presents a unique opportunity for governments to  advance  even more aggressively what has already been a constructive, multilateral conversation on international cooperation by developing a more focused and action-oriented agenda for the next 5 years. 

Beyond calls to more effectively engage diasporas for development and to reduce remittance costs, there are other issues that are also ripe for international cooperation but are often overlooked.  I would like to highlight four:

  • First, work towards developing a framework for international and/or regional cooperation to assist migrants caught in crisis.

Migrants are exposed to various forms of exploitation at all stages of the migration process and this exposure is heightened during times of crisis.  For instance, the 2011 Libyan civil war, which led to the displacement of nearly 800,000 migrants within a span of just nine months,  dramatically brought into light  gaps in existing coordination and funding mechanisms, including the different roles governments, international organizations, and the private sector such as employers, recruitment agencies and insurance companies should take. There is currently no international legal framework that can comprehensively address the situation of migrants, especially temporary migrant workers, caught in conflicts and crisis situations. 

  • Second, it is crucial to collectively address the negative and differential impact of migration by gender, including migration’s effect on children and families left behind.

For a long time migration observers have been commenting on the increasing feminization of migration worldwide. Within Asia, for instance, female migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse given that many have low levels of education.  Female domestic workers are most vulnerable since their work is confined inside the home, which government authorities find hard to monitor.  Indeed, a recent study by the Asian Development Bank shows that compared to men, women migrants from Indonesia and the Philippines, particularly those involved in domestic work, are more likely to have their labor rights violated by employers or recruitment agencies.  The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 189 “Decent work for domestic workers” passed in June 2011, set  labor standards for domestic workers,  underlining their basic rights and principles for their protection. However, as of 2013, only 8 countries have ratified the Convention, with the Philippines being the 2nd country to ratify.

Since exploitative practices occur at all stages of migration— at pre-departure, transit, arrival, stay and return— there is a need for governments to collectively adopt gender-responsive policies and programs that address the unique vulnerabilities of women migrants.  Migration also takes its toll on  migrants’ families, in many cases straining the very fabric of the society that sends them. There is a need therefore for both source and host countries to jointly develop programs and social services that assist families left behind.

  • Third, it is vital to minimize the socio-economic cost of migration through informed, evidence-based and data-driven policymaking.  

The call for more and better data to inform policy has been consistently made during the first HLD and in every GFMD meeting over the last six years. As a result, there has been a marked increase in our knowledge on migration and development linkages. Peter Sutherland, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Migration,  in an opinion piece in the journal Migration and Development, has lauded the “data-rich, measurable way to analyze the development effects of migration” particularly on the impact of remittances and how it relates to the  original Millennium Development Goals (MDG).  Despite obvious progress in this area, however,  more definitive and comprehensive studies and research on the effects of migration at the national level, and particularly on countries of origin, are still needed.  In many regions of the world, the quality of data on basic stocks and flows, particularly sex-, age- and skill-disaggregated data and data on return and irregular migrants, remain poor or worse, non-existent. This is particularly true for countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Given paucity in even the most basic of data, the extent to which the departure of migrants actually eased unemployment or result in brain drain, or waste remains highly contested. In short, making migration work for development requires more and better data. 

  • Lastly, governments should put greater effort in jointly lowering recruitment costs for migrants.

Various researches have shown that one of the largest financial costs migrants incur actually happens even before they migrate. Recruitment costs can be high, and in some corridors, present a much larger burden to migrants than remittance costs. For instance, the remittance cost between the Middle East and South Asia is the lowest in the world but the recruitment cost can be astronomical: as much as a year’s worth of salary in placement fees in exchange for a three-year work contract. We also know that recruitment-related abuse happens in all destinations at all skill levels, but low-skilled workers in specific sectors are especially vulnerable. Most disputes over recruitment and contract violations involve migrants in low and unskilled sectors particularly domestic work, construction, garments, agriculture and fishing industries. Field studies show that low-skilled migrants, in general, pay more in placement fees relative to their prospective income.

Keeping the HLD and GFMD Alive: Two Caveats

We have emphasized just four of the many issue areas that the international community could jointly address to maximize migration and development linkages and minimize migration’s negative effects. In thinking about these issues it is important to not lose track of what has worked so far. Much of the success of the 1st HLD and the GFMD process can be attributed two things.

First, both dialogues are informal and non-binding, which have allowed for frank and more open discussions among governments on what many would still consider fairly controversial issues. It is important to keep the same level of informality in future GFMDs and HLDs. However, both processes could provide more opportunities for collaboration between interested governments and migration stakeholders (from sub-national, national, regional and international levels). For instance, the GFMD could provide or support a more dynamic platform where governments can find partners, pilot projects, test ideas, and develop and utilize various policy and programmatic tools.

Second, both the HLD and the GFMD are state-led dialogues and clearly, governments’ ownership has kept both processes alive and relevant for over half a decade. However, it also true that the strength of the GFMD lies in its ability to meaningfully engage with non-state actors, such as diaspora communities, migrant organizations, academe and unions.  They play invaluable roles, not only in the design of policies and programs, but also in implementation, monitoring and evaluation.  It is important to continuously innovate and test ideas, such as the highly successful Common Space sessions that include civil society and governments. A segment that should exert extra effort and be given greater attention in future GFMDs is the private sector, particularly employers and recruitment agencies.

2014 GFMD and Post-2015 Agenda

Peter Sutherland in his article in Migration Policy Practice  state that one of the achievable goals of the HLD is for UN Member States “to forge a consensus position in incorporating migration into the next iteration of the Millennium Development Goals”. The Philippines joins him in his call to our fellow member-states to ensure that international migration becomes part of the post-2015 global development framework.  This will lead to several significant results: from putting international migration at the front and center of the development agenda now and thereafter, and changing the misperception of migrants from a problem to be solved, to a solution to the problem. We likewise support the Swedish Government, who chairs the GFMD from January 2013 to June 2014, as it sets to achieve its 3-fold objectives of a more development-focused, more dynamic and more durable Forum.  


[1] This guest blog is developed from a longer commentary Secretary Nicolas provided to the Summer issue of the International Organization for Migration’s publication, Migration Policy Practice. http://www.iom.int/cms/migration-policy-practice

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.