World Migration Review report on well-being: Why it ought to have a central place on the policy agenda.

Migration policies are increasingly inclined to make life harder for migrants by withholding public services, cutting back on welfare benefits, and even challenging the right to family life. But shouldn't policymakers show more regard for migrant wellbeing, rather than less?

The IOM's World Migration Review for 2013 has just been published, entitled Migrant Well-being and Development.

It's a hefty volume, 220 pages long in A4 format, taking the patient reader through a wealth of statistics dealing with “four migrant pathways”, the world's top migration corridors, gender, age and skill issues, and finally alighting on potential development impacts.

From the onset it places its review of all the evidence in a framework which is becoming quite unfashionable amongst policy makers and at least some of the think-tanks that cluster around them: namely what it means for the welfare and well-being of the people who are actually doing all this migrating. It asks what gains come about for those who move through pathways that take them through 'south-north', 'south-south', 'north-north', and 'north-south' pathways, which has the useful function in allowing us to consider the ways in which well-being and development outcomes are influenced by the terms and conditions in which migration takes place.

Human dimension

Some of the insights gained from this approach to the data are summed up in a helpful overview document. It explains that its analysis is rooted in the interpretation of development which the United Nations has operated with since the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986. This places emphasis on the human dimension to economic and social progress, rather than simply facts and figures about economic growth rates. It means that, unless the type of development we are considering shows up in measurably improvements in well-being across populations then we ought to be sceptical as to whether it constitutes progress at all.

So, does migration make any contribution to the types of development which show up in improvements to human well-being? There is no straightforward or easy answer. It seems that a lot depends on the conditions in which people migrate, and also the social and economic regimes they are migrating into.

Around 40% of the world's migrants follow south-north pathways, with people moving from less developed to developed countries. The second highest proportion – around one-third of the total – is made up of people moving in a south-south direction, meaning that they follow routes that take them from one developing region to another. Just over a fifth – 22% - of migrants are moving on north-north pathways, following careers that allow them to participate in the economies of the most developed nations. A small but growing segment – currently 5% - is made up of citizens of the northern states moving to southern developing countries.

With regards to the outcome of these different migrations, the report finds the following:

  • Migrants are less likely to feel happy or experience enjoyment, compared to the native-born. This is particularly true for south-south migrants: 53% of long-timers (migrants living in destination countries for 5 or more years) reported feeling happy during a lot of the day prior to the survey (vs. 72% of the native-born).
  • Migrants in the north rate their lives better than if they had not migrated: e.g. north-north migrants give rating of 6.57 (out of 10) vs. rating of 5.75 among non-migrants who remained in origin countries.
  • Migrants in the south rate lives similarly or worse than if they had not migrated: e.g. south-south migrants give rating of 4.99 (out of 10), vs. rating of 5.34 among non-migrants who remained in origin countries.

Financial gains?

Whether migrants experience financial improvements to their lives, the report found the following:

  • Overall, newcomers (migrants living in destination countries for less than 5 years) face the greatest financial difficulty: e.g. 17% to 34% say they do not have enough to afford food and shelter.
  • Over time, north-north migrants fare equally well, or better, financially than the native-born and appear to have the greatest financial success of any migrant group surveyed. Migrants originating in the south (whether going north or south) continue to face more difficulty than the native-born even after 5 years in the destination country.
  • South-north migrants tend to have lower incomes than the native-born: 31% to 35% of migrants are in the lowest quintile of the income distribution (vs. 18% of native-born). South-south migrants and native-born do not experience high income disparities, although migrants report more difficulty affording food and shelter.
  • Migrants in the north have less trouble affording basic needs of food and shelter than if they had not migrated (19% of south-north migrants said they did not have enough to afford food, vs. 26% of non-migrants who remained in origin countries). In contrast, migrants in the South find it harder to afford shelter than if they had not migrated (27% of south-south migrants vs. 19% of non-migrants who remained in origin countries).

So, from this it appears that there is a fair amount of unhappiness bound up in the experience of migration which is possibly at least partially compensated for, particularly for those who are able to settle in the developed north, by an improvement in their material circumstances. But even this can take a while coming through, with migrants from the south living in the north still worse off than natives after 5 years. For those who have moved to a country in the south the gap between migrants and natives for many seems like a permanent divide.

But the fact that outcomes do vary across regions and pathways suggests that poor outcomes are not the inevitable fate for migrants. The report does not go into the factors which affect well-being and subjective happiness measures, but those closer to the grass roots will probably be able to affirm that it has a lot to do with the way in which the social and economic system they are migrating to is able to deliver on fairness and social justice. The more level the playing field, the greater the opportunities of the migrant to share in the general life of the country they have settled in, then the more chance that the well-being scores will be higher.

Social Justice

These are important findings. In recent months a debate has been sparked off in the ranks of the policy wonks and think-tanks around the issue of the extent to which migration management programmes should take into account the well-being needs of migrants. Writers like David Goodhart, in his recently published study of the UK experience, have argued that governments need only consider the native citizens of their countries, with migrants effectively being told that they can like or lump it.

The World Migration Review report gives grounds for thinking that this might be bad policy by any measure. It seems clear that the material benefits which usually, but critically, not always, flow from migration, will mean that many will continue to move across frontiers even if in other aspects of their lives they experience unhappiness and alienation. We should care about this because the shape and texture of out community life will emerge from this predicament, and people will be living with the consequences far into the future.

Building social justices, fairness and equality into the fabric or our immigration policies ought to be a publicly stated objective of policy, as important to the native-born populations of migrant receiving countries as it is to the newcomers themselves.

Don Flynn is featured as one of the speakers at day-long conference considering the WMR report on migrant well-being will take place at Middlesex University on 19th September.

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