A major reason for migration lies in economics. Of special note is the extreme disparity in wages between countries in the developing world and in the developed world. The Global Commission on International Migration, in its 2005 report, Migration in an Interconnected World, notes, for example, that people in sub-Saharan Africa earn less than a dollar a day. Those who manage to move to higher income nations send remittances back to their home countries: an estimated $167 billion a year. Even though sub-Saharan Africa receives the lowest proportion of global remittances, the report observes that remittances amount to 50 percent of household income in Somalia, for example.
Almost half the world’s migrants are women, according to the report. Some have received training in their home countries as teachers and nurses. Aware of the significant difference between what they can earn there and the much higher wages elsewhere, many choose to migrate to wealthier nations. The departure of such skilled workers, however, has had an adverse effect on their own countries, giving rise to a so-called brain drain. One long-term goal should therefore be to create adequately paying jobs in low-income countries to lessen the pressure on people to migrate for economic reasons.
Although migration may allow women to learn new skills and earn higher wages in destination countries, those with limited education are especially vulnerable to exploitation, and can easily be forced into prostitution. Their vulnerability is all the greater if they are unfamiliar with the language of the country to which they are brought. Children are also vulnerable to trafficking. The United Nations has called this the third largest criminal business in the world. Nor are men exempt from human trafficking. Lured to wealthy countries like the United States with promises of well-paying jobs, many have found on arrival that they are all but enslaved at work sites, with their passports taken from them.
Many migrants from Africa die at sea in desperate attempts to reach Europe. Hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Central and Latin America perish annually as they try to cross the southern border of the United States. Ironically, while wealthier countries create ever stricter barriers against undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, the parliament of the European Union has called for increased legal migration to offset the effects of aging populations. Some European officials point out that the possibilities now for legally entering European countries are so restrictive that in effect they encourage illegal immigration.
Advocates of a just approach to the worldwide migration challenge believe that it cannot be dealt with by individual countries, but must be addressed multilaterally. To that end Kofi Annan, before stepping down as secretary general of the United Nations, proposed a forum of the 191 member states to discuss best practices in international migration policy and the relation of immigration to global development. In making his recommendation, Mr. Annan said that “our focus in the international community should be on the quality and safety of the migration experience and on what can be done to maximize its development benefits.” His proposal resulted in the creation of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which held its first meeting this past July in Belgium. For the forum to succeed, however, a level of generosity on the part of the U.N. member states will be required that has not always been in evidence. Ideally, women, men and children should be able to realize their potential in their home countries and not have to migrate.
In the meantime, nativists in the United States continue to press for a one-size-fits-all approach to undocumented immigrants. Some presidential candidates have urged that all 12 million be sent home as “illegal aliens.” But as one advocate has said, “People themselves can’t be illegal: the term is almost a slur against God.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. With migrants ever more vulnerable at borders and in countries to which they move, 2008 is a fitting time for world leaders to remember that migration is a human rights issue.