For a better life

Print edition : November 06, 2009

With the Commonwealth Games approaching and major construction projects remaining unfinished, work is available in the construction sector in Delhi. Here, families of migrant workers arrive in the capital. A September 2 photograph.-V. SUDERSHAN

THE recently released United Nations Development Report-2009, titled Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development, presents a strong case for governments all over the world to encourage human mobility. Migrations, including those of low-skilled workforce, pay dividends all round, the report says. However, it does not quite attempt to seriously understand why people migrate, sometimes subjecting themselves to horrific situations in destination countries or even within their own countries. The report cautions that migration cannot be a solution to all economic ills or a major factor in development though remittances from migrants may complement and enhance human and economic development. In many countries, the money sent home by migrants often exceeds official aid. For India, such remittances add up to 1.5 times more than foreign direct investment. Then there are the so-called social remittances. These may be in the form of reduction in fertility, higher school enrolment rates and empowerment of women.

These benefits, however, can also be achieved by countries that invest sufficiently in these areas. The report seems to see migration as a boon in disguise for low-skilled and underpaid sections. But to view migration as a strategy for development is to offer a short cut where what is needed is long-term investment by governments. The emphasis on low-skill migration is also slightly disconcerting.

The report presents a core package of reforms, the six pillars, as it calls them: opening existing entry channels for more workers, especially those with low skills; ensuring basic human rights for migrants, from basic services such as education and health care to the right to vote; lowering the transaction costs of migration; finding collaborative solutions that benefit both destination communities and migrants; easing internal migration; and adding migration as a component of the development strategies of the countries of origin.

The question is why can the origin countries not address the livelihood issues of low-skilled workers and provide them with long-term solutions that not only enhance their personal well-being but also boost overall growth? Indeed, the report seems to see the need for migrations from the point of view of developed countries. It says that there is a strong case for increased access to sectors with a high demand for labour, particularly for the low-skilled and that this is particularly important for developed countries because their populations are ageing. Therefore, it is in the overall interest of developed countries to end discrimination against migrants.

The worlds population will grow by a third over the next four decades, and much of this growth will be in developing countries. The report says that in one in every five countries, including Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation, populations are expected to shrink. It argues that a demographic transition has begun; the ageing of populations is a widespread phenomenon, a natural consequence of a decline in death rates and a slower decline in birth rates that has occurred in most developing countries. It is also estimated that within the next 15 years, new entrants to the labour force in developing countries will far exceed the total number of working-age people. These trends will put a burden on wages and increase the incentives to move among potential employees in poorer countries.

In developed countries, the proportion of the elderly will rise markedly so that there will be 71 non-working age people for every 100 of working age. This, argues the report, will make it more difficult for developed countries to pay for the care of their children and old people as publicly funded education and health systems are paid with taxes levied on the working population. These demographic trends, the report concludes, go in favour of relaxing the barriers to the entry of migrants.

The report presupposes that people have an innate urge to migrate. Even if that is true, it does not alter the fact that the compelling circumstances that lie behind this phenomenon should be addressed. The report also presupposes that much of migration takes place voluntarily. It is not a voluntary decision that forces a villager in India, used to living under the open skies, to take up residence in a congested urban slum. The report does not adequately explore what makes people decide to migrate.

The report, however, does not advocate wholesale liberalisation of the migration process, arguing that people in the destination countries have a right to shape their societies. It argues that research commissioned by the UNDP shows that people in destination countries are generally supportive of further migration when jobs are available and appreciate the gains economic, social and cultural that increased diversity can bring. Therefore, migrants are welcome in a country that has already many jobs to offer.

The report seems to downplay the impact of recession. Jeni Klugman, the lead author, argues that a job crisis is bad for migrants and admits that several destination countries are taking steps to encourage or compel migrants to leave. With recovery, he says, many of the same underlying trends that have been driving movement during the past half-century will resurface, attracting people to move. But it is futile to suggest until such a recovery that developing countries should encourage their low-skilled workers to migrate.

The 1997 Human Development Report had observed that the principles of free global markets were applied selectively and that the global market for unskilled labour was not as free as the market for industrial country exports or capital. There has not been much change in the situation since then. The 2009 report admits that the current recession is likely to have long-lasting, maybe even permanent, effects on incomes and employment opportunities. It says that the financial crisis has turned into a job crisis. Quoting from studies, it says that the unemployment rate has already exceeded 8.4 per cent in the United States, which by May 2009 had lost nearly six million jobs since December 2007, with the total number of jobless people rising to 14.5 million. In Spain, the unemployment rate climbed as high as 15 per cent by April 2009 and topped 28 per cent among migrants.

The report corrects certain popular misconceptions. It says that most migrants do not even cross national borders but move within their own countries: Nearly 740 people are internal migrants, almost four times the number of international migrants. Among international migrants, less than 30 per cent move from developing to developed countries. For instance, only 3 per cent of Africans live outside the country of birth. Intra-country migrations are also fraught with problems, especially when migrants have to face questions regarding their identity.

Instead of making out a strong case for governments to address the root causes of migration by the very poor, including what is now called distress migration, the report seems to present an idyllic picture. It claims that migrants from the poorest countries saw an average 15-fold increase in income, doubling in education enrolment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality after moving to a country with more opportunities.

Quoting recent research, the report claims that the health of migrants improved markedly during their first year in the destination country. Is migration, then, the policy that poorer countries should evolve to bring about an improvement in the health of their populations? Does the solution not lie in policies that enable such population to build better lives in their own countries?

The ranking of India, a developing country, in the Human Development Index, released each year as part of the annual Human Development Report, is a pathetic 134 out of 182 countries, the same as it was in 2006. Peoples lives, then, have not changed much during this period of high growth in the country. The report attempts to see migration of certain sections from the developing to the developed world as a positive thing. But that may not be the perception of governments or even people, especially in a context of economic hardship. It is no coincidence that jingoism, xenophobia and inclusiveness are accentuated in an economic crisis that takes away jobs.

In such a situation, large-scale migrations from developing countries to developed countries without legal commitments from the host and guest nations may not result in the kind of benefits presupposed throughout the report.

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