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As UN leaders gather in New York to mark the first anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals, we revisit this post from Oliver Bakewell, who considers whether the inclusion of migration in the Sustainable Development Goals raises more questions than it answers

In September 2015, the United Nations published the final version of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This publication was the outcome of a long and complex process of consultation with a wide range of parties, including states, international organisations and many civil society groups from across the world. Given the importance of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the precursor to the SDGs, in influencing development agendas across the world, and which in turn had massive implications for resource allocations, there was a lot of concern about what should be included in the new SDGs. Groups coalesced around different interests and built lobbies to ensure their themes remained on the agenda.

One of these is what I will refer to as the migration and development lobby group. Among those working on migration in developing areas, there has been a growing clamour to bring the topic into the mainstream of development policy and practice. The main cheerleaders have been the International Organization for Migration (IOM) along with interested migration programme units in donor governments, UN agencies, the World Bank and an array of civil society organisations, in particular migrant rights and diaspora groups. In particular, there was great concern to ensure that the SDGs should take account of migration in some way, something the MDGs had failed to do. This stimulated a barrage of initiatives, workshops, debates and dialogues to find ways to insert migration into the SDGs.

For example, this became a major focus for the Global Forum on Migration and Development in the lead up to 2015. In the 2014 meeting, the civil society organisations launched the ‘Stockholm Agenda’. This document on migrant and migration-related goals and targets explicitly calls for the root causes that force people to migrate to be addressed through action on employment and social protection; the voice of migrants and diaspora to be included in the formation of development policy; and the SDGs to uphold the rights of migrants alongside other groups.

Now that the SDGs are finalised, and the development community has new aims to work towards, what has this flurry of activity achieved in relation to migration? In the final document, migration appears explicitly in five goals:

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women: 5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation
Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all: 8.8 Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment
Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries: 10.7 Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies 10.c By 2030, reduce to less than 3 per cent the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 per cent
Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels: 16.2 end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children
Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development: 17.18 By 2020, enhance capacity-building support to developing countries, including for least developed countries and small island developing States, to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts.

In four of these goals, we find migrants are included among other groups in gaining access to rights (gender equality and labour rights) and in data collection. This is an important step. It reminds those engaged in development that migrants are people with rights the same as everybody else. However, it does not respond to the voluminous discussions about how migration and migrants may contribute to development.

Goal 10, which focuses on reducing inequality, is different. Clause 10.c gives a very clear statement about reducing the cost of remittances, which seems clearly designed to maximise the potential contribution that migrants can make to their place of origin. There is little doubt that this will be beneficial for poor countries. We could debate how far this contributes to the reduction of inequality within countries as those households who do not have family members abroad are excluded from the bounty. But this is part of the old debate about the contribution of migration to development. A bigger question is whether a cut in the cost of sending remittances will make a major difference in terms of development. Given the many alternative ways of sending money that are available to migrants, reducing the cost of transfers may simply help bring more remittances into the formal banking system rather than significantly affect the absolute scale of the flow. Perhaps this formalisation of remittances will be the most important impact, making it easier for states to measure them and subject them to surveillance.

This scepticism about who may benefit from the inclusion of migration in the SDGs is reinforced by the way it appears in clause 10.7. Here there is a much more opaque statement about ’orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility’ and ‘planned and well-managed migration policies’. This raises many questions. What do these terms mean? What will be the implications for the mobility of people, and especially that of poor people? What indicators will be used to assess progress towards this goal?

In response, IOM has proposed developing a migration governance index. This appears to have been taken up in the list of possible indicators, but again it is not very clear what this means. Terms such as orderly and regular suggest that this goal is concerned with migration that is sanctioned and controlled by the state. Moreover, it casts its net wider than migration to encompass the broader idea of mobility, which may include a much wider set of movements such as commuting, transhumance and pastoralism. Does it envisage assessing all such practices for their level of orderliness and regularity as part of the SDGs?

I struggle to see how achieving this aim would necessarily contribute to the overall Goal 10 of reducing inequality, or make any contribution to broader development progress. I find it even more disturbing that this clause seems to suggest that migration and mobility are being primarily discussed in terms of management and control. Migration and mobility are fundamental parts of people’s lives and stand alongside other demographic universals like fertility and mortality. As a thought experiment, just imagine the outcry if we substitute fertility for migration in this clause:

Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible human fertility, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed fertility policies.

Thankfully, at least from my perspective, I think such an aim would never be endorsed by the international community. But it is important to consider why we see no problems with asking for the movement of people to be placed under the surveillance of the state. Is this result really something that the migration and development lobby should be celebrating?

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

This post was first published by the Oxford Martin School on 11 December 2015.

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