In search of better lives: Celebrating the contributions of migrants

17 Dec 2019

Photo Credit: iStock.com/AndreyPopov

Every year on 18 December, we celebrate International Migrants’ Day. This is an opportunity to reflect on the stories of the millions of migrants across the region moving in search of better lives and contributing to the welfare and sustainable development of their countries of origin and destination.

Migrants like San, for example. San left her hometown in Cambodia when she was 29, to find a better job in Thailand. She started out doing unskilled labour, but over time she began cooking, using the skills her parents had taught her, opening her own food stall. Although San still visits her childhood home and family in Cambodia two to three times a year and is happy to see its development, she has settled into life in Thailand, with her own business and her daughter in a Thai school, and Thailand is where she works and feels comfortable.

San’s story is just one of millions in the region. In 2019, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations Population Division, there were around 65 million migrants in Asia and the Pacific – about 4 times the population of Cambodia. And over 105 million migrants came from Asian and Pacific countries. This number has grown since 1990 when the first data on migration were available.

These migrants contribute to growth and development in the countries of destination, working as caregivers to children and older persons, construction workers, and undertaking many other roles that help drive development in the region. Most of these migrants, like San, are supporting their families to access education and health, and alleviate poverty. In the Asia-Pacific region and according to the latest World Bank estimates, the cash remittances migrants sent are estimated to amount to around $327 billion in 2019.

But while San’s story is a happy one, not all have such positive experiences. Many migrants face exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers, recruiters and other actors. Burdened by high migration costs, prevented from leaving abusive employers, or undertaking risky irregular journeys, many migrants risk their health, their freedom, and, too often, their lives.

This is why we commemorate International Migrant’s Day. To recognize what migrants bring to us all, and the risks they face on their journey to a more stable, prosperous and fulfilling future.

Fortunately, we have a path forward to making sure that migrants can contribute to sustainable development while respecting their rights. In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, migrants are recognized as contributing to development. But they are also recognized as being vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and requiring support and protection.

Migration can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals: remittances contribute to ending poverty and supporting investments in health and education, while women’s migration can contribute to gender equality. But the 2030 Agenda also recognizes that sustainable development must protect the rights and improve the well-being of migrants; otherwise it will not be sustainable. In particular the goals focus on the labour rights of migrant workers, and ensuring that migration takes place in a safe, orderly and regular way.

In December 2018, United Nations Member States adopted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). Implementation of the GCM by Member States will allow migrants to move with dignity and ensure their human rights are secured. In addition, if migration is safe, orderly and regular, migrants will be able to contribute fully to our societies and to sustainable development.

The 23 objectives of the GCM may seem daunting, but many countries in Asia and the Pacific already have good practices to share. For example, the GCM promotes enhanced availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration, and it is likely that San benefited from such a pathway. Cambodia and Thailand have signed memorandums of understanding to enable migrants to come from Cambodia to Thailand legally, and enjoy health care under the Thai universal health coverage system.

The United Nations is working hard to encourage its members to adopt policies so there can be many others like San. The Economic Social Commission for Asia and the Pacifica (ESCAP) works with partners in the UN System, including through the regional UN Network on Migration to provide the evidence base so countries make informed decisions; promote dialogue and cooperation, to share best practices and develop common ways forward as no State can manage migration alone; and build capacities to help countries implement their commitments.

Working together, we can achieve safe, orderly and regular migration to support sustainable development. As we celebrate International Migrants Day for the first time following the adoption of the Global Compact, let’s remember San’s success story and let’s ensure that everyone has the opportunity to improve their life regardless of their migration status!

Related SDG: Goal 10: Reduced inequalities