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Migration governance is the key to sustainability

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By Rai Friedman

· 7 min read

What is migration governance?

Migration governance can be understood as the combined frameworks of legal norms, laws and regulations, policies, and traditions, as well as organizational structures (subnational, national, regional, and international) and the relevant processes that shape and regulate States’ approaches with regard to migration in all its forms, addressing rights and responsibilities and promoting international cooperation.

Migration can play a critical role in economic growth and development. Evidence purports that migration will have positive impacts on both the economy of the host country as well as the individual's country of origin. For instance, international migration often times includes working-age persons, which can fill labour market shortages and reduce old-age dependency ratios of host countries. International individuals send remittances to their friends and families who live in low- and middle-income countries, which boosts the flow of money into the destined nation and promotes local economies. 

Why do people migrate?

Migration is often caused by economic, social or political factors. In 2020, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated 281 million people were living in countries outside their country of origin. In 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 108 million people were forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, persecution, human rights violations and violence. Climate change has also had an indisputable influence on displacement, where UNHCR reported 21.5 million were forcibly displaced per year between 2008 - 2016 due to weather-related events – such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures. 

States within the Global North are often reputed for their high standards of humanitarian policies and assistance as compared to states within the Global South. For instance, at the outset of the 2015 European Migration Crisis, the EU began an initiative to develop new relationships with African countries as it related to irregular migration. The lack of legal protections in host countries, confinement to refugee camps, restricted movement, and the inability to access formal employment are the main drivers for irregular migration to Europe. EU-African relations came to focus on reducing the number of people fleeing war, poverty or persecution as well as the ability to comprehensively address the refugee situation in Africa.

Changing narratives

The 2015 European Migration Crisis spurred international attention regarding support for both refugee populations and host countries. In 2015, over 1 million refugees and migrants reached European shorelines from the Mediterranean Sea, mostly landing in Greece and Italy, with relatively smaller numbers in Spain and Malta. The majority of them were displaced by war and conflict, in search of better lives for themselves and their families. 

This initiated global conversations about how to provide better support to both refugees and host countries so that individuals would not feel as compelled to travel extreme distances to safely resettle. While the majority of the world’s countries have some form of national migration governance many countries remain without policies, laws or frameworks which are explicit to integrate refugees or asylum-seekers.

The dangers of lacking legal protections or access to basic human rights

Without basic legal protections in host countries, refugees and asylum seekers are highly vulnerable to political influence, stigmatization, and illegal third-country repatriation, otherwise known as refoulement. Individuals may not be integrated into society, have restricted freedom of movement, are subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention, harassment from the public and authorities, become vulnerable to human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and so much more., Lastly, if individuals are unable to realize their legal rights in their host country, generations thereafter will continuously be born into displacement, continuing the cycle of aid dependency and poverty.

Migration governance for refugees

In 2016, world leaders convened in New York to address large-scale movements of mass displacements in low- and middle-income countries. The New York Declaration (NYD) for Refugees and Migrants reaffirmed the commitment of UN Member States to respect the human rights of refugees and migrants and to support the countries that welcome them. The NYD established the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) as a means to respond to these international crises. The CRRF calls for greater support to refugees and the countries that host them, providing a framework to outline predictable and equitable responsibility sharing in recognition that solutions to refugee crises require international attention.

This included to:

  1. Ease pressure on host countries
  2. Enhance refugee self-reliance
  3. Expand access to third-country solutions; and
  4. Support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity

Throughout 2017 and 2018, the CRRF was launched in over a dozen countries that experienced diverse refugee situations. Lessons drawn from the CRRF are reflected upon every four years at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF). The next GRF will take place in Geneva in December 2023 and will set the stage for the next four years on how to better support refugees and the countries that host them.

Migration & sustainability

For the 193 Member States to fulfill the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and to uphold its commitment to the CRRF, integrating refugees and asylum-seekers will be integral. Not only will proper migration governance uphold the rights of refugees, but it will seek to advance the socio-economic well-being of refugees and society; address aspects of mass displacement and mobility; and ensure migration occurs in a safe, orderly and dignified manner. 

While the rhetoric related to migratory populations who resettle in third countries has been cast as “stealing” jobs from those native-born, there is little to no evidence to support this. Oftentimes, immigrants fill the job market in ways that native-born workers are not willing to do. This could include both low-skilled and high-skilled jobs, especially in regions where the demographic age is declining.

Moreover, refugees often pursue entrepreneurial activities in their countries of resettlement as they are marred with socio-economic barriers such as limited access to employment opportunities or education, and language barriers, are often segregated in urban areas and have limited access to financial resources. Entrepreneurship enables an individual to achieve self-reliance for themselves and their families, as well as assist others in doing so. For instance, if a newly settled refugee were to open a restaurant, it is likely that an individual would hire another refugee within their community. Entrepreneurship leads to job creation and employment which empowers individuals and communities. According to UNHCR (2018), the International Financial Corporation analyzed the economic output of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in 2015 and determined it contributed USD 56 million a year as well as attributing roughly 2500 businesses to its private sector.

In sum, not only does it seem to be a win-win both for the refugee and the host economy, but indeed it is a win-win-win-win for the refugee, host economy, country of origin, and the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Implementing good migration governance specifically for refugees and asylum seekers upholds the rights, dignity and respect of refugees and asylum seekers as human beings, fulfills Member States obligations to international humanitarian law, and creates a better world for generations to come.


IOM (2019). International Migration Law No 34: Glossary on Migration., p.138

United Nations (2017) International Migration Policies.

Human Rights Watch (2015 November 16) Europe’s Refugee Crisis.

Migration Data Portal. MGI Global Coverage.

Siafi, S and Yeung J (2023 October 4) Pakistan Announces Mass Deportation of ‘Illegal Immigrants’ Including Afghans. CNN.

Human Rights Watch (2022) Submission by Human Rights Watch on the Inquiry into the Ending Indefinite and Arbitrary Immigration Detention Bill 2021. Human Rights Watch.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (2018) Stop Arbitrary Detention of Refugees and Migrants Disembarked in Libya.

UNHCR. Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. 

IOM. ISCMS, Policy Dialogue on Migration and Migration Governance.

Hoban, B. (2017 August 24) Do Immigrants “Steal” Jobs from American Workers? Brookings. 

UNU-MERIT (2015 November 16) Born Out of Necessity: The Role of Refugee Entrepreneurs. Maastricht University.

Beard, S (2019 August 7) Why Refugees Make Great Entrepreneurs.

UNHCR (2018) The Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Programme. p. ix

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Rai Friedman is the Founder and CEO of the NGO Global Rights Defenders, which advocates for refugee and human rights worldwide. She is also a policy and migration consultant, and welcomes new ventures, collaborations or partnerships. She is a multilingual individual with demonstrated professional experiences in the international development sector as it relates to policy & advocacy, research, migration and human rights. She has worked in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North America. Currently she is in Kenya implementing a research project with Global Rights Defenders focused on barriers to socio-economic inclusion for refugees. 

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