The plight of ‘others’: Global migration and (un)sustainable development


South Africa
Olivia K Lwabukuna

Author website


Publication date

Tuesday, May 10, 2016 - 14:30

Migration and its discontents represent one of our greatest crisis as humanity. But the crisis it seems is not migration itself, but how humanity is responding to such migration. Despite having adopted ambitious global policies to ensure that our development is sustainable and equitable through the Sustainable Development Goals, failure to ensure dignified migration has marred any attempts for humanity to develop together wihout leaving anyone behind.  Our greatest failure thus far is in our limitation to comprehend that migration in itself can be a source of equitabe development for everyone.

Memories of the year 2015 will forever be scared by shocking images of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy who had drowned off the coast of Turkey. Global media was abuzz with indignation for such an act and of course fingers were pointed at what should have been done and who was to be blamed. But in that image, our failure as humanity was reflected. Both as a result of the inhuman degradation and insecurity that led that family to run for its life and set off on such a perilous journey, but also as a consequence of global political failure to collectively provide well managed and safe means for such groups of people to exit unsafe and dangerous war zones and find comfort and solace somewhere else.

Migration and the sustainable development goals

The same year the world and the global policy community adopted the sustainable development goals within agenda 2030, highly acclaimed and riding on the slogan ‘leave no one behind’. Of course that little boy who drowned and his father who eventually went back to Syria to bury him and accept his fate, did not feel the generosity of these new policies. ‘Leave no one behind’ did not apply to them, they were in fact left behind, to die or resign to the fate visited upon them by a ruthless regime and extremist militants.

The fate of that family is simply an analogous reflection of humanity’s fate today in this very insecure, unsafe and unsustainable place we call home. It is the fate of many groups of people within their various identity designations of ‘refugees’ , ‘migrants’, ‘stateless’, whichever label we decide to assign them. For them it really does not make a difference, they would carry any designation, as long as such leads them and their families to a safe, secure and stable place, where they can hope, dream and re-build.

So where does this leave humanity and its co-existence? Humanity and global policy makers representing it must realise that migration and movement is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in recognition of this fact, the current sustainable development goals and agenda 2030 have referenced the importance and relevance of migration. Human mobility is no longer a burden of underdevelopment or a background context for development, rather it is an important contributor to sustainable development. What is needed is to design policies for orderly and safe migration steeped in the spirit of the sustainable development goals.

Sustainable development goals call for the reduction of inequalities within and among nations in goal 10, they also promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth for all in goal 8, and insist on leaving no one behind, especially those in vulnerable, insecure conditions in goal 16. These cannot be attained without properly and systematically managing and responding humanely to issues of migration and forced displacement. Migration is the best solution to addressing inequality within and among nations, it is also vital to security and sustainability.

With these SDGs, migration has for the first time been recognised by mainstream development policy. The situation of migrant workers is highlighted in SDG 8 dealing with economic growth and decent work. The issue is further qualified by reference to human trafficking in several SDG goals, for instance in goal 16 reference to peaceful societies, encompasses limiting human trafficking which is a human security threat. Migration is further referenced specifically as a factor for disaggregation during the follow up and review of in SDG 17. But the most effective central argument for migration is found in SDG target 10.7 which calls for ‘well managed migration policies’ encompassing all aspects of migration. The provision of this target was reiterated by IOM Director General, William Lacy Swing, who made a dramatic call for Member States at the UN Sustainable Development Summit ‘to address the causes and consequences of migration in a way that promotes dignified, orderly, and safe migration for the benefit of all.’

The human rights based approach that underpins agenda 2030, requires placing people at the center of sustainable development and ensuring dignity for all. In interpreting this agenda, protecting the human rights of migrants and refugees, and saving their lives, through safe, regular and orderly migration and mobility processes, forms an integral part of the process. Other migration related targets include, fighting human trafficking, and facilitating the transfer of remittances.

The pending and outstanding

Agenda 2030 and the SDGs, whilst addressing migration, failed to take into account other aspects of migration which are important for development, including displacement and crisis oriented migration. Such situations must have been provided for considering that protracted displacement can breed conditions of despair and further marginalisation leading to inequality, vulnerability, and fragility which could lead to failure to achieve the goals of the SDGS, sustainable, secure inclusive future for all.

The agenda presents an opportunity to collectively also address the root causes of migration nationally and in concert with others. Whilst acting individually in national interest through border securitization might seem appealing, issues of migration touch on transboundary aspects and as such require transboundary responses.

There is also a need to streamline responses at national level, within all government departments, to ensure, proper immigration, integration, calibration of labour supply and demand, and the promotion of human capital as well as the agency of migrants and refugees.

There must also be a shift from the economic and spatial limitations placed upon refugees and to an extent, migrants. The whole ‘crisis’ of refugees and migrants in Europe is founded on the rhetoric of fear for loss of jobs, national security, identity and spatial concerns. Clarity, based on actual data and true reflections of issues on the ground must be distributed. Limiting refugees and migrants’ access to jobs, whilst having to maintain them in camps is self-defeatist, but most importantly, it is expensive.

We must also note that most current refugee situations are not resolved within a short while. They have become protracted refugee cases. Holding such groups of people, who in most cases poses skills and education in camps, where they are dependent on taxpayer upkeep in not economically viable. These groups of people should be allowed to contribute to the economy, including through jobs and taxes, as well as sending remittances to their countries of origin, thus spurring development in both countries. This could eventually create an un-intended early voluntary repatriation effect.

Such response, will require a shift in mind-set.  Including eradication of anti-immigrant sentiments that demonise them, and collective responses from countries of origin, transit and destination.


Legal and Policy Research Specialist
Remnants of unsafe migration88.78 KB


Thematic area