2030 Agenda on the brink: the urgent need for a new direction on migration policy

The article was written by Chris Richter, Migration Policy Officer at IOM’s Office to the United Nations

Ahmed, a returnee from Libya, after opening his small business which he is hoping to grow in his country of origin, Somalia. IOM Photo: Muse Mohammed/2020

International efforts to end poverty and hunger, protect the planet from environmental degradation and ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives are at risk of failure. This is the message of successive reports and conferences at the United Nations (UN), which have warned that implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is seriously off-track, a result of both inaction and the devastating impacts of COVID-19. Migrants are amongst those that might suffer the most, unless governments take urgent action to align their approach to migration with other policy priorities, especially development.

An overarching ambition of the 2030 Agenda is to leave no one behind. This includes migrants and refugees, whom the Agenda recognizes as having a positive contribution on inclusive growth and sustainable development. Although the whole of the Agenda is applicable to migrants, the ‘central’ feature is a target to facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies. The addition of such a target in the 2030 Agenda was a historic feat of diplomacy, being the first time that migration had been explicitly addressed in the UN’s overarching development framework.

At the time, it generated significant excitement in the migration community, creating hope that governments might finally ramp up their efforts to address migration in national development plans and policies. It was a recognition that migration is not solely a matter of border management, but of the full range of social, economic and environmental issues of interest to governments and societies.

The 2030 Agenda itself was built on the notion that diverse policy issues should be addressed in an inter-linked way; each of its 17 goals and 169 targets are considered part of an indivisible whole in which advances in one area could unlock progress in others.

In the migration field, this meant integrating migration in other policy domains and vice versa. For example, what might universal health coverage mean for the health outcomes of migrants? What might a lack of portability of migrants’ earned pensions and benefits mean for poverty eradication? What impact might climate change have on displacement of people, and how could mass movements impact the built and natural environment?

These are all questions that a holistic approach to migration might address. Governments that had such an approach would be well on their way to achieving the type of ‘well-managed migration’ foreseen in the 2030 Agenda. It is for these reasons that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) advocates for governments to adopt whole-of-government approaches to migration, whereby “all ministries with responsibilities touching on the movement of people” are involved in policy development.

However, a recent IOM study on migration governance suggest that — despite the need for such holistic approaches being widely recognised in the 2030 Agenda and elsewhere — migration has remained a distinct policy silo. This may limit the extent to which migrants can fulfil their personal ambitions and contribute to the societies they are connected to. For example, of the 49 countries part of IOM’s study, only 39 per cent reported that they aligned their migration strategy with national development strategies. Just over half of the countries defined their national migration strategy in a programmatic document at all.

This is a huge missed opportunity to produce better outcomes across a range of policy domains that impact, and are impacted by, migration. It is also an indication that governments have made insufficient progress against the central migration-related target in the 2030 Agenda. When considered in the context of the slow state of progress (and in some cases, reversals) against the 2030 Agenda as a whole, it only adds to the bleak picture already emerging from recent UN reviews.

The tragedy is that the changes required are well within reach. While the process of mainstreaming migration into other policy domains can take significant time and resources, and requires in-depth and inclusive consultations with stakeholders, the tools for performing these tasks already exist. The expertise and support of organizations like IOM, as well as the broader UN system, are also readily available.

United Nations Headquarters, New York.

What is lacking is the political will to make necessary changes and to promote more holistic policy approaches. This seems true across the 2030 Agenda as a whole: the UN Secretary-General has lamented that governments are not taking their own commitments seriously, and that the speed of implementation is not where it needs to be. But with the 2030 Agenda’s eponymous deadline fast approaching, time is running short, and the distance to travel remains long, not least because the COVID-19 pandemic is undermining the progress already made.

If the dire warnings of failure are to be avoided, real efforts to mainstream migration across policy areas are needed, and needed now.

[1] United Nations, 2015, ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, A/RES/70/1, New York.

[2] International Organization for Migration, 2015, ‘Migration Governance Framework’, C/106/40, Geneva.

[3] International Organization for Migration, 2019, Migration Governance Indicators: A global perspective, Geneva.

[4] IOM, 2019.

[5] United Nations, 2019, Report of the Secretary-General on SDG Progress, Special Edition, New York.

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