A consequential decade? Addressing migration on the road to 2030

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

Something is brewing. There’s a sense in the air that the decade to 2030 will be a consequential time. Not only because of the devastating pandemic currently upending life around the globe, but because of the momentum that could be won or lost in addressing some of the most pressing public policy issues otherwise facing the international community.

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, António Guterres, has declared 2020 the start of a decade of action on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Officially launched on January 22, it is part of a push to invigorate global momentum ten years out from the deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The success of this initiative — and thus the 2030 Agenda — will hinge on the extent to which governments, the UN and other actors can forge ahead with approaches that connect diverse policy issues, breaking the silos that have inhibited progress so far.

To date however, and despite crafting an integrated and indivisible framework in the 2030 Agenda, the global approach to implementation has not caught up with new demands for integration. Issues like migration for example, though long acknowledged as an integral feature of development, continues to be underserved by inconsistent connections to development activities and policy.

Progress could be made in the years ahead to properly build those connections and to establish the type of interlinked action demanded by the 2030 Agenda. The COVID-19 pandemic might seriously hinder progress on that front; the Secretary-General has highlighted that its financial impact is likely to be measured in the trillions of dollars. But the strategy to recover from this crisis should itself keep us on track towards the longer-term development objectives of the SDGs, and it makes the need for integrated policy more significant.

The decisions and actions taken in the next few years could provide the jolt needed to set the world towards a more sustainable future. Or they could crystallize the sluggish, fragmented approach that has led us to the edge of critical global thresholds. We are approaching a potential turning point, for which urgency is needed.

The story so far: notable achievements, but slow progress

The 2030 Agenda has inspired action and progress in many areas. UN assessments have shown positive progress in addressing extreme poverty and child mortality; combatting diseases such as hepatitis; increasing electricity access in the poorest countries; and reducing the proportion of people living in slums, amongst other issues.[1] But despite these advances, many troubling gaps remain.

Several recent UN gatherings — including the July 2019 High-level Political Forum (HLPF) and its September counterpart in the SDG Summit — have all come to the same conclusion: that the international community is off-track to meet the 2030 Agenda in the next ten years. Report after report has also affirmed that the window for change is closing. The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) highlighted that the international community is on the verge of crossing several negative tipping points, when changes to the Earth’s systems will become irreversible.[2]

Amongst the critical gaps is the growing level of inequality within countries. The most vulnerable groups in society are being left further and further behind. Even in wealthier nations, social progress seems stalled. Disillusionment with public institutions and the multilateral order is spreading. People are increasingly concerned about a lack of social mobility.[3] The socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 are already being felt and will undermine the progress that has been made to date. The pandemic has foisted the global economy into a recession, creating historical levels of unemployment, major supply chain disruptions and turmoil in financial markets.[4]

Climate change meanwhile remains an urgent challenge, threatening several compounding effects that the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has called catastrophic and irreversible. These include “increasing ocean acidification, coastal erosion, extreme weather conditions, the frequency and severity of natural disasters, continuing land degradation, loss of vital species and the collapse of ecosystems”.[5] It is this dismal outlook that has prompted efforts to promote faster, more in-depth and catalytic action.

A transformational agenda without a transformational shift

At the time the 2030 Agenda was adopted, much was made of the fact that it is a ‘transformational’ framework. It was established as an Agenda of unprecedented scope and significance, being relevant to all people and all countries, and including a set of wide-ranging, interconnected goals and targets that are integrated and indivisible. Achieving such an ambitious agenda would require significant changes to the way the international development community does its work. Time and again, senior UN and government officials have reiterated that ‘business as usual’ is not sufficient.

There are numerous examples of the required changes having been implemented. Many governments have integrated the SDGs into their national plans and policies. The UN is in the midst of a wide-ranging reform process that places the 2030 Agenda at the centre of its work. But concerns linger about whether the scale of change that has taken place so far will achieve the desired outcomes.

Some development professionals have argued for example that “with a few exceptions, [the] SDGs have very rarely been used to challenge practices and have not triggered the transformative project they promised”.[6] The Secretary-General has issued similar warnings, noting in his most recent report on SDG progress that “the shift in development pathways to generate the transformation required … is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required.”[7]

There are differing views on why this is the case, but prioritization (or lack thereof) is a commonly cited challenge. Some analyses have highlighted the need to prioritize the goals and targets given the sheer scale of the 2030 Agenda, inspiring numerous efforts to assess the ‘centrality’ of different SDG targets and indicators to the overall framework. [8]

Others have argued that the SDGs are themselves a statement of the international community’s priorities (notwithstanding that governments may have differing national level concerns), and that a lack of overall direction and coordination is the biggest barrier. One analysis likened the 2030 Agenda to a construction site at which there are numerous contractors, all working in good faith on their respective parts of the building, but with “no regard for the whole building and with virtually no awareness of how their work relates to … colleagues’ efforts.”[9]

This is essentially the ‘silos’ problem that commonly plagues many institutions and activities, including within ministries, whole governments, international institutions and companies. It is also an issue that has been discussed at length in the context of the SDGs. “Breaking down the silos” has become as much of a mantra as that other adage about avoiding “business as usual”.

Building connections on migration

Migration, arguably, is an issue that has suffered from this disconnection. Although governments have long recognized the links between migration and development, incorporating migration into global development discussions since at least the early 1990s, the extent to which this has resulted in tangible connections with other policy realms is less clear.

At the programmatic level for example, migration has rarely been considered in development planning despite policy makers understanding the need to address it as a cross-cutting issue.[10] In the case of migration management programming, the converse is also true. The bulk of migration programmes have not been planned with any thought to development impacts and often have a more short-term focus.[11]

Where these connections have been made, a misalignment between the priorities of development and migration actors has created challenges. Whereas the development community is naturally focused on improving conditions in partner countries, migration officials are more frequently driven by a desire to address irregular migration, prioritising border enforcement and returns issues.[12] This misalignment is also a common point of division for migrant sending and receiving countries. The former tend to be more interested in the development impacts of labour migration and remittances; the latter focus on the impact of development on the drivers of migration.[13]

Although efforts to ‘mainstream’ migration in national development planning are long-standing — this is a core area of partnership between the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for example — much more needs to be done. In an analysis of migration governance arrangements in place across 49 countries between 2015 and 2019 for example, IOM found that migration still tends to remain a specific policy silo and that governments have yet to establish or apply holistic approaches to migration governance and policies.[14]

The good news is that substantial progress has been made to integrate migration into the global policy agenda. The inclusion of migration in the 2030 Agenda was an especially significant moment, having been left out of the Millennium Development Goals that preceded it. Since then, it has appeared in several other frameworks under the UN’s mandate, including the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the New Urban Agenda, amongst others. The global climate change agenda has also greatly advanced in integrating migration issues, notably through the Task Force on Displacement, which released several seminal recommendations, adopted in 2018 by all state parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

More recently, the adoption in 2018 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) was a huge step forward in global migration governance. The GCM is lauded as the first intergovernmentally negotiated agreement, prepared under the auspices of the UN, to cover all dimensions of international migration. Critically, it is ‘grounded’ in the SDGs, meaning that the GCM is itself a blueprint through which to meet the migration-related objectives outlined in the 2030 Agenda.

Making the decade of action work for migrants

The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report outlines six ‘entry points’ that its authors consider the most promising areas for achieving the transformations necessary to achieve the SDGs at the required scale and speed.[15] The report’s recommendations have been given serious consideration in the global discussions on the 2030 Agenda, and are seen as crucial to ramping up progress in the decade ahead. Amongst the six entry points identified in the report, three are intrinsically linked to migration. Governments will need to consider these links in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda and make the decade of action work for migrants.

First, would be to promote human well-being and capabilities for migrants. Not only is this a fundamental objective of sustainable development, it is also a critical means and outcome of broader social, economic and environmental development. If migrants are empowered to pursue their aspirations and apply their capabilities, they can improve their own development outcomes, as well as those of their families and communities. [16]

Achieving this would require that development frameworks be holistic, consider diverse societies and promote the inclusion of migrants at all levels and in all policy sectors. Improved migrant well-being and empowerment can promote social cohesion across communities and drive development processes, while the absence of such holistic policy frameworks may be costly for both migrants and receiving societies.[17]

Second, would be to harness the potential of migration to support sustainable and just economies. This potential is not limited to financial contributions, but also encompass knowledge, support, networks, values and skills that migrants transfer between societies. As students, workers, and entrepreneurs — as well as consumers, savers, taxpayers and family members — migrants can contribute considerably to sustainable development processes in sociocultural, civic-political and economic domains.[18]

Establishing regular migration pathways is important to this, combined with the recognition of labour rights and integrating labour migration in productive development policies. Supporting economic inclusion and empowerment by providing access to financial services and education can also have a considerable impact to accelerate sustainable development outcomes on a wider level.[19]

Third, is responding to the urbanization dimensions of migration and displacement. Migration is becoming increasingly urban. Most migrants, whether they move internally or internationally, settle in urban areas because that is where their human capital is most rewarded. As a result, cities are now at the forefront of managing the positive and negative impacts of migration in their territories and are key actors in the promotion of inclusive, safe and sustainable urban environments.[20]

Decentralised levels of governance are uniquely placed to connect local realities with national development priorities and can thus play an important role in accelerating development outcomes for both migrants and host societies. Supporting local authorities to better prepare for and respond to migration and displacement situations can mitigate the impacts on sustainable development at the local level and can empower both migrants and displaced persons to contribute to development processes.[21]

Taking action in these areas will be crucial to producing faster and more inclusive progress on the SDGs. As a first step, governments should integrate these considerations into their discussions at the global level, including the outcomes of the High-level Political Forum scheduled for later in 2020. More importantly however, they should systematically operationalize policies and programmes that focus on these issues, including in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With ten years remaining to achieve the 2030 Agenda, the time to correct the mixed progress is now. Let’s make this decade a consequential one, for the right reasons.


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

[2] United Nations, 2019b, ‘The Future is Now, Science for Achieving Sustainable Development’, Global Sustainable Development Report, New York.

[3] United Nations, 2019a, 2019b.

[4] United Nations, 2020, ‘Shared responsibility, global solidarity: responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19’, New York.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Elisabeth Hege, 2019, ‘Deciding What to Think of the First Four Years of SDG Implementation’, SDG Knowledge Hub, available at [https://sdg.iisd.org/commentary/guest-articles/deciding-what-to-think-of-the-first-four-years-of-sdg-implementation/].

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

[8] See, for example, M. H. El-Maghrabi and S. Gable et al, ‘Sustainable Development Goals Diagnostics: Ann application of network theory and complexity measures to set country priorities’, Policy Research Working Paper, World Bank, Washington DC.

[9] Jeff Leitner and Tomicah Tilleman, 2017, ‘Why are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Stalling?’, Pacific Standard, available at [https://psmag.com/environment/why-are-the-uns-sustainable-development-goals-stalling].

[10] International Organization for Migration, 2019, ‘IOM Institutional Strategy on Migration and Sustainable Development’, Geneva, available at [https://publications.iom.int/books/iom-institutional-strategy-migration-and-sustainable-development].

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kate Hooper and Kathleen Newland, 2018, ‘Mind the Gap: Bringing migration into development partnerships and vice versa’, Migration Policy Institute, Washington DC.

[13] Ibid.

[14] International Organization for Migration, 2020, ‘IOM input to the HLPF 2020 — Accelerated Action and Transformative Pathways: Realizing the Decade of Action and Delivery for Sustainable Development’, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/25932IOM_contribution_to_the_2020_HLPF.pdf; International Organization for Migration, 2019, ‘Migration Governance Indicators: A Global Perspective’, https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/mgi_a_global_perspective.pdf.

[15] United Nations, 2019b.

[16] International Organization for Migration, 2020.

[17] International Organization for Migration, 2020; International Organization for Migration, 2020a, ‘World Migration Report 2020’, Geneva.

[18] International Organization for Migration, 2020.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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