Public Lecture: “Orderly migration in a disorderly world”, Australian National University, Canberra

Date Publish: 
Monday, March 6, 2017 - 16:30
Mr. William Lacy Swing, Director General, International Organization for Migration
Canberra, Australia


It is a distinct honor and privilege to have been invited by the Crawford School of Public Policy to speak on current issues on international migration, a topic which these days – for both good and less pleasant reasons  – is rarely absent from headline news, political discourse or community debate.

Today, I would like to make three points/three different worlds – two in which we live; one which we have to create:

  1. A World on the Move: Migration a Mega-trend
  2. A World Amidst A “Perfect Storm”
  3. A World on the “High Ground”

1. World on the Move

A. The Global Migration Context

We live in a world on the move. Numerically, there are more people migrating than at any other time in recorded history. This is largely due to the world’s population having quadrupled in the 20th century – a phenomenon that is not likely to be repeated.

There are nearly 250 million international migrants, and some 750 million domestic migrants. In other words, there are 1 billion migrants in our 7 billion world; one in every seven person on the globe is a migrant. Unfortunately, although the majority migrate regularly without difficulty, nearly a quarter of the international migrants were forced to move. They are the refugees, irregular migrants and the internally displaced.

Migration is a “mega-trend” of our time. Were the international migrants to form themselves into a country, the population of “Migration-land” would be slightly less than that of Indonesia and slightly greater than the population of Brazil.

The “GDP” of these migrants in the form of remittances or money sent home is $600 billion, roughly equivalent to the GDP of a small to medium size European country. At any rate, annual migrant remittances far exceed total foreign aid and are almost equal to all foreign direct investment. For a considerable number of developing countries, migrant remittances are the major source of GDP. In the Asia-Pacific region, for example, The Philippines receives USD 29.7 billion annually and Indonesia receives USD 16.5 billion. While these figures are large, it is in smaller countries that the economic impact of remittances is felt most strongly: remittances account for more than a quarter of Tonga’s GDP. The corresponding figures for Samoa and the Marshall Islands are 17.6 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.

As regards internal migration, China alone has more domestic migrants than the world has international migrants. Some of China’s internal migrants face similar challenges as do international migrants, such as anti-migrant sentiment; language barriers; family separation.

B. “Drivers” or root causes of migration

The motives for migrating are multiple and complex. For simplicity’s sake, I have reduced them to eight, all of which start with the letter “D”:

  • Demography: ageing industrialized countries in need of workers at all skill levels; and developing countries in need of jobs;
  • Demand: labor shortages versus labor surplus;
  • Disparities: socio-economic imbalances between developed and developing countries;
  • Degradation of the environment: due in large part to rapid climate change;
  • Distance-shrinking technology: cheap, rapid means of transport;
  • Digital revolution: instant communication and information;
  • Desperation: “survival” migration;
  • Disasters: natural and man-made.

IOM has long-held that migration is not a problem or a crisis to be resolved, but rather a human reality to be managed.

Our simple thesis has been that – given all that we know – migration is:

  • Inevitable in view of the driving forces and root causes in an interconnected and interdependent world;
  • Necessary, if skills are to be available, jobs to be filled and economies to flourish; and,
  • Desirable for the contributions that migrants make both to countries of origin and destination and, most of all the benefits to migrants themselves and their families.

This is IOM’s vision for a world in which migration is well-governed. Today, however, the world in which we live is vastly different. And, this brings me to my second point.

2. A world amidst a “perfect storm”

Unfortunately, the “migratory world” at present is in disarray and finds itself in the middle of a “perfect storm” – the likes of which I’ve not witnessed in the course of my long life. Among the elements are:

  • As I mentioned, we are witnessing the greatest forced migration since World War II: some 65 million persons have been forced to migrate. Of these, about 23 million are refugees and 42 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
  • In addition, a further 75 million are living precariously only one meter above sea level. At least one of the 13 Pacific Island nations is already purchasing property in another country as a safeguard for when the sea levels rise and will force them to flee.
  • An unprecedented series of simultaneous, complex and protracted crises, armed conflicts, and humanitarian emergencies – stretching from the Western bulge of Africa to the Himalayas, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ethno-religious strife in the Central African Republic, ethnic warfare is South Sudan, nearly a half-century of conflict in Somalia, continuing instability in Libya and Yemen, and armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and an ongoing, five-year war in Syria. We are truly living in an age of humanitarian disasters.
  • An absence of any viable political processes or active negotiations that offer any hope of a short to medium-term solution to any of these.
  • Unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment and xenophobia that manifests itself in anti-migrant policies and actions that perpetuate stereotypes and endanger migrants and deny the countries the contributions of migrants.
  • A decline in public confidence in government’s ability to manage the increasing migration movements.
  • An appalling dearth of political courage and leadership; a serious erosion of international moral authority; and violation of international humanitarian law by all sides in these conflicts.

These, then, are some elements that constitute a “perfect storm”- one that has reached gale-force levels.

3. A World on the “High Ground”

This is a man-made storm. It, therefore, doesn’t have to be.

How then – in this age of humanitarian crises – can the international community respond more effectively to these disasters? How can we better respond to a migrant dying of thirst in the Andaman Sea, drowning in the Mediterranean, or suffocating in the false compartment under a truck crossing a border? These people are seeking jobs or safety – often both – life’s essentials denied to them by the places they are fleeing or the states that have failed them, in one way or another.

We need answers for them and for millions of others caught in mass irregular movements. The challenge we face goes beyond emergency situations. The vast majority of migrants are simply looking for employment opportunities in a world that does not yet have an agreed framework to address the multi-faceted aspects of contemporary mobility. Our migration policies are out of date, and our leaders too often play to the fears of people rather than addressing their fears.

When you’re in a storm, it is wise to seek the “high ground” – in regard to migration, this means to try to capture the “moral high ground”. A high road scenario is based on an understanding that migration, if properly managed, can contribute to economic growth and development.

Such a policy serves three overarching objectives:

  • To address the drivers of migration to reduce forced and irregular migration;
  • To facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration; and,
  • To respect the human rights of all migrants, whatever their status, whether regular or irregular.

In the midst of the migration storm, the “high ground” lies first and foremost in well-managed migration. Each country needs to develop a comprehensive, long-term, multi-faceted, “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” migration and asylum policy. We do not have the time to review or even to list all the elements that should form part of such a package. Allow me, however, to point to some essential components:

  • Giving top priority to saving lives. The numbers of migrants who die or go missing every year is alarming. In our annual report called “Fatal Journeys”, IOM has documented 50,000 migrant deaths along migratory paths since the year 2000. (This is probably a gross underestimation since most governments do not maintain statistics on migrant deaths.) This year (from 1 January to 26 February 2017), 485 migrants have already perished in the Mediterranean despite valiant efforts by the Italian, Greek, Maltese, Turkish and Libyan Coast Guards who have saved several hundred thousand lives since 2013.
  • Opening more regular channels of migration as viable alternatives to irregular migration channels. Increasing the number of options for regular migration will not stop irregular migration, but it will reduce the incentive to move without documentation or authorization.
  • Streamlining border procedures to facilitate the movement of bona fide travelers. Australia is a leader in this field through the deployment of automatic gates at entry and departure points.
  • Establishing humanitarian border management. In so doing, law enforcement agencies meet the dual objective of managing risks to public security while ensuring that protection is made available to those who deserve it. The world needs to acknowledge and commend the six neighbors of Libya and the four neighbors of Syria for keeping their border open in the time of crises and conflict in these two countries.
  • Tackling migrant smuggling and trafficking. This global and lucrative industry is run by brutal and exploitative criminal networks. These smugglers are truly “travel agents of death.” Migrants are their vulnerable victims, especially in the aftermath of disaster.
  • Strengthening capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies. Emergencies are, by their very nature, difficult to predict. Hence the need to develop institutional readiness to react quickly. This requires close coordination among all humanitarian actors such as government agencies, international organizations, the business sector and civil society organizations.
  • Developing effective integration programs. Many are the social problems that arise because migrants are alienated and marginalized. The populations of all countries are increasingly characterized by cultural, linguistic and religious diversity. We cannot assume that social harmony and cohesion will emerge naturally from this. We need to help host communities and migrants constituencies to develop mutual tolerance and to develop mutual respect for each other’s rights and responsibilities.
  • Establishing public education and public information programs to enable local communities to come to an accurate understanding of the reasons that compel to move, to provide them with advice on how to respond to migrants in need and to lend support during the integration process.
  • Tackling the dangerous stereotypes and mythology that (a) endanger the lives of migrants; and (b) prevent migrants from contributing to our societies.

As we address these priorities, it is heartening to bear in mind that in September 2016, world leaders gathered at the UN in New York for the Summit on Refugees and Migrants in order:

  • to move closer to a comprehensive approach to migration governance including full respect for the human rights of migrants;
  • to establish safe, regular channels for migration and the development of effective integration policies.

The outcome of these deliberations is the “New York Declaration” which spells out agreed commitments and, in particular, an undertaking to negotiate a Global Compact on Migration to be adopted in 2018 at an international UN conference and a second Global Compact on Refugees.

We are on the cusp of something potentially historic, a pathway to giving people real options to move and putting an end to fatal journeys. We must not give in to the temptation of discouragement or pessimism, but use the Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration as a unique opportunity for the international community to advance the migration governance agenda.

The Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (GCM) is grounded in the SDGs and existing human rights instruments, thereby underscoring the importance of a holistic approach to migration. It is intended to:

  • address all aspects of international migration, including the humanitarian, developmental, human rights-related and other aspects.
  • present a framework for comprehensive international cooperation on migrants and human mobility;
  • set out a range of principles, commitments and understandings among Member States regarding international migration in all its dimensions.

UN Member States have just reached agreement on the modalities of the process. In brief, the preparatory process will consist of 3 phases:

  • Consultations: (April to November 2017)
  • Stocktaking; (November 2017 to February 2018) and
  • Negotiations (February to July 2018)

Six clearly-defined themes will be explored during the consultative phase:

  • Human rights
  • Drivers of migration
  • International cooperation and governance
  • Contribution of migrants and diasporas to development
  • Migrant smuggling and trafficking
  • Irregular migration and regular pathways.

In addition to the thematic consultations, several regional consultations convened by the regional commissions such as ESCAP (Asia Pacific), ECLAC (Americas), ESCWA (MENA) and ECA (Africa) will take place in October/November of this year.

Civil Society has a clearly identified role and five regional civil society consultations will be held to feed into regional consultations.

The outcomes of all these consultations will be fed into a preparatory stock taking meeting hosted by Mexico at the end of November 2017.

Finally, a first draft of the GCM will be presented to Member States by early February 2018, and will provide the basis for inter-governmental negotiations in New York. The instrument emerging from that work will be considered for adoption at an intergovernmental conference on international migration, at UN HQs in NY just prior to the opening of the General Debate of the 73rd General Assembly in 2018.

As one whose country was built on the backs of migrants, I can attest that, historically, migration has always been overwhelmingly positive. We need to return public discourse to a more balanced and historically accurate narrative. We can help to do so through informed and open dialogue such as the one we are having today; one that recognizes that migration has been an agent of development for centuries, that migration and development belong together and that migration is humankind’s oldest poverty reduction strategy.


Migration is as old as humankind. On the “high road,” migration can be a key to a world in tune with itself. As we face the continuation of simultaneous, unprecedented and complex emergencies the international community needs to tackle the root causes actively and promote commonly shared values and interests. Our work on the global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration is capturing this and focuses on turning migration challenges into opportunities for all. This requires good migration governance; a broad, durable consensus among a wide constituency; and coherent, coordinated policies among partners.




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