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Imagining the future of migration

Some of the Ethiopian migrants gathered on Obock’s pier have been stranded in the town for over a month after smugglers promised them passage to Yemen and then disappeared with their money Kristy Siegfried/IRIN

What does the future hold for international migration? By 2030, will we see more people migrating in response to climate change and an increased demand for their labour in Europe? Or will rapid economic growth and development in traditional migrant-sending countries persuade more people to stay put?

Migration experts have developed a strong understanding of the many factors that drive people to leave one country for another, but they have struggled to predict how those factors may change over time, affecting future migration trends.

As a result, migration policies and interventions have tended to be short-term and reactive, particularly in volatile regions like the Horn of Africa, where increasing numbers of people are migrating to Yemen and further afield due to a range of economic, social, political and environmental factors.

“There’s too much knee-jerk reaction to migration. Normally, it’s seen as a problem that has to be solved and as some kind of short-term phenomenon that’s going to go away,” said Christopher Horwood, coordinator of the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS). “Everyone is admitting that the borders are porous and uncontrollable, but there are no plans [to address it] at all and no real regional discussion either.”

Improving migration forecasts

To improve the long-term understanding of migration, RMMS has partnered with the International Migration Institute (IMI), at the University of Oxford, to explore possible scenarios for the future of migration in the Horn of Africa over the next 20 years.

Frustrated by the conventional models for projecting possible migration trends - which rely mainly on demographic and economic data to produce quantitative estimates of future flows - researchers at IMI have pioneered an innovative scenario-building methodology.

“When we looked at forecasts on migration, we realized there were some shortfalls,” explained Simona Vezzoli, of the Global Migration Futures research team at IMI. “Those approaches…can’t take into account all the factors that aren’t quantifiable and those that are very uncertain.”

Vezzoli and her colleagues wanted a more flexible model that could incorporate all the factors relevant to migration while also capturing some of the future’s uncertainties. They decided to adapt a scenario-building methodology more typically used by private organizations to develop strategies for future business environments.

The core aspect of the method involves considering relative certainties about trends shaping migration in particular regions, such as the probability of continued economic growth in most of the Horn of Africa, rising literacy levels, and populations with high proportions of young, migration-prone adults. These so-called “megatrends” are then combined with factors that are highly uncertain but that have the potential to substantially impact future migration, such as greater cooperation among regional governments, or the impacts of urban population growth.

“Life isn’t predictable, and it’s always the unpredictable events that completely rock the world,” commented Horwood. “Since we started this project, [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Meles Zenawi has died…and successful elections were held in Somalia. Those are two events that, six months ago, were not seen as likely but are potential game changers.”

The method relies on bringing together regional migration experts with people in the private and public sectors, civil society and academia to develop possible future scenarios. “Because it’s a discussion about the future, people tend to let their guard down and really talk about what might be possible,” said Vezzoli. “It gives them an opportunity to link factors they never thought were linked.”

Upending myths

A final report on future migration in the Horn of Africa and Yemen asserts that migration levels in the region are still relatively low, but that there is significant potential for those levels to rise.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, people’s ability and desire to migrate are likely to increase if the region continues to move towards greater political stability and economic development. Conversely, greater impoverishment could actually decrease people’s mobility.

“It’s one of the really central myths that policymakers in the region are labouring under,” said Horwood, “that stability in Somalia will mean you can empty the refugee camps and that economic growth in Ethiopia will result in Ethiopians never wanting to leave Ethiopia.”

In fact, the distance between the aspirations of an increasingly educated population and their home countries’ ability to supply them with opportunities means that people will likely continue to migrate from the Horn in search of jobs and opportunities over the next two decades.

The report posits two future migration scenarios for the region by 2030. The first is characterized by high levels of political instability and violence as well as high, but erratic and unequal, levels of economic growth resulting from a boom in the region’s extractive industries as well as large-scale environmental degradation. These circumstances are projected to cause a continued out-flow of refugees, high levels of rural-to-urban migration, and growing numbers of people migrating to the Gulf, Europe, North America, China and India. Growing inequality would preclude migration abroad for poorer families.

The second scenario is characterized by peace and political stability, as well as slow but steady economic growth accompanied by declining income inequality. These conditions are expected to give rise to the large-scale return of refugees, with the region becoming a destination for asylum-seekers. However, more educational opportunities and greater access to telecommunication technologies and transportation will likely still inspire many young people to migrate to Europe, the Gulf, North Africa and China in search of higher living standards and better opportunities.

The two very different scenarios demonstrate that, as Horwood puts it, “migration is here to stay” and “governments need to manage [it], rather than just react to it as some kind of plague”.

Promoting flexibility

The challenge now, said Vezzoli, is to find a way to present the report’s insights to both the broader public and governments “without giving the impression that this is the future”.

The project aims instead to persuade policymakers to be more flexible in their attitudes and policies towards migrants.

“A policy decision locks you into a certain position and makes it very difficult for you to change direction when a change happens,” explained Vezzoli. “We’re advising them to have a few different futures in mind when a policy is designed, so they’re prepared to take a step back and change direction.”

She gave the example of the UK, where current policy aims to reduce migration as much as possible by making it more difficult for international students and academics to enter the country. “This is very short-sighted,” she told IRIN, “because when you look at the future, the competition for highly skilled individuals is going to be very severe.


For more stories on migration, please visit our In-Depth Crossing into the Unknown

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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