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How well are migrants really doing?

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)

Although people migrate for a range of reasons and some are forced to leave their country by conflict, persecution or natural disasters, those who leave willingly usually do so because they are seeking a better life. How many of them find it is a question that few studies on migration have sought to answer.

The 2013 World Migration Report, released on 13 September by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is an attempt to fill that gap. Drawing on data collected by the Gallup World Poll between 2009 and 2011 from 25,000 first-generation migrants and over 440,000 native-born individuals in more than 150 countries, it provides a global snapshot of migrant well-being.

"There's been a lot of research on the impact of migration on society, on employment, whether it depresses wages or improves them in countries of destination, but relatively little attention has been given to the impact of migration on the lives of the migrants," said Gervais Appave, Special Advisor to IOM's General Director and one of the authors of the global report IOM releases every two years.

The findings reveal that whether or not migrants fare better or worse than host populations, or their counterparts back home, depends to a large extent on where they come from and where they end up.

It is often assumed that the majority of migrants move from the developing countries of the South to the developed countries of the North, but the Gallup data found that only 40 percent of migrants move from South to North. At least one-third of migrants move from one developing country to another (South to South) and 22 percent migrate from one developed country to another (North to North). A small but growing number of migrants (5 percent) move from North to South.

Top Migration Corridors
South-South: Ukraine to the Russian Federation (3.7 million)
South-North: Mexico to the United States (12.2 million)
North-North: German to the United States (1.3 million)
North-South: United States to Mexico (0.6 million)

The Gallup Poll assessed well-being with questions about income level, health, housing and working conditions, as well as more subjective indicators like how satisfied individuals were with their careers, communities and social support structures. Migrants surveyed included short-timers (relatively recent arrivals) and long-timers (who have been in a host country for five or more years), and their answers were compared to those of native-born individuals and people who had remained in their countries of origin.

Overall, the study found that migrants who moved north gained the most, with North to North migrants faring the best, and South to North migrants also rating their lives as better than their counterparts back home. Migrants in the South fared similarly or worse than if they had not migrated, with long-time South to South migrants considering themselves worse off than both the native-born and their counterparts back home. More than a quarter of South to South migrants struggled to afford food and shelter, even after being in a host country for more than five years.

Among the migrant voices contributing to the report is that of Mustariya Mohamed, 19, an Ethiopian whose efforts to reach the Middle East ended in the Puntland State of Somalia over a year ago after she was held hostage and robbed of all her belongings by armed men. Despite her traumatic journey and virtual destitution in Somalia, she is still intent on reaching Yemen. "I know the problems; I know people die crossing the sea and many are deported, but I have been told Yemen will offer me a better life. I will do whatever it takes."

Migration is usually a gamble, but Don Flynn, director of the UK-based Migrant Rights Network, likened the experience of the South to South migrant to walking into a casino. "Everyone dreams about putting money down on the right number and making a big killing, but far more people walk out of the casino probably considerably poorer than when they went in," he told IRIN.

Migrant well-being depends to a large extent on the policies in place in sending, transit and destination countries. "When [migration] takes place in an orderly, predictable manner, and if there is good regulation, you can expect to see progress. Where that doesn't exist, it looks like more of a casino. Even in the worst circumstances, people still rise to the top, but the proportion who do well is much smaller," said Flynn.

The North-South Divide
Migrants in the North…
• rate their lives better than if they had not migrated
• gain in health outcomes compared to those in origin countries
• have less trouble affording basic needs than if they had not migrated
Migrants in the South…
• rate lives similarly or worse than if they had not migrated
• have poorer health outcomes than if they had not migrated
• find it harder to afford shelter than if they had not migrated

The 2013 World Migration Report is expected to make a significant contribution to the High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development at the UN General Assembly in October, but Appave of IOM also hopes policy-makers will take the findings seriously. "We need policy makers to focus not only on the economic impact of migration, but equally on the human impact," he said.

Getting policy-makers to pay attention may depend on a shift in the migration debate in countries like the UK, where the prevailing attitude is that policies should centre around the needs of the host population, while the needs of migrants are considered peripheral, said Flynn. "One politician told me it was a privilege to come to the UK and the government was entitled to say, 'Take it or leave it', and didn't have to do any more than that."

Flynn welcomed the new IOM report as a useful overview but emphasized the need for further research on migrant well-being in individual countries to identify good practices in employment, integration and social mobility that could be replicated elsewhere.

Appave noted that new questions could be added to the existing Gallup survey to learn more about particular countries or specific groups of migrants such as forced or undocumented migrants.

"We now have a methodology that would enable us to measure the well-being of migrants at regular intervals," he said. "We really need something that's a barometer of migrant well-being."


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:

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