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A blind spot in the migration debate: who's being left out in the cold?

Tomorrow is International Migrants Day, a day to recognise the enormous role that migrant workers play in the global economy and to share experiences to ensure their continued protection. For illegal or forced migrants, however, this day is pretty insignificant since international discussions on the topic tend to exclude them, focusing instead on the rights of legal migrants.

Though migration has been happening for centuries, the last ten years have seen an unprecedented increase in the mobility of people, legal and illegal, both within countries and across borders. Better infrastructure, cheaper and faster ways of communicating and emerging opportunities in urban areas are driving the movement of millions of people across the globe. This trend has made migration a major policy priority in many countries.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has been at the forefront of policy work on migration, looking particularly at ways of making migration work better for the poor. Its recent flagship paper Moving out of Poverty – Making Migration work for the poor sets out a number of important issues including identifying opportunities for low-skilled migration to the UK where there are clear gaps in the labour market, and ensuring that migrants have access to their human rights under national law. The paper also highlights the need to develop low-cost and secure mechanisms for migrants to send money home so that they can be invested in poor communities. A number of UK organisations including ODI have contributed to work on these themes. All our resources on migration are available here.

There is, however, a huge blind spot in current thinking on migration. Policy discussions tend to skim over the issue of forced or illegal migration focusing on people who take a decision to move themselves and do so legally. This is problematic in that it is often very difficult to distinguish between different types of migration, especially in relation to the migration of the poor. As numerous examples especially in relation to cross-border migration show, people may have varying degrees of control over whether or not they move and under what kinds of circumstances. This blurs the distinction between voluntary and forced migration as well as migration and trafficking.

Similarly migration is often done through labour market intermediaries who give advances to the migrants or their families. Such an arrangement can be similar to debt-bondage but may also result in greater economic returns in the longer term making it difficult, once again, to distinguish migration from bonded labour. Also, people may move to escape social discrimination or political persecution at home making it difficult to separate migrants from internally displaced people.

By all accounts trafficking and various forms of illegal migration for work are growing despite the sophistication of modern surveillance methods and more laws to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable groups of people. Examples include the trafficking of women and girls for domestic work and prostitution, children being trafficked for bonded labour within and across borders and indigenous people being employed on highly exploitative terms.

The immediate need is to have a discussion on migration that includes this kind of movement and does not compartmentalise migration separately from trafficking and child labour. Civil society, researchers and policy makers need to act together to develop a proper understanding of the political economy of forced and illegal migration and find ways of protecting vulnerable populations.