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Migration as social protection – is that really the point?

Written by Jessica Hagen-Zanker


On International Migration Day, we are reminded of the huge flows of both migrants and remittances in today’s world. According to the United Nations, more than 213 million people (around 3% of the world’s population) lived outside their countries of birth in 2010, and over 700 million had migrated within their own countries. Most send remittances to the family they leave behind, with formal global remittance flows expected to exceed $406 billion in 2012, according to the World Bank. Aggregate remittances exceed GDP per capita in many countries. What’s more, total remittances outstrip official aid and foreign direct investment in many countries.

With government and aid budgets falling in many developing countries, and levels of social protection that are already low, it is tempting to assume that labour migration and private transfers will fill the gap caused by patchy or declining public transfers. Some have even dubbed labour migration as an (informal) social protection strategy because migration can be ‘socially protecting’. But is that really the case? And if it is, is that really the point? I maintain that, even as we acknowledge the huge role that migration plays in reducing risk and vulnerability, we should stop calling it a social protection strategy. While there are important links between migration and social protection, it helps neither the migration nor the social protection field to mix them in this way.

Social protection spans a whole range of actions to tackle risk and vulnerability among poor and near-poor households, as well as to maintain income standards. It is usually restricted to public policies and programmes, but some have argued that it should be broadened to include informal actions, such as informal savings groups.

Sabates-Wheeler and Waite were the first to introduce the idea of migration as social protection. They argued that it can be promotive -- improving life chances and incomes. It can be protective – a way to cope when a shock happens. Finally, it can be preventive – a way to spread risks as a kind of insurance strategy.

The literature on migration, while not necessarily using the same language, provides evidence for all these motives. Internal migration in Albania, caused by poverty and high unemployment, points to motives that are promotive (see for example the work of De Zezza et al.). Halliday shows that migration may be protective and that adverse agricultural shocks increase the likelihood of a household sending a household member abroad. Various studies (e.g. de la Briere et al. for the Dominican Republic) have pointed to a preventive insurance motive.

The migration literature shows clearly that migrants do have motives that are socially protecting when they decide to migrate. But should we call these motives social protection, when they are really about reducing risk and vulnerability? By calling migrants’ motives social protection, we get a more blurry picture of what migrants are actually trying to achieve, namely to reduce the risk and vulnerabilities that confront their families.

Migration could also be seen as a social protection strategy because potential migrants may choose migration as one livelihood strategy among many (see Hagen-Zanker et al.). This portfolio of options may include informal livelihood strategies, like informal saving schemes or migration, and formal social protection, such as cash transfers. But do households really weigh up migration against formal social protection and, if so, how do they do that? Some evidence suggests that migration and formal social protection may actually be complementary strategies. In South Africa, for instance, pensions may have allowed households to fund high risk, high reward internal migration (see, for instance, the work of Posel et al.)

We also know that the poorest households cannot afford to migrate and that those without labour capacity are unable to send a migrant. For these households there will always be a role for formal social protection. It is misleading, therefore, to call migration social protection – it makes it seem that migration and formal social protection are valid substitutes for each other. At present we simply do not have the evidence on whether migration and formal social protection are substitutes or compliments.

The message from the migration literature is more powerful where migration is seen as a way to reduce risk and vulnerability. Similarly, it is unhelpful to broaden the definition of social protection. If we include migration in the definition of social protection, why not any other kind of informal strategy? By extension anything that earns income is also social protection, and, taking this logic even further, so is eating food. The definition and scope of social protection is already disputed in the field. Including migration or other informal poverty strategies in the definition only diffuses the meaning of social protection even further.