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Time to recognise the importance of internal migration for poverty reduction and development


International Migrants Day, on the 18th of December, is usually marked by a number of international events to highlight the role of migrant workers in today’s globalised economy and draw attention to improving labour standards.

However, the event passes unnoticed for those who have been championing the cause of internal migration. This is the migration of the poor who circulate in their millions between their villages and towns, plantations, agro-processing units, mines and quarries. Here there appears to be a serious mind block at the policy level. The dominant view in India, for example, is that migration is a symptom of rural distress. The costs – separation from families, increased drudgery for women left behind, risk of exposure to disease and missed school for accompanying children – are seen to far outweigh any benefits. There are also other consequences that many find hard to escape, including harassment by the police, transport officials, urban authorities and rural development departments.

But, for many living in low potential areas, migration is not just a way of keeping body and soul together: it also offers prospects for improving household wellbeing which local employment opportunities cannot. For example, in Bihar, where I have been working on a research project for the UK Department for International Development and the World Bank, migration has reduced the dependence on moneylenders and in 5-10% of the migrant population, allowed the accumulation of assets such as land.

My recent ODI Briefing Paper on internal migration, poverty and development in Asia discussed how official datasets cannot capture short term migration and thus miss those who work outside their villages for only a few months at a time. One of the main implications of this is a lack of understanding on the effects of internal migration leading, in part, to the hostile policy environment I talk of above. This is probably one of the few areas where government, NGOs and academics share the same views. Their unanimous message is – stop migration!

Is this negative policy and institutional environment making it worse than it ought to be? Could we not cut some of the costs and risks of migration through more flexible schools, pro-poor programmes and insurance for mobile populations? Given that there is no counterfactual, one does not know what would have happened to people without the opportunity to migrate. My experience and the body of research by the ODI on migration suggests that they would starve.

So, while recognising the role of migrant workers in global economies this International Migrants Day, spare a thought for the internal migrants; seeking a better life for themselves and their family, misunderstood and often subject to national and local hostility.