21st Century Migration: Crosscutting Policy Challenges

Stimson Spotlight

21st Century Migration: Crosscutting Policy Challenges

By Ellen Laipson and Carrie Chomuik - Migration is a major force of change in today's world. The World Bank, the International Organization for Migration, and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimate that there are over 200 million international migrants and 26 million conflict-driven internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world today. Migration trends pose a variety of economic, social, political, and security challenges to the global community. As the world's resources become scarcer and its population increases, migration's broader implications for stability will intensify.  A new Stimson study, On the Move: Migration Challenges in the Indian Ocean Littoral, explains why. 

  • By 2050, experts estimate that there will be between 50 and 200 million environmentally driven migrants. Main source countries will be those vulnerable to desertification, those with large coastal cities facing sea level rise, those at risk for natural disasters, and small island states. Although the burgeoning phenomenon of climate change migration is beginning to gain recognition, it remains a low priority for policymakers.
  • Massive slums and informal settlements, such as those housing millions of internal and cross-border migrants in Nairobi, receive scant attention from over-burdened states that cannot meet the demand for social services and infrastructure. As this unregulated growth continues, the world's urban centers could turn into crisis zones.
  • The influx of Iraqis since 2003 into Jordan and Syria reminds those states of the long-term consequences of their absorption of millions of Palestinians from the wars of recent decades.  Their response is to offer some Iraqis temporary shelter, but to avoid long-term settlement and integration.  Some experts fear the impoverishment and alienation of these refugees could pose a significant security risk in future years. 
  • Labor migration can have economic benefits for the sending countries through remittances, as well as to the receiving countries.  Many developing countries now rely more on remittances than on official development aid to fund their development plans. But the dark side of this migration  includes the commoditization, abuse, and trafficking of foreign workers.
  • Social and cultural anxieties that have arisen in GCC societies and governments because of the massive influx of foreign labor will worsen if programs for increasing employment of Gulf nationals and promoting economic development are not properly implemented.
  • Globalization has increased worldwide demand for inexpensive goods and services, domestic labor, and sexual services. This has led to a parallel increase in human trafficking. Declining economic opportunities at home and traditional practices of labor exploitation and discrimination encourage desperate families to send off children and young women to help support them. Deception is often the modus operandi of traffickers, and governmental officials, including police and border control, are often complicit.

Identifying Gaps and Creating Solutions

Traditionally, migration is separated into two major categories: voluntary, which is often economically motivated and sometimes temporary; and forced, which involves longer-term crises of refugees and IDPs. Policy is created according to this paradigm to address specific and often acute economic needs or human rights protection. In reality, however, the status of migrants is fluid, and their designations and needs may change several times during the migration experience. Attempts to neatly define migrant groups and to separately serve or manage them are only marginally successful. The gaps in service delivery and governance are vast.

These 21st century variants of the timeless migration story underscore some of the profound ways in which globalization has affected the lives of so many. Yet the international system struggles to find the right balance between the interests and legal authorities of the nation-state and those of people who cross national boundaries in pursuit of the rights and freedoms the international community fought to establish in the 20th century.  On the Move calls for a more comprehensive and holistic approach for states and international organizations coping with the causes and effects of migration.

  • Given the millions of people at risk of environmental displacement, states and the international community must begin to research and integrate this migration phenomenon with mitigation and adaptation plans and broader migration policy.
  • In order to address the migration to and rapid growth of urban slums, governments must recognize the variety of migration drivers. They would do well to capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit found in urban migrant conglomerations and slums rather than neglecting these areas until an emergency situation arises. In this way, slums could become microcosms of success rather than volatility.
  • Mitigation of risks in the case of Iraqi refugees will depend, in the short term, on the capacity of international organizations to provide adequate humanitarian aid; and, over time, on wise solutions by states and regional organizations.  A more flexible policy of temporary local integration would allow for maximum protection, quality of life, and perhaps the eventual repatriation of Iraqis, even though it may not satisfy the immediate needs of refugees to establish a more mormal life.
  • As Southeast Asia and the Middle East cope with the negative impacts of the economic slowdown on foreign labor, there are some modest signs of progress in giving foreign labor a wider range of rights and protections.   
  • The tragedy of human trafficking is particularly complicated for policymakers, but policies that address the underlying vulnerability and poverty could help reduce the number of people lured into schemes by traffickers that result in terrible human rights abuses. 

Finally, migration trends are part of the 21st century story of evolving identities and culture.  Migration affects patterns of marriage, religion and education, as well as national identity and loyalty.  Managing its legal and political manifestations is only one part of a larger, timeless story. 


Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project.  Carrie Chomuik is a Research Associate with the Regional Voices project.