San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Migration is one of the most challenging issues of the 21st century, says UN official

Migration is one of the greatest social issues of the 21st century, affecting more than 230 million people worldwide. With that number estimated to nearly double by 2050, the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration is going to have its work cut out for it. And that work belongs to IOM Deputy Director General Laura Thompson.

Thompson, an Alajuela native, is the second-highest ranking official at IOM, based in Geneva, Switzerland. The IOM is tasked with promoting migrant human rights, orderly, voluntary migration, and humanitarian crisis response to natural disasters or political situations in the organization’s 156 member countries, among other objetives in its broad mandate.

“Migration has to be a choice and not a necessity,” Thompson told The Tico Times. “That’s the ideal IOM works toward.”

Thompson, a former U.N. ambassador for Costa Rica, was here this week to meet with President Luis Guillermo Solís and other administration officials responsible for the country’s migration policy. During the meeting, Thompson said they discussed policies that present migration in terms of the potential benefits to Costa Rica beyond the security and border concerns. The group also touched on how to integrate migrants into the social and economic fabric of the country.

Thompson also spoke as part of the Universidad Latina’s 25th anniversary speakers series on Tuesday, which included U.S. President Bill Clinton in July.

The IOM deputy director had her sights set on international work from an early age. Since then, Thompson has gone on to work as a diplomat for the Foreign Ministry in Europe and eventually joined the United Nations before assuming her current position at the IOM in 2009. In June, Thompson was re-elected as deputy director general for another five-year term.

The Tico Times sat down with Thompson during her trip to discuss trends in Central American and global migration. Excerpts follow:

TT: What attracted you to work with international organizations?

LT: If you had asked me at 15 years old what I wanted to do, that would have been my answer. Not everyone has managed to do what they wanted to do. Life takes you down some roads that you don’t know where they’ll take you. I left Costa Rica and moved to Europe to have that experience. I moved to Paris, France, and then applied to a position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Working at my first post in UNESCO, I realized that that was what I really wanted to do. And I’ve continued to do it.

What does migration look like in the 21st century?

Migration has become one of the big social issues of the 21st century. Migration should not just be looked at as a security issue but as a much more complex issue that involves development, security and other social issues. Migration has been historically about 3 percent of the human population, and that percentage has not increased substantially. Today it’s roughly 3.72 percent. The 0.72 percent is not a lot, but it’s a lot of people when you think about it in terms of the human population. It’s impressively more than 50 years ago. We’re talking about 232 million migrants worldwide and the expectation is that it’s going to almost double to 405 million expected international migrants by 2050. It’s a phenomenon that’s increasing because of globalization, economic and demographic disparities.

It used to be that migration generally flowed from South to North. Now, there are emerging countries in the South that are attracting migrants, like Mexico, Brazil and Chile. Costa Rica could be there but in much lower numbers. South-South migration now represents almost as much as South-North migration globally.

Many countries’ populations are getting older and birthrates are going down. The average age in Germany or Japan is somewhere around 47 years old; in India it’s 27. You see the difference. Some of these countries need to attract younger people to work. Some economies depend very much on the arrival of younger people from different nationalities. Migration is also becoming much more feminine, where women heads of households, not dependents, are leaving.

What are some of the trends in Central American migration?

Migration here has been different than in other places. In Africa, nearly half of the migrants stay in Africa, fewer go North. In Latin America in general and Central America in particular, 93 percent of migration flows South-North and it’s directed mostly to the United States and Canada. At the start of 2000, more [Latin Americans] were migrating to Europe, starting an important flow there. But with the European and [global] financial crisis, the migratory flow was substantially reduced and lots who had gone in the early 2000s came back.

Do you think as a Costa Rican you have a unique perspective on the struggles of migrants from Central America?

I grew up [in Costa Rica] so certainly I think I have a greater sensitivity and understanding not only of the challenges this region has but the culture and how people think. It’s certainly a plus. A lot of our staff working on this region come from there.

Are the reasons why people migrate changing in the 21st century?

I don’t think so. Maybe one thing that has changed is that violence in urban areas has increased substantially while political crises that once existed have stopped. What used to be a forced migration from political crises, creating a lot of refugees or asylum-seekers, today has completely changed. Today, there are no refugees expelled from Central America. Today those people are migrating for economic reasons or because of violence.

Are there any specific recommendations or policy changes you’d like to see in the region?

The reality is there are no magic solutions. We’re not going to propose them or find them because they don’t exist. Dealing with these issues that are complex by nature require building a lot of capacities that these countries don’t necessary have. At the end of the day, we think the ideal would be that migration has to be a choice and not a necessity. That would be ideal situation where people decide to move to another country to look for better opportunities, not because they are desperate but because they think there are better opportunities elsewhere. If we want to do that we need to address some of the structural deficiencies that exist in these countries: poverty, development, security. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with the same situation.

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Ken Morris

The issue of migration is important, but it’s also important to recognize that its normal conceptualization is a main reason it is such a seemingly complex issue.

Migration only exists if one assumes that the proper political divisions in the world are nation-states and that these have the right to count, classify, document, and exclude residents. But by what authority was it decreed that nation-states are the best political divisions or that these states have these rights over their inhabitants? The reality that the nation-state system doesn’t work particularly well. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of all nation-states in the world are rightly classified as either failed or failing states, yet every one of these is also assumed to be entitled to determine the residencies and travel of the people who happen to find themselves within or crossing its borders (which aren’t always geographically clear anyway).

My thinking is that the paradigm needs to shift from the assumption that the nation-states have rights over inhabitants to the assumption that people have rights over the nation-states. That is, I suggest we start framing the issue not in terms of the problem of migration, but in terms of the problem of failed, failing, and arrogant nation-states. Specifically, let’s assume that people have the natural right to travel and move wherever they want to, and if that is a problem for existing nation-states, let’s understand that the problem is one of the state’s structure or operation, not of the people. By saying that migration is an issue, the responsibility is implicitly placed on the migrants rather than the nation-states, where it more properly belongs.

I also worry that the United Nations may not be the right body to deal with issues like this, since it is composed of representatives of existing nation-states. Despite the diversity of views, the one bias all members of the United Nations have in common is a bias in favor of nation-states. But sometimes this bias is the crux of the problem.

Second, the more practical problem with talking about migration as an issue is that it is too often considered in isolation from capital movement. The global economy is basically one large market, and for markets to operate fairly there are two key requirements: private property and free labor. Currently, private property is fairly well protected globally, since capital can and does go wherever it wills without undue restrictions, but labor is not so well protected. In fact, labor is frequently forbidden from moving across national borders, or at least far more restricted in its movement than capital. If we’re going to let capital move (and there doesn’t seem to be a lot that can be done to prevent it) we have to allow labor to move too, otherwise the global market won’t work well or fairly.

So yes, migration is a big issue, but I doubt it’s quite the issue we assume it is. It’s essentially the flip side of the issues of failing and arrogant states, as well as of capital movement.

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