They are scattered around the world, but they are valuable members of their communities. They are often absent, but their efforts mean families can build houses, put children through school, and pay for medical care. And despite the billions of dollars they send home, they are often the last people to be helped when – after all they have sacrificed – crisis hits.
These are the world’s migrants, and today there are 232 million of them across the world, enough people to populate the world’s fifth largest country. Their remittances, totaling nearly $550 billion in 2013, would power an economy greater than Norway’s or Sweden’s. But when they go abroad to work and crisis hits, who is responsible for them?
The answer to that question is not clear, as was made tragically obvious during and after the political instability in Libya in 2011. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers found themselves stranded with no options in that country after they were cut loose by their employers and left homeless, exposed to exploitation, and without assistance or recourse from either their employers, governments, or the Libyan authorities.
Why was this so? Because even as migrants have come to play an increasingly important role in the global economy, there are few international frameworks or standards to assist them when crisis hits.
Today is the UN’s International Migrants Day, held on December 18 each year to recognize the efforts, contributions, and rights of migrants worldwide. It’s a day to highlight the urgent need for countries to put protections in place for these people.
The United States recognizes the important contribution migration has played in our own economy. As President Obama said, the steady stream of hardworking and talented people who have immigrated to the United States over the years “has made the United States the engine of the global economy and a beacon of hope around the world.”
Former President George W. Bush agreed: “One of the primary reasons America became a great power in the 20th century is because we welcomed the talent and the character and the patriotism of immigrant families.”
While we sometimes only focus on the negative aspects of migration like brain drain and divided families, the reality is that migration drives economic development in both countries of origin and destination. Countries with aging populations and falling birth rates have come to rely on labor provided by the hardworking citizens from around the world.
But alongside these benefits, there are important risks to the individuals who travel abroad for work. In addition to the crisis in Libya, nearly every crisis – including Hurricane Sandy in the United States – has left many migrants struggling and stranded.
This is because when crisis hits, sending countries often have not put resources and systems in place to assist their citizens abroad, while receiving countries themselves are struggling to assist their own citizens.
How can migrants be better protected? This was the key question discussed at the UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development held in October this year in New York. One outcome was the announcement that the United States and the Philippines, in partnership with other governments, international organizations, and civil society groups, would lead an initiative to address this challenge.
The overarching goal of the initiative is to generate a set of guidelines to improve the ability of states and others to protect migrants caught in countries in acute crisis. The key will be for both the sending and receiving countries to put specific measures and resources in place to help these individuals when disaster strikes.
It will not be an easy effort, and it will likely take years to complete – for that reason countries should begin taking their own actions now, such as by requiring employers to assist in crisis, creating contingency plans with international organizations such as the International Organization for Migration, and giving their embassies specific responsibilities to help their migrant communities.
The effort will be worth it. The millions of people helping drive global development deserve no less.