Blog post written by Nicola Piper (University of Sydney), Udan Fernando (Centre for Poverty Analysis Colombo) and Sanushka Mudaliar (Human Rights Council of Australia) and forms part of a series of blog posts analysing the final draft (objective by objective) of the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.


2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN General Assembly A/RES/70/1, para 29: We recognize the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development. We also recognize that international migration is a multidimensional reality of major relevance for the development of countries of origin, transit and destination, which requires coherent and comprehensive responses. We will cooperate internationally to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration involving full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of migrants regardless of migration status, of refugees and of displaced persons. Such cooperation should also strengthen the resilience of communities hosting refugees, particularly in developing countries. We underline the right of migrants to return to their country of citizenship, and recall that States must ensure that their returning nationals are duly received.




Objective 19 concerns the creation of conditions for migrants and members of diasporas “to fully contribute to sustainable development in all countries”. In order to achieve this objective, the intention is “to empower migrants and diasporas to catalyse their development contributions, and to harness the benefits of migration as a source of sustainable development”. This objective endorses the full and effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda by “fostering and facilitating the positive effects of migration for the realization of all Sustainable Development Goals” (action a). More specifically, Objective 19 points to the following priorities, emphasising the need:


1) to provide greater policy coherence and enhanced institutional capacities for migrant and diaspora contributions: this includes the integration of “migration into development planning and sectoral policies at local, national, regional and global levels” (action b) as well as institutional infrastructure, including dedicated diaspora offices or focal points, diaspora policy advisory boards and dedicated diaspora focal points in diplomatic or consular missions (action d);

2) to research the non-financial contributions of migrants and diasporas as to create a sound evidence-base for policy-making, i.e. to “invest in research on the impact of non-financial contributions of migrants and diasporas to sustainable development in countries of origin and destination, such as knowledge and skills transfer, social and civic engagement, and cultural exchange” (action c);

3) to expand government reach-out or liaison initiatives, such as “targeted support programmes and financial products that facilitate migrant and diaspora investments and entrepreneurship, including by providing administrative and legal support in business creation, granting seed capital-matching, establish diaspora bonds and diaspora development funds, and organize dedicated trade fairs” (action e); the provision of “easily accessible information and guidance, including through digital platforms” (action f); and building of “partnerships between local authorities, local communities, the private sector, diasporas, hometown associations and migrant organizations to promote knowledge and skills transfer between their countries of origin and countries of destination” (action j);

4) to enhance migrants’ political participation in, and engagement with, countries of origin, “including in peace and reconciliation processes, in elections and political reforms, such as by establishing voting registries for citizens abroad, and by parliamentary representation, in accordance with national legislation” (action g);

5) to promote migrants’ mobility via the facilitation of “flexible modalities to travel, work and invest with minimal administrative burdens, including by reviewing and revising visa, residency and citizenship regulations” (action h), as means to maintain the link between diasporas and their country of origin.


This is a very ambitious list of action points. There are a number of countries which have made considerable advances in addressing or fulfilling a number of the actions listed above – such as in the case of Mexico, India, Sri Lanka and China – but to our knowledge, there is not a single country which has achieved the full gamut of actions listed in all areas and regards. A key impediment constitutes institutional capacity, hence the reach-out to migrants and diasporas tends to be patchy and policies not consistent across countries of destination and groups of migrants. Also, there is the danger to focus on immigrants and the higher skilled to the detriment of temporary contract migrants who typically labour in the lower skilled, low wage sectors. We would, therefore, argue for an approach which transcends ‘diasporas’ in place of focusing on ‘return migration’, and thus, for policies to cater for all types of migrants in all migration corridors (South-North, South-South).


On Categories


There are a number of definitional issues involved.  First, a clear definition of what constitutes a “diaspora” and who the “migrants” are is lacking. The assumption seems to be that the former term relates to long-term, settled immigrants including second and third generations. The latter, by contrast, seems to refer to short-term migrants, such as temporary contract workers. An implicit elitism is involved in the approach to “diasporas” in relation to knowledge and skill transfer. Targeted are the highly skilled, professionals (“expats”) who are also often the better protected, legally secure and long-term immigrants who manage to bring their families along and usually can embark upon a pathway to citizenship. Members of ‘diasporas’ are deemed ‘transnational’, whereby the term ‘migrant’ connotes a stronger sense of temporality. A certain section of the migrant population is a ‘transient’ category in the sense that they work abroad for a particular, limited period of time. Upon completion of their work contracts, they return to their country of origin. Once this happens they cease to be ‘migrants’ and become an integral part of the country of origin. This can also be seen in some sections of diaspora groups who return to their countries of origin ‘for good’ (sometimes not until retirement). However, the transition of diasporas can be less smooth as in the case of migrants, especially in the case of ‘political’ exiles (Orjuela 2008; Geoffray 2015; Brun and Van Hear 2012). At times, a complete switch over from ‘diaspora’ to ‘local’ is, therefore, not possible socially and politically.


Second, there is an underlying assumption that migrants and diasporas somehow represent their countries of origin. It has to be underlined, however, that diasporas are heterogeneous, consisting of diverse socio-cultural and even political factions, sometimes in alignment with the country of origin’s social make-up, at other times not. This issue of heterogeneity is dependent upon class, religion, region of origin, reasons for and circumstances of emigration etc. This in turn has implications for the issue of institutionalisation and representation, i.e. when some members of a diaspora are regarded as the voice or representatives of an entire diaspora. This is very problematic particularly in relation to the following actions listed in the GCM: f) diasporas and humanitarian emergencies and g) diasporas in peace and reconciliation processes, but also as for elections and parliamentary representation, mentioned under action g). The political orientation of various diasporas (for example, of the Cuban diaspora) was not always in alignment or sometimes even blatantly counter the origin country interests, deriving from a particular class and property interest. In other cases, such as Iraq, diasporas have been influential in shaping a certain portrayal of the regime, thereby justifying Western interventionist policies. There are also examples of diasporas active in conflict, i.e. Northern Ireland, former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, providing political support for specific political ideas, humanitarian aid and occasionally weapons. Apart from the self-labelling as diaspora, there is the other labelling to be considered by members of host countries, where diaspora can be equated with difference at best, non-integration or non-assimilation at worst.


Third, another issue that is raised by the action points concerns the singular focus on migrants and immigrants, in isolation from members of their origin community. In regard to “integration”, “participation” and “outreach”, it is, however, important to include the voices of non-migrant members of the so-called home-town communities to make sure the priorities of local residents are not side-lined and the voices of diaspora members favoured over those who are directly affected e.g. by the channelling of funds from overseas residents. This has been well demonstrated by social science research (e.g. Mullings 2011). Last but not least, reference to gender is omitted from the action points in relation to this Objective which deserves addressing.


Our commentary proceeds by concentrating on facilitation of mobility. It will deploy an inclusive approach across various categories of migrants and in extension to non-migrant groups to ensure a non-classicist approach which avoids leading to division not only among migrants/returnees but also in origin communities (as otherwise the case, see Ho 2011).


Facilitation of Mobility


There are two important points raised in this section: one concerns the widening of possibilities of freedom of movement within regions and because of dual citizenship arrangements or visa portability; and the other a related issue of facilitation of portability of rights (including social security provisions, earned benefits and skills).


Starting with the country of origin perspective, provisioning of dual nationality or the kind of arrangement put in place by e.g. India (Non-resident Indian, as opposed to an Overseas Resident status for foreigners in India) is becoming more widespread. Together with the increase in visa-free travel between regions or sub-regions (e.g. EU, ASEAN, APEC, ECOWAS), such policies tend to benefit and target highly skilled professionals or business people. It does not ease mobility for the majority of the less-skilled migrants, however, who often end up in low-wage sector type of work but are also hailed ‘agents for development’. Yet, their potential is severely constrained by highly restrictive migration policies. Cross-referencing could also be made here to the situation of international students who increasingly desire workplace experience after graduation before considering a possible return. This in turn relates to SDG 4.B and the call for more scholarships being made available.


Policies aimed at easing mobility in a transnational space concern countries of origin as much as countries of destination. The former need to implement citizenship provisions from an equitable perspective, in the form of inclusive citizenship for all, especially in countries where statelessness is a significant problem. In other words, facilitating access and rights of overseas residents while neglecting the same rights for non-citizen migrants is highly exclusionary and may result in social conflict over time.


Lastly, the GCM recommendation 6(h) calls upon governments to consider the issuing of portable visa arrangements which would ease mobility across borders, and thereby facilitate continuing relations between countries of destination and origin. Along with the portability of earned benefits, the enhancement of recognition of foreign qualifications/skills (Addis Ababa Action Agenda, page 50, paragraph 111) requires improvement also to facilitate and enhance mobility. From a gender perspective, the issue of work permits for foreign spouses is also of importance. Since the ‘trailing spouse’ is still often female, the skills of women are often side-lined or underused which has implications for gendered diaspora engagement in countries of origin.


Inclusive Approach


The Action Points listed under Objective 19 rest primarily on the initiatives and responsibilities of governments and their agencies. This is understandable given the particular role of governments in fulfilling the SDGs. However, given the nature of the constituencies of migrants and diasporas, the initiatives and responsibilities should also be extended to civil society, both organised ones as well as small community-level ones. This would enable a meaningful engagement of migrants and diasporas at community levels in addition to large-scale national and sub-national level engagements.


In this context, it is therefore vital to acknowledge the ‘politics of diaspora’, and differentiate between collective political positions and social action (as in GCM actions g and f) on the one hand and the individual on the other hand. Furthermore, there is danger in excluding locals in country of origin communities from the decision-making process or consultations about “development” priorities (as per SDG Goal 16). Political inclusion of all (SDG Goal 10, target 10.2) is required, also in relation to potential gender differences in cases where diaspora organisations may be dominated by one gender. There is little research to date on gender in this regard, with more studies having focused on gender aspects of remittances (e.g. Kunz 2008). More knowledge should, therefore, be generated on the gender effects of diasporas.


Stigmatisation of some sections of migrant returnees (e.g. low-wage workers, presumed or actual sex workers) is a key impediment to socially integrate migrant returnees, especially women. Discrimination on the basis of class and/or gender which would constrain the migrant-returnees’ ability to meaningfully reintegrate with their respective communities and societies should be counter-acted.


Finally, there is also a danger in asserting moral pressure on diaspora members in order to galvanise their efforts to proactively engage with their countries or communities of origin, with the effect of asserting moral “force” upon them, at times a pressure extended even across generations. Since they often have to already “prove” themselves worthy as newcomers in the country of destination, the additional expectation of their proactive involvement in the development of their country of origin can be overwhelming. Their engagement should, therefore, be purely voluntary. At the same time, non-migrants in countries of origin should also have the chance to be involved in ‘development partnerships’ alongside returnees or members of the diaspora.


The Future


In urging the empowerment of migrants and diasporas “to catalyse their development contributions, and to harness the benefits of migration as a source of sustainable development”, Objective 19 articulates an agenda that has been strongly promoted by a burgeoning epistemic community of development policy-makers (Gamlen 2014). Attempts to implement Objective 19 should approach existing policies based on migrant- and diaspora-led development critically because these are often based on flawed assumptions and idealised understandings of migrant and diaspora experiences (see also Pellerin and Mullings 2013). It is vital that policy-makers consider the migration dynamics in specific countries in order to ensure that the implementation of Objective 19 does not instrumentalise migrants and diasporas as tools of development, and places an equal responsibility on developed countries to ensure that the potential benefits of migration for development are realised.


Further Readings

Brun, C. and N. Van Hear (2012) ‘Between the local and the diasporic: the shifting centre of gravity in war-torn Sri Lanka’s transnational politics’, Contemporary South Asia, 20, 1, 61-75

Centre for Poverty Analysis (2017) “Overseas Sri Lankans as Partners of Development”, Colombo: CEPA.

Gamlen, A. (2014) ‘Diaspora institutions and diaspora governance’, International Migration Review, 48, 1, 180-217

Geoffray, M. L. (2015) ‘Transnational dynamics of contention in contemporary Cuba’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 47, 2, 223-249.

Ho, E. (2011) ‘‘Claiming’ the diaspora: elite mobility, sending state strategies and the spatialities of citizenship’, Progress in Human Geography, 35, 6, 757-772.

Kunz, R. (2008) ‘Remittances are beautiful’? Gender implications of the new global remittances trend’, Third World Quarterly, 29, 7, 2389-1409.

Migration Data Portal, “Diasporas”.

Mullings, B. (2011) ‘Diaspora strategies, skilled migrants and human capital enhancement in Jamaica’, Global Networks, 11, 1, 24-42.

Orjuela, C. (2008) ‘Distant warriors, distant peace workers? Multiple diaspora roles in Sri Lanka’s violent conflict’, Global Networks, 8, 4, 436-452.

Pellerin H. and B. Mullings (2013) ‘The ‘Diaspora option’, migration and the changing political economy of development’, Review of International Political Economy, 20, 1, 89-120

Phillips, Melissa (2016) “Are refugee and migrant diasporas the missing piece of the development puzzle?”, The Conversation, 12 September 2016.


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