The Case for a World Migration Organization

Felix Marquardt is Chair of Youthonomics and the author of a forthcoming book The New Nomad The Case for Migration

Mikael Ribbenvik is Director-General of the Swedish Migration Agency


In June 2014, a young man who grew up on a farmhouse outside Bamako, the capital of Mali, a country where the literacy rate is just above thirty percent, was admitted to Stanford University as an undergraduate student in economics. After graduating, Abdramane Diabate did something more extraordinary still. Having developed a taste for roaming the world through an extraordinary combination of circumstances that had him study in Senegal and South Africa as well as work as a teacher in Costa Rica, he went back to Africa.


Conversations about migration tend to be driven by self-described “realists” focused on the negative effects of migration and who want to adjust, stop and sometimes even reverse migratory flows and apologists, often cosmopolitan by virtue of privilege, who don’t have to see or feel the negative effects of mass-immigration up and close. Those conversations, overwhelmingly about immigration rather than emigration, tend to miss half the story.


As a result, a convenient division of migrants into two neatly defined categories has taken hold of our collective consciousness: refugees, fleeing war, poverty, disease and other forms of tragedy and expats, privileged professionals who have moved from their home country to another to work for banks or large corporations. This Manichean view of migration does not properly account for the vast majority of migrants in the world, who fit neither description.


They include French Muslims who temporarily find Feng-Shui in Guangzhou, African-Americans who find it in France and, as in Diabate’s case, Malians who find it in the Gambia and Senegal. As Victoria Barrett, a freshman at University of Wisconsin who is also the cofounder of an Augmented Reality video game that mixes coding with travel, put it to us recently: “The problem with President Trump’s view on migration is that for him, it’s a one-way street. He completely fails to see that his policies will hinder the ability of Americans of my generation to be welcomed in other countries around the world.” 


Migration has long been the most-widely available means of emancipation, self-empowerment, enlightenment and education available to mankind. Voting with one’s feet is the most common way to vote at all. What the data of the World Migration Report 2018 shows is that in the past twenty years, the combined effects of the third industrial revolution and increasingly ubiquitous low-cost travel is leading an exponential number of humans to embrace a new kind of nomadic lifestyle, profoundly modifying migratory patterns. A phenomenon which in the modern era was a massive, life-altering gambit and primarily about movement from east to west, from south to north, from developing country to developed, has become less risky and increasingly multilateral. Young people like Barrett in particular, who are affected by numerous negative trends in an ageing world run by people born before 1965 and whose identification with the local and the global realm are increasingly stronger than with the national one, are conscious that international mobility is one of the keys to their prosperity in the twenty-first century, indeed their best chance to turn the world into a beauty-contest of countries and especially cities and companies competing to attract them.


Our collective failure to recognize these rapidly changing trends mean we continue to approach migration either as a refugee issue, in other terms as a headache which warrants an international, transversal body (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) only to keep track of the worst human rights abuses without doing much to address their causes; or as a luxury which needs no transversal marketplace or regulatory body. The result is threefold: a self-fulfilling prophecy which keeps compounding migration as primarily, unwanted immigration; the abandonment of the global migration marketplace to human traffickers; and a rising sense of powerlessness, frustration and being trapped among young people who are not encouraged to move around the world as a means to develop the entrepreneurial skills so key to flourishing in the fourth industrial revolution.


The process of planetary integration we started calling ‘globalization’ in the nineteen sixties has led us to approach a wide range of cross-border issues from a transversal, transnational perspective. But while the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization have achieved spectacular results in building regulatory frameworks in their respective fields, we continue to treat what is perhaps the single most cross-border issue of all, human migration, as a national issue requiring primarily national remedies. A United Nations agency dedicated to migration (the International Organization for Migration or IOM) does exist and does extraordinary work, to be sure, but it is in this regard a quite toothless body, one not many people have even heard of and which hardly anyone listens to. Building a coherent, effective global migratory framework should not be an ideological endeavor but about making supply meet demand using data analytics. Even in countries with high unemployment levels, millions of jobs continue to go unfilled. How long will we let ideology get in the way of the obvious rationalization this issue deserves?


Migration is not intrinsically a problem. Poorly managed migratory fluxes are. Global demographic trends mean that the richest parts of the world will suffer very negative economic consequences if they don’t welcome more, not less, migrants who can benefit from and contribute to their diversity and growth. The time has come for the IOM to become the World Migration Organization.