Gains and Risks are Highest for Poorest Migrants

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2009 Human Development Report calls for policies that provide access and better treatment to low-skilled migrants

The gains and costs associated with moving are very unequally distributed around the world, according to the 2009 Human Development Report, launched here today. The poorest and the low-skilled could benefit the most by moving, yet they face the largest barriers to movement: legal, financial and social.

The Report, Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development, finds that most migrants, internal and international, reap gains in the form of higher incomes, better access to education and health, and improved prospects for their children. Proportionately, the poorest people of the world gain the most from emigrating.

"People move to gain better lives for themselves and their families. But movement is rarely an expression of simple choice," says the Report's lead author Jeni Klugman. "For too many people it also reflects the repercussions of conflict, natural disaster or severe economic hardship. And they face risks: like those who end up in trafficking networks."

This is the latest publication in a series of global Human Development Reports, which aim to frame debates on some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity, from climate change to human rights. It is an independent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).


The Report reinforces the idea that migration is motivated by inequalities in opportunities between and within regions and countries, in income and in other areas such as education and health care. Research found that migrants from the poorest countries saw on average a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling in education enrolment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality after moving to a country with more opportunities.

There are significant discrepancies in people's well-being between and within regions. For example, compared to neighbouring Myanmar, someone born in Thailand can expect to live seven more years, to have almost three times as many years of education and to spend and save eight times as much money. Besides income, gaining better access to services, including health care, are key motivations for moving. For example, among top high school graduates from Tonga and Papua New Guinea, "health care" and "children's education" were mentioned more often than "salary" as reasons for migrating.

Evidence suggests that migrant families have fewer and healthier children than if they stayed. Recent research in the United States found that people's health improved markedly during the first year after immigration. The gains in the health of immigrant children in the United States are particularly high with child mortality for migrants from the poorest countries decreasing 16-fold.


While the gains of migration can be large, Overcoming Barriers finds that migrants often encounter substantial costs and risks to their welfare. These include direct financial outlays that are often very high in relation to income and the stress on families and individuals that move to a new and different environment, often involving separation from family members. There are actual physical dangers, risk of exploitation, abuse, incarceration for many irregular migrants--those who do not have the required documents to stay in the country or that have arrived through non-official means.

But high official costs encourage irregular migration. The Report cites the example of agreements between Thailand, Cambodia and the Lao People's Democratic Republic under which recruitment fees are equivalent to four to five months' salary, applicants face processing time averages of about four months and 15 percent of wages are withheld pending the migrant's return home. In contrast, smugglers reportedly charge the equivalent of one month's salary.

Barriers to services

Overcoming barriers argues that a bold vision is needed to enhance the potential human development gains that can be reaped from migration. To that end, the Report highlights six major directions for reforms, from government policies that include providing greater access and better treatment for migrants to increasing the access of low-skilled and seasonal workers. The Report also stresses the need to reduce document costs, especially to benefit the poorest. Giving internal and temporary migrants fuller access to public services is another means to reduce the risks and costs of migration. This will help ensure that higher human development gains occur following decisions by millions of people every year to move in search of better opportunities.

To access the Human Development Report and the complete press kit please visit:

About this report: The Human Development Report continues to frame debates on some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. It is an independent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Jeni Klugman is the lead author of the 2009 Report. The Report is translated into more than a dozen languages and launched in more than 100 countries annually. The 2009 Human Development Report is published in English by Palgrave Macmillan.

About human development: Human Development is the expansion of the freedoms that people have to live their lives as they choose. This conception--inspired by the path-breaking work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and the leadership of the late Mahbub ul Haq, and known also as the capabilities approach because of its emphasis on the freedom that people have to achieve vital 'beings and doings'--has been at the core of UNDP's approach since the first Human Development Report in 1990, and is as relevant as ever to the design of effective policies to combat poverty and deprivation. This approach has proved powerful in reshaping thinking about topics as diverse as gender, human security and climate change.

About UNDP: UNDP is the UN's global development network, advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. We are on the ground in 166 countries, working with them on their own solutions to global and national development challenges. As they develop local capacity, they draw on the people of UNDP and our wide range of partners. Please visit:


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Jean-Yves Hamel
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