Rural Migration: An Opportunity, Not A Challenge

Women and children caught in a dust-laden gust at an IDP settlement 60km south of the town of Gode, reachable only along a dirt track through the desiccated landscape. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

Women and children caught in a dust-laden gust at an IDP settlement 60km south of the town of Gode, reachable only along a dirt track through the desiccated landscape. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 15 2018 (IPS)

While it can be a challenging issue, migration must be seen as an opportunity and be met with sound, coherent policies that neither stem nor promote the phenomenon.

A new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) examines rural migration and urges countries to maximise the contribution of such migrants to economic and social development.

“We cannot ignore the challenges and costs associated with migration,” FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva said.

“The objective must be to make migration a choice, not a necessity, and to maximise the positive impacts while minimising the negative ones,” he added.

FAO’s senior economist and author of the report Andrea Cattaneo echoed similar sentiments to IPS, stating; “Migration, despite all the challenges that it may pose, really represents the core of economic, social, and human development.”

Though international migration often dominates headlines, the report shows that internal migration is a far larger phenomenon.

More than one billion people living in developing countries have moved internally, with 80 percent of moves involving rural areas.

Migration between developing countries is also larger than those to developed countries. For instance, approximately 85 percent of refugees globally are hosted by developing countries, and at least one-third in rural areas.

Cattaneo additionally highlighted the link between internal and international migrants, noting that in low-income countries, internal migrants are five times more likely to migrate internationally than people who have not moved.

A significant portion of international migrants are also found to have come from rural areas. FAO found that almost 75 percent of rural households from Malawi migrate internationally.

Abdul Aziz stands with his child in Dhaka's Malibagh slum. He came to Bangladesh’s capital a decade ago after losing everything to river erosion, hoping to rebuild his life, but only to find grinding poverty. Credit: Rafiqul Islam/IPS

Abdul Aziz stands with his child in Dhaka’s Malibagh slum. He came to Bangladesh’s capital a decade ago after losing everything to river erosion, hoping to rebuild his life, but only to find grinding poverty. Credit: Rafiqul Islam/IPS

Why all the movement?

While human movements have long occurred since the beginning of time, many migrants now move out of necessity, not choice.

Alongside an increase in protracted crises which force communities out of their homes, it is the lack of access to income and employment and thus a sustainable livelihood that is among the primary drivers of rural migration.

In China, significant rural-urban income gaps drove rural workers to abandon agriculture and migrate to cities.

Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of China’s population living in urban areas increased from 26 percent to 56 percent, and an estimated 200 million rural migrants now work in the East Asian nation’s cities.

However, such rapid urbanisation increasingly seen around the world is posing new challenges in the availability of resources.

Poor environmental conditions and agricultural productivity have also driven rural workers away.

A recent study revealed that a 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature is associated with a 5 percent increase in the number of international migrants, but only from agriculture-dependent societies.

In other countries such as Thailand and Ghana, migration is prompted by the lack of infrastructure and access to services such as education and health care.

This points to the importance of investing in rural areas to ensure migration is not overwhelming and that residents have the means to live a prosperous life.

However, it is very important to consider the right type of investments and development, Cattaneo said.

“The type of development matters. Development per say is not going to reduce migration…but if you have the right type of development and investments in rural areas, you can make the case that you can reduce some of this migration,” Cattaneo told IPS.

A forward outlook

In the report, FAO advocates a territorial development approach to reduce rural out-migration  and thus international migration including investments in social services and improving regional infrastructure in or close to rural areas.

For instance, investments in infrastructure related to the agri-food system—such as warehousing, cold storage, and wholesale markets—can generate employment both in agriculture and the non-farm sectors and provide more incentive for people to stay instead of move to already overburdened cities.

Policies should also be forward-thinking and context specific, Cattaneo noted while pointing the consequences of climate change. This could mean investing in new activities that are viable to a particular region while another region moves towards more drought-resistant crop.

While migration may still continue, it will not be driven by the lack of economic opportunities or suitable living conditions.

“Migration is a free choice but if you put in place good opportunities at home, many people may decide not to migrate. Some will still want to migrate and that’s fine—that’s actually the type of migration that works. It’s not out of need, it’s out of choice,” Cattaneo told IPS.

In fact, migration often plays a significant role in reducing inequalities and is even included as a target under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10, which aims to reduce inequality within and among countries.

Whilst reducing their own inequalities, migrants also contribute to economic transformation and development around the world.

“We focus on the challenges without looking at the opportunities that can come with migration because at the end of the day, people are a resource for society,” Cattaneo said.

“If we can find a way to put them into productive use, then that’s an added value for the destination or host country,” he added, pointing to Uganda as an example.

In recent years, Uganda has seen an influx of refugees from conflict-stricken nations such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With its open-door policy, the East African country now has 1.4 million refugees, posing strains on resources.

Despite the challenges, its progressive refugee policy allows non-nationals to seek employment, go to school, and access healthcare. The government also provides a piece of land to each refugee family for their own agricultural use.

“This is a country that has looked beyond the challenges to see the opportunities, and they are making these people be productive part of society,” Cattaneo said.

With certain rhetoric that has cast migrants in a negative light, the international community still has a way to go to learn how to turn challenges into opportunities.

“Much remains to be done to eliminate poverty and hunger in the world. Migration was – and will continue to be – part and parcel of the broader development process,” Graziano da Silva concluded.