International Migrants Day on 18 December celebrates the role of migrants in development. Evidence shows that people on the move contribute significantly to the economies and societies of their countries of origin and destination, while improving their own lives.
Such a positive outcome depends a lot on how migration is managed. Failures to provide safe and legal migration, and restrictions on opportunities for decent work or access to basic services can lead to economic hardship and a higher risk of discrimination and xenophobia. Women migrants are particularly affected by exclusion and gender-based violence.
The focus today in many countries is on highlighting the perceived risks migration might represent to people and economies, with some politicians scapegoating migrants for all of society’s ills, rather than showing the benefits.
Investing in social cohesion is one of the key tools to help reduce anti-migrant feelings, promote civic co-existence and enhance the contribution of migrants to sustainable development. This is particularly true for local populations facing sharp increases in the number of migrants.
Trust in governments and within society, and peaceful coexistence between migrants and their host communities are a priority for UNDP in delivering the sustainable peace and common development goals and tackling discrimination.
Our work focuses on socio-economic integration, the expansion of basic services, public campaigning, work and social projects bringing host and migrant communities together. Gender-responsive initiatives address common interests like protection of girls from trafficking and migrant women empowerment.
To accelerate implementation, UNDP has also published the guides Strengthening social cohesion: conceptual framing and programming implications and Engaging with insider mediators—sustaining peace in an age of turbulence.
Building social cohesion
UNDP worked with the Government of Turkey to provide 1,400 young people from Turkish and Syrian refugee communities with training on information technology, entrepreneurial advice and shared sport, cultural and community activities, like tree planting.
A hackathon brought together young entrepreneurs from both communities to discuss responses to the climate crisis. “We have met people from different cultures who want to start their lives from scratch, who have hope, who are entrepreneurs like us,” said a Turkish participant.
UNDP also supported local municipalities in scaling up basic services in response to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the country. In Gaziantep, UNDP developed an innovative waste management system that is now used in other Turkish cities.
In Maicao, a border city in La Guajira in Colombia, the Banco Amable programme brings together host communities and people on the move from Venezuela. With the national and local authorities, UNDP set up reception centres, women’s social networks and shared activities.
Migrants and host communities take part in urban clean-up programmes, the construction of an ecological park, plans to plant trees along the main avenues, as well as small business training. Two thousand seven hundred people have been trained on replicating actions on social cohesion.
The role of women
Women can be the main drivers of social cohesion between migrant and host communities. At the same time, they are more likely to be excluded, reducing their access to decent work, education and health care, as well as exposing them to risks of violence and trafficking.
In Uganda, UNDP improves the economic empowerment of women in refugee‑hosting communities in Acholi and West Nile. By providing emergency employment and vocational training, capacity building and public education, UNDP addresses gender inequality and gender-based violence.
In Peru, UNDP also works on the prevention of gender‑based violence and protection of potential victims of violence against women, in close collaboration with Peru’s Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations and with a specific focus on Venezuelans.
The COVID-19 conundrum
There is a growing consensus in immigrant-receiving communities around the world that more contact or “social mixing” between native-born and newcomers can, under the right conditions, reduce xenophobia and prejudice, and promote peaceful coexistence.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, our only pre-vaccine defence was to break the usual mechanisms of human interaction, with social distancing, the closure of places of work and of worship and a ban on gatherings in most countries.
At the same time, while the contribution of migrants as essential workers was recognized, migrants were stigmatized for spreading disease, being a burden on basic services or competition in shrinking jobs markets.
In Lesotho and Guinea, COVID-19 was found to have disproportionate effects on communities living in cross-border regions. In partnership with the International Organization for Migration, UNDP worked with border officials to promote community cohesion during the pandemic.
In Lebanon, UNDP has supported local municipalities to set up a hot-line for host and refugee communities experiencing difficulties due to COVID-19, as well as for the 2020 explosion that damaged Beirut and for people with disabilities.
Through the 2008 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, governments committed to empowering migrants to become full members of our societies, highlighting their positive contributions, and promoting inclusion and social cohesion.
The pandemic has only added to the many struggles migrants face, especially integrating into new communities. Yet with the right support and social cohesion policies, migrants can help build a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient world. We should not let the pandemic distract us from our efforts to ensure this positive outcome.
On International Migrants Day, let us reaffirm the positive contributions of migrants and their right to safe and dignified lives, while always challenging misconceptions born of xenophobia and discrimination.