Their own goals – migration driving sustainable development

Close to 190 countries are set to adopt the groundbreaking UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Among its many features, the Compact recognizes the contributions of migrants to the development of their host and origin countries. Migrant workers fill gaps in the labour market in host countries. The money that they send back home helps their families to achieve their own sustainable development goals.

Greg Balmes Jr. was punching the steering wheel and wiping off his tears on the way to the airport. He had just returned to the Philippines a month ago after seven years spent in Italy, working as an undocumented migrant. But with no economic prospects at home, it was time for him to go abroad again, and leave his wife and two children behind.

Sitting on the passenger seat next to Greg, his wife, Grace, decided she would not watch idly as her family breaks up anew. She would help her husband by starting her own business, using the money he had sent her from Italy. Through daily sacrifices and extraordinary self-discipline, supported by a financial literacy course, Grace had been able to set aside a small sum – just enough to open a small store and invest in a school van. The business thrived and, three years later, Grace was making enough money to allow Greg to leave his job in Italy and return home.

After ten years abroad, Greg is finally reunited with his family in the Philippines, working as a school van driver and helping Grace with her business. “I don’t want a big house like my neighbours, who had big houses, also from working in Italy, but no one was living there because they were all outside the country,” Grace says. “Now, our house, even if smaller than my neighbours’, is bigger, because we have a big, happy family living inside it.”

Across the world, over 800 million people like Grace depend on money sent by their loved ones abroad, according to data of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). These remittances are a vital lifeline that allows them to live in dignity and invest in such essentials as education for their children, healthcare and decent housing – all focus areas of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The money they receive also contributes to financial inclusion by providing seed capital and access to loans, helping migrants’ families to start their own businesses, as was the case with Grace. Every year, international migrants send close to half a trillion dollars in remittances to developing countries – this is more than the gross domestic product of Norway and around three times the amount that developing countries receive in official aid.

Yet, for all their positive impact, transferring remittances back home has been a costly affair. According to the latest World Bank data, fees eat up, on average, seven per cent of the migrant remittance transfers. Considering that Grace was able to open her business by saving just five per cent of the remittances from her husband, this number is staggering. Considering the sacrifices that she, her husband and her children had to make, it is heartbreakingly high.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to limit the cost of remittances globally to an average of three per cent by 2030, but progress to hit that target has been slow so far. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, set to be adopted by close to 190 countries on 10 December, seeks to speed up the reduction of remittance transfer fees and to promote the productive use of these transfers.

A result of years of preparations and negotiations, with the support of UN DESA and numerous other partners, the Global Compact proposes numerous concrete actions to make sending money back home, faster, safer and cheaper. The Global Compact also aims to promote investments by diaspora groups in their countries of origin and to foster the financial inclusion of migrants and their families through improving their access to banking and including women in financial literacy training.

Delivering on the commitments of the Global Compact for Migration would radically improve the lives of millions of migrants and of hundreds of millions of their family members, lifting even more of them out of poverty. This global agreement could help unleash the full potential of migration to drive sustainable development, making success stories like that of Grace and Greg much more common.

For more information:

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration

Get latest data on international migration from UN DESA’s Population Division

International Day of Family Remittances (16 June)