The ease (and unease) of global human mobility

RP hosts a global migration forum that will reveal why international migration no easy issue to deal with

Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI)


If one is a migrant worker, or a foreign tourist wishing to go to this Southeast Asian country, you will feel the comfort of passing through Malaysia’s gateway: the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. With many rows of immigration officials in tow, travelers can freely choose where to go.

And no immigration cards are even needed, unlike in other countries. “It is because all travelers’ details are computerized already,” a male immigration officer said.

KLIA even looks classy in appearance than some of the Philippines’ shopping malls. Marbled floors and food stalls just provide brightness to people inside the spacious international airport.

Of course, there are rules: Some 45 degree-angled escalators are allowed to accommodate baggage pushcarts, even as some airlines allow 32 kg. or 20 kg. baggage limits.

And when one gets into the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, foreigners here are given some simple rules. Southeast Asians are welcome, says a Philippine embassy official, but the Malaysian government advises them “to leave the country on or before the expiry date of your visa” (attention: Indonesians and Filipinos, as some Malaysian politicians would say).

There are also cultural norms here that foreigners, such as Filipino workers, must abide: don’t kiss the hands of cheeks of others, except spouses, should be avoided. The right hand should always be used when eating with one’s hand or when giving and receiving objects.

What about the left hand? “In Malaysian traditions, the left hand is considered unclean,” says a handbook for Filipino workers.

Rules govern whatever is being traveled—things, money, trade, and now people. Whatever one’s motives are as a traveler, or as a bearer or exporter of other forms of goods to countries, rules are the name of the game for some people. There are also different rules for different milieus: educational qualifications for foreign workers in Canada and Switzerland differ, so do regulations governing irregular or undocumented migrants in Italy, Australia, and the United States.

But for some 200 million people whom the world calls as “migrants,” while they try to follow or skirt different rules governing their being in lands other than their own, they show that today’s global human mobility is not only rapid, but can be raucous for governments and redeeming for individuals.

What rapidly moves are not just people, but cash and in-kind remittances, ideas, cultures and norms, national and transnational identities, peoples’ rights, and even poor peoples’ dreams of better lives. No wonder it ain’t easy for many governments to talk about international migration, more so its relationship with development (itself another broad universe).

And now, some rich countries like Japan, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and Canada are feeling the pinch: to sustain their economies, they gulped in saying that they need foreign labor.

Many people’s current interest with this six percent segment of the global population called migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers was not seen before: even the United Nations General Assembly had thumbed down previous proposals for a world conference on migration and development.

But the bubble is about to burst: over-US$300 billion of remittances to developing and least-developed countries are a stark fact that development groups cannot just shy away at the concerns of these undocumented and documented people. Developing countries such as South Africa and the Philippines have even made their dues to developed countries: their nurses have saved developed countries’ health systems (the monetary worth of which is higher than these host countries’ official development aid to migrants’ motherlands).

If the International Labour Office thinks there remains an immense demand worldwide for low-skilled labor (to include foreigners), imagine if developed country nationals who are bank executives, diplomats, and government officials will be the ones to clean their own laundry and dishes after toiling from their daily work.

Even American businesspeople are raking in money from a migrant: Yao Ming, and Chinese nationals in the US are making US businesses’ cash registers active.

Which brings to mind what international migration scholar Peter Stalker, a British national, said: “What’s the fuzz all about, anyway?”

The global fuzz is that there are differing rules on how countries and blocs of economies deal with migrants and with international migration. Meanwhile, a small mall here in Kuala Lumpur has formal and informal remittance centers that provide the economic lifelines of various poor countries. In some countries, there are all sorts of restaurants and their culturally-distinct meals. What may be a sweet-smelling barbecue for Filipinos is a stench for some Western nationals.

And this mixing of cultures, identities, and resources will continually flow, and might possibly overflow.

International migration has its own blessings and curses, depending if one is from the vantage point of origin countries or of receiving societies. But regardless of how one looks at international migration and development, governments have no choice now but to review their immigration rules, their relationships with other countries, and the interdependency of the economies of the so-called First World and Third World .

At the same time, as the recent magazine of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) Journalism Consortium, Move, writes, “there has never been a time when than now when it’s easier for workers to move around despite of, in spite of, and even against greater state control over migration.”

All these calls for reflection are because of migrants —ordinary apple pickers, construction workers, nannies and caregivers, natural scientists, and many more who send money home and who provide income and some measure of economic stability to their host countries. They are now “development actors,” not just anymore the criminal eyesores in hostlands.

From October 27-30 in Manila, the Philippines will host the Second Global Forum on Migration and Development. The GFMD is not formally under the United Nations System, but is a conclave that brings together governments, migrants, and private/civil society actors from over-150 states to talk about practical solutions on international migration and development can provide equalizing benefits to everyone. The Ayala Foundation will handle the civil society days (October 27-28), while the Department of Foreign Affairs will convene the inter-governmental forum (October 29-30).

No less than UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon will oversee the Second GFMD, as this annual event that began in Brussels, Belgium in 2007 was inspired by the prodding of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the world to look at the conditions of migrants. No less than a leading migrant-sending country, the Philippines (home of some 8.7 million migrants in 193 countries who have sent some US$120 billion in the last 32 years), will showcase its ways of managing the outflow of people for work and permanent settlement abroad, and of handling problems associated with international migration.

International migration is the world’s newest “great equalizer” for people and for countries affected by this demographic phenomenon. People find in their overseas migration that opportunities that they can maximize will stand to benefit even foreigners, not just host country nationals. As for rich and poor countries, both now have their own leveraging positions in the global stage —thanks to migrants (especially from developing countries). Some even remark that international migration “is the single greatest poverty reduction endeavor in human history”.

We then go back to Kofi Annan’s prodding: that the welfare of migrants should not be set aside. Migrants may be among the reasons why global human mobility is easy for some and uneasy for others. But their simple hard work and dreams for their families back home, and in their adopted countries, are now providing today’s world with hopefully a future built on multiculturalism, respect, and global equity.

Jeremaiah M. Opiniano, 32, is executive director of the nonprofit Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI, The Institute does social policy research, advocacy, networking, and development journalism on international migration and development issues in the Philippines. He also teaches at the University of Santo Tomas journalism program. Comments are welcome at