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A New Paradigm for People on the Move

The Migration Opportunity envisions a world where people in need can safely and legally access better lives and livelihoods across borders. Our mission is to stand up and resource an emerging field dedicated to this vision, because enabling people to move for opportunity is the most powerful and neglected tool to address global income inequality.

The initiative builds on GDI’s People on the Move research below. Learn more and connect with our team here.

Despite growing recognition that current migration paradigms are not fit for the moment, people on the move are still widely categorized – by our laws, our narratives, and our leaders – as either threats, who endanger our jobs and security, or burdens, who will cost a lot to maintain. 

But they are, firstly, people: risk-takers, survivors, providers, working to build a better life and bringing their talents and dreams with them. In some cases, violence and insecurity made the decision to move inevitable. In many cases, people chose to move after comparing the risks and rewards of trying to make it somewhere else to their ability to meet their needs at home. In a growing number of cases, the changing climate was an underlying factor. But in all cases, people on the move carry within them enormous potential to help themselves and their host communities thrive. 

Because they have been characterized as threats or burdens, the world’s migrants are often placed into the category of “problem to solve,” sometimes by those enlisted to help them. Irregular migrants and trafficking victims are seen as a law enforcement problem, refugees and asylum seekers a humanitarian problem, labor migrants an economic problem, and immigrants a cultural problem. A patchwork of disconnected disciplines, organizations, and agencies has sprung up to try to solve these problems. And even though remittances now dwarf foreign aid, and there are 1 billion internal and international migrants, economic development continues to be measured by the production of a place rather than the wellbeing of a people.

Often forgotten amidst the siloed problem solving are the choices, voices, and contributions of the people on the move themselves. The world needs a better paradigm to approach migration, built upon some key principles:

  • Freedom to choose where to live and work is ultimately good for everyone, and human rights do not stop at the water’s edge
  • People on the move should be leading voices in the conversation about people on the move
  • Migration is an essential solution to some of the biggest problems the world will face in this century (including youth unemployment, population decline, and climate change)

Image courtesy of ILO

GDI’s New Effort: People on the Move

Motivated by these principles, GDI has launched a new effort focused on People on the Move. The effort was birthed out of our work with forward-thinking organizations and initiatives pursuing systems change in human trafficking, cross-border labor migration, internal labor migration, and the empowerment of refugees and forcibly displaced communities:

  • The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery invests heavily in migrant protection and ethical recruitment, noting that 1 in 4 victims of forced labor is a migrant;
  • LaMP (Labor Mobility Partnerships) is developing  scalable solutions  for  workers from low-income countries to  access  quality jobs across borders;
  • The Migrant Resilience Collaborative is a grassroots-led, multi-stakeholder collaborative focused on ensuring safety, security, and mobility for vulnerable migrant families across India;
  • The Refugee Investment Network is connecting investors and refugee ventures for an inclusive future; and
  • The Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative is a multi-stakeholder response to refugees’ desire for the opportunity to stand on their own two feet.

In this work, we observed that regardless of what category they fit into, people on the move face a common set of challenges, such as: legal and bureaucratic obstacles to movement and employment, the need for ethical business models to displace current internal and cross-border recruitment rackets, and toxic narratives that deny both the empirical evidence and the human potential of people on the move to make significant contributions to host communities. Despite these common challenges, there is usually limited collaboration between the sub-sectors of practitioners supporting different types of people on the move, and many of these practitioners (often facing limited budgets and short time horizons) work under the assumption that the biggest barriers – policies, narratives, available funding, etc. – are immovable.

“We Just Want to Be Given a Chance”

But what we have heard again and again in our conversations with refugees, trafficking survivors, and economic migrants around the world is: “we just want to be given a chance.” So, with the generous early support of the IKEA Foundation, GDI is conducting a landmark study to identify pathways to radically transform the opportunity landscape for people who are, or are looking to be, on the move. Our objectives are to (a) identify bright spots – innovations and initiatives that are starting to disrupt outdated paradigms and systems, (b) find practical ways that practitioners can collaborate across silos to solve common challenges, and (c) issue a call to action to donors, businesses, policy makers, and practitioners to start moving along these pathways towards a different world.

What’s Next & How to Get Involved

Thus far, we have begun early outreach to practitioners and field work to amplify the voices of people on the move themselves – we have spoken with 130 people across 34 organizations, including 88 people with relevant lived experience, and surveyed an additional 100+ aspiring migrants. We are forming an advisory committee for the study that represents key sub-sectors and includes migrants and refugees. We have begun to collect details on “bright spots” and we are developing and testing hypotheses about pathways to impact. 

If you’d like to join us on this journey, we’d like to hear from you. For example, if you think there’s a transformative effort that we should be looking into, you want to contribute resources toward research or convening, or you just want to be looped in as we start to produce results, please let us know. 

Please contact our team – Jason Wendle, Ting Zhang, and Ben Savonen – at