Taking Another Look at Youth and Migration

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Originally posted by CSIS, December 18, 2014.

For last year’s International Youth Day (August 12), I wrote on CNN about its theme “Youth Migration: Moving Development Forward.” On the occasion of International Migrants Day today and in response to a new bookpublished yesterday by the Global Migration Group (GMG), an interagency body of the United Nations, I revisit that column. Today’s young people are a geographically mobile generation—seeking better educational and employment opportunities and more affordable access to technology and markets. The UN Population Fund estimates that about 3 percent of the world’s population lives outside their country of origin, while the GMG reports that youth aged 15 to 24 account for roughly 12 percent of the world’s 232 million international migrants (UNICEF reports that nearly 35 million, or about 17 percent are between the ages of 10 and 24 years). Data in the new report also suggests that the shares are even higher among the most popular destination countries—where as many as a third of arriving migrants are youth. Despite these trends, their distinct needs, rights, and challenges are underappreciated in, and largely absent from, today’s migration policy.

But with such mobility comes challenges. The GMG reports that more than half of migrant youth were living in developing countries in 2013 (with over a third in Asia), and UNICEF data shows that more than a fifth of the total international migrant population between 10 and 24 years of age live in “less developed” countries. But even within these broader figures there are often significant differences, whether across gender lines or geographically.

Still, new migration patterns are emerging; for example, a number of countries that previously had high levels of emigration, including Argentina, Ireland, and South Korea, are now experiencing rising immigration rates. More generally, countries achieving sustained economic growth and increasing prosperity are new “hot” destinations for young (and indeed all) migrants. Educational opportunity is a leading driver of migration; the number of foreign-born students enrolled in tertiary education increased fourfold from 0.8 million to 3.4 million between 1975 and 2009 per GMG. For young people who move in search of higher education abroad, Europe and North America rank as top destinations, hosting about 70 percent of foreign students at universities worldwide.

Yet while the quest for better education remains an impetus for youth migration, the global recession and youth unemployment crisis are driving record numbers of young people from their communities in search of better job opportunities. Around the world, youth struggle to find decent and sustainable work; young people are up to four times more likely to be unemployed than adults. In hopes of better economic prospects, internal migration is fueling rapid urbanization—half of the world’s population lives in cities and UNHABITAT estimates this will be 70 percent by 2050. In rising numbers, young people, attracted by a favorable wage differential and access to services, are leaving their farms for the prospects of the city. Yet as hopes diminish at home, they may ultimately look abroad for more and higher-paying opportunities.

At the same time, surveys have shown that young people worldwide (except in the Middle East and North Africa) are equally keen to move abroad, whether or not they have jobs at home. Fewer commitments, the ability to pick up and go, and knowledge of other countries undoubtedly contribute to the desire to move. Finally, young people in too great numbers are involuntary migrants, forced to flee their homes and countries due to conflict, disaster, or trafficking.

All this offers benefits for individuals and communities, but it also poses challenges. Remittances, for example, are a critical source of income (in some cases, the only source) for millions of families and are often invested in education and health or used to support other small business income-generating activities. However, skilled migration (“brain drain”) remains of real concern for developing countries, undermining as it does economic growth in countries of origin and affecting the employment market in destination countries.

Young migrants are often a source of innovation and leadership for cities or their adopted homelands, arguably playing an important role in urban renewal from Manchester to Medellin to Maputo. However, they may also arrive with high expectations for a better life and can quickly become disillusioned when work is hard to find or pay is low. Such an economic aspiration gap, when combined with social exclusion and limited awareness or protection for their rights, breeds inequality and makes migrant youths more vulnerable. Instability and crime rise as a result in many destination communities. When migration occurs through irregular channels or is involuntary, young people find themselves exposed to violence and health risks and without access to medical or legal services. This ultimately places a social and economic cost on local governments and communities at large.

It is clear, then, that better policies are needed. But to be effective, such policies require more specific data and greater sensitivity to and understanding of the multifaceted and unique challenges facing urban youth and young migrants. Specifically, results can be improved by assessing the barriers to education, workforce entry and temporary contracts, information and communications technology, civic and cultural participation, and connecting the dots between youth unemployment, migration, and social inclusion with integrated and coordinated cross-cutting policy and programs. Strategies to support urban youth should have a focus on governance and addressing informality (70 percent of urbanites reside in slums, and many youth end up working in the informal sector). There is also a need for greater participation by, and leadership from, youth in policy and program design, implementation, and evaluation.

Young activists and social entrepreneurs offer much needed vision, passion, and capacity to design and lead activities that best meet the needs of their peers and communities. Governments and donors, in collaboration with civil society, must therefore work to strengthen policy and institutional environments, as well as to implement targeted need- and demand-based activities for young people around better education, entrepreneurship training, increased access to lending institutions, safety and protection of rights, peer and community networks, mentors, and service learning.

The new GMG report takes important steps in addressing the data gaps and elevating the discussion on youth-specific migration trends and outcomes. With appropriate inclusion in goals and targets, the forthcoming post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and corresponding national policies and monitoring can serve as an important platform to further inform and advance youth and migration agendas. With even more disaggregated data and evaluative, rigorous research, we will achieve a stronger understanding of migrant and urban youth needs, what is working, and thus be able to better respond to the challenges and realize the opportunities in today’s global, mobile, and ambitious youth.

Nicole Goldin is a senior associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.