human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Migrants’ rights are key to development

Interview with Heaven Crawley, Prof. University of Coventry and Director of MIDEQ Hub

Professor Heaven Crawley has nearly 30 years’ experience of undertaking research on international migration in a variety of settings (government, voluntary sector, national and international organisations, academia). She was previously head of asylum and migration research at the UK Home Office (2000-2002) and now leads the UKRI GCRF South-South Migration; Inequality and Development Hub (MIDEQ) at Coventry University. Her research is underpinned by concerns about the inequalities with which international migration is often associated, including global, local and social inequalities that shape decisions to migrate and limit the opportunities with which migration is potentially associated.

In an interview with Caritas Europa to support our #whatishome campaign, she explained the challenges and opportunities of migration for Europe and the policies the EU should pursue to enable migrants to fulfil their potential and contribute to development nationally, regionally and globally.

Q: As an expert on migration and development, could you explain how migration, both South-South and intercontinental, presents challenges and opportunities for European national and local development?

Prof. Heaven Crawley

Over the last two decades there’s been a growing body of research which has shown that, globally, there has been a huge contribution of migration to broader development processes. Some of those processes are economic; migrants work in various sectors of the economy, both low-skilled and high-skilled. They not only contribute economic wealth to the countries in which they work, but they also send home large amounts of finances, greater than either foreign direct investment or overseas development aid. But it’s not just about economics. We know that migration is about social development and cultural development. I think over the last twenty years, there’s been much more recognition of the relationship between migration and development and the ways in which migration can be harnessed to benefit both the countries of the global south and the countries of Europe.

Q: What do you think the relationship between migration and inequalities tells us about global development and about unequal development between countries of the global north and the global south according to your research?

The relationship between migration and inequality is really under-researched. However, we know of course that often people move because of inequalities: particularly in relation to income, differences in gender or race in terms of opportunities, in employment, and potentially also in education or safety. Inequalities can influence decisions to migrate but they can also reduce inequalities by redistributing wealth. They do that by creating opportunities for remittances, which are basically the funds that migrants send home to their families and communities,  but also moving knowledge and innovation and ideas to different parts of the world so that people can develop their own businesses and develop their own skills. One of the huge problems with migration these days is the inequalities in the opportunities to migrate legally. Where people are not able to migrate legally, to have rights, to have the opportunity to access the labour market through legal means and be able to earn decent salaries as a consequence of that, they are often in a more vulnerable position and might be exploited. Migration doesn’t inevitably reduce inequality neither does it inevitably create it. It is really the result of economic and political policy which determines how good the outcomes are, for migrants and for their families and the communities they move to. That’s really what our research is trying to do, to see how, in what ways, government policies can be harnessed in a way that would create more potential benefits than what we’re currently seeing, where people are being prevented from migrating legally or are being marginalised in certain parts of the labour market.

Q: Since our campaign this year focuses on migrants as development actors, what in your opinion does it mean to be a development actor and how do you think migrants themselves can be development actors? Do you have any concrete examples from your own research showing these contributions?


The potential exists for everybody as human beings within a society to be a development actor so it’s really about how you harness that potential. It’s very hard to make generalisations because as human beings migrants bring very different sets of skills and experiences. Some migrants will be highly skilled, come from very educated backgrounds, will be able to contribute to the delivery of health care services or the development of technology. Other migrants as individuals living in that society will bring other things. They will bring labour to other sectors in the market and they will bring an ability to contribute to different aspects of their community. Everybody has the potential, regardless of their migration background, to contribute to development in some way.

The key thing really is what migrants themselves need to be able to make that contribution and from our experience the number one thing that they need more than anything else is rights. In the absence of rights, people are not able to exercise their contribution either legally, in terms of what they’re able to do, or in terms of protecting themselves. You can look at rights in different ways and people tend to focus on legal rights. Legal rights are very important: having a right of residency, having the right to be able to work, rights in terms of access to opportunity, access to healthcare, access to education, the right to be safe, rights in terms of protection but also in terms of equality. To me that is the key. Once you have an acceptance that migrants have rights and needs and should be treated equally to others in society, then everything else follows from that. For me, the starting point is always rights in whatever form they take and they are closely interrelated.

The second thing is opportunity. Opportunity can be driven by the labour market but it also has to be driven by a political leadership that recognises the contribution of migration. It has to be driven by a recognition in society that equality is important, that there shouldn’t be discrimination against people because of their background. For me, the focus on development shouldn’t just be on individuals and their contributions as actors, it should be on how you leverage the opportunities of that society for those migrants to be able to contribute. Otherwise, the onus comes on the migrants themselves and they can only contribute if society enables them to.

Q: How could or should national European policies better help provide migrants and refugees with these opportunities to bring about positive change/to contribute to development both in their country of destination and in their country of origin?

It’s really about enabling people as individuals to have the opportunities and the rights to be able to contribute in whatever context they are. They might be in their country of origin and looking for opportunities to be able to contribute and to use their skills, get better education, or they may have moved to another country and are looking to do that there. That’s where the focus on European policies should be if it’s going to be anywhere: how to improve conditions in those countries, in ways associated with rights and opportunities, that mean that people wouldn’t need to move. If we address structural inequalities nationally, regionally and ultimately globally then the negative impacts of migration would be significantly reduced because people would not feel that they had no alternative.