Migrants as a ‘Transformative Force’ for Sustainable Development

Migrants aboard an inflatable vessel before their rescue co-ordinated by USS Carney near Spain in February 2013

Recent research reveals that well-managed migration can significantly boost sustainable development. Sustainable development, aimed at enhancing wellbeing equitably for both current and future generations, often views migration as a potential threat to stability and security. However, this perspective overlooks the numerous benefits for migrants, as well as for their host nations and regions.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this new set of studies highlights the need for innovative policies to manage migration effectively. Such policies are essential for maximizing sustainability and reducing involuntary displacement caused by conflicts or disasters. Drawing on evidence from diverse locations like Thailand, Pacific island nations, major refugee camps, and cities in Europe and America, these studies offer a global perspective.

Professor Neil Adger from the University of Exeter notes, “Migrants can be a transformative force in their new communities, infusing energy and ideas that can stimulate economic growth, including the transition to green technologies. However, mismanaged migration can exacerbate inequality and amplify environmental damage.”

Echoing this sentiment, Professor Bill Clark from Harvard University emphasizes the need for a comprehensive understanding of the interplay between sustainability and migration, focusing on those who migrate to enhance their wellbeing. Dr. Sonja Fransen from Maastricht University points out that currently, sustainability and migration are often handled in isolation. She advocates for policies that consider the interests of both people and the planet, now and in the future.

Dr. Ricardo Safra de Campos adds, “It’s vital to acknowledge the impact of migration on both the origin and destination regions. With over a billion people today being lifetime migrants, a significant proportion move within their home countries. While most migration is voluntary, driven by the pursuit of a better life, an increasing fraction, now about 10%, is involuntary, spurred by social or environmental crises like conflict and climate change.”

The new studies include one focused on atoll islands in the Pacific, revealing how a sense of ‘belonging’ influences the sustainability of these societies. Patterns of emigration from these areas, while reducing local resource pressure, maintain strong ties to their communities of origin. Another study examines Florida’s sea-level rise, predicting outward migration of younger, economically active adults, resulting in demographic shifts in both origin and destination areas.

These studies are part of the MISTY project, an international consortium led by the University of Exeter and funded by the Belmont Forum, and are featured in a PNAS special issue titled “Migration and Sustainable Development.”

About the University of Exeter

A member of the prestigious Russell Group, the University of Exeter is renowned for its world-class research and high student satisfaction. Home to over 30,000 students, it ranks among the Top 15 universities in The Guardian University Guide 2023 and in the top 150 globally in both the QS World Rankings 2022 and THE World University Rankings 2023. The 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) recognized over 99% of Exeter’s research as internationally significant, with its world-leading research impact growing more than any other Russell Group university since 2014.