Managing migration is one of the most profound challenges for international cooperation.
Migration powers economic growth, reduces inequalities and connects diverse societies. Yet it is also a source of political tension and human tragedies. The majority of migrants live and work legally but a few desperate ones put their lives at risk to enter countries where they face suspicion and abuse.
Demographic pressures and the impact of climate change on vulnerable societies are likely to drive further migration.
This year, governments will negotiate a Global Compact on Migration through the United Nations. This will be the first overarching international agreement of its kind.
It will not be a formal treaty; nor will it place binding obligations on states. It is an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to counter the pernicious myths surrounding migrants and lay out a common vision of how to make migration work for all nations.
The world was shocked by recent videos of migrants being sold as slaves. Grim as the images were, the real scandal is that thousands of migrants suffer the same fate every year, unrecorded. More are trapped in demeaning, precarious jobs that border on slavery. There are nearly six million migrants in forced labour, often in developed economies.
Three fundamental considerations should guide the compact. First, recognise and reinforce the benefits of migration. Migrants make huge contributions to their host countries and those of origin.
They take jobs that local workforces cannot fill, boosting economic activity. Many are innovators and entrepreneurs. Nearly half of them are women.
Migrants also make a major contribution to international development by sending remittances home — totalling nearly $600 billion last year, three times all development aid.
The challenge is to maximise the benefits of this orderly, productive migration and stamp out the abuses and prejudice.
Second, states need to strengthen the rule of law underpinning how they manage and protect migrants — for the benefit of their economies, societies and the migrants.
Authorities that erect major obstacles to migration — or severely restrict migrants’ work opportunities — inflict needless economic self-harm by imposing barriers to their labour needs being met in an orderly, legal fashion. Worse, they unintentionally encourage illegal migration. Aspiring migrants, denied legal pathways to travel, inevitably fall back on irregular methods.
The best way to end the stigma of illegality and abuse around migrants is for governments to have more legal pathways for migration, removing the incentives for individuals to break the rules while better meeting their market needs for foreign labour.
States also need to share the benefits of migration — for example, by identifying significant skills gaps in one country that migrants from another are qualified to fill.
Third, we need greater international cooperation to protect vulnerable migrants, as well as refugees, and re-establish the integrity of the refugee protection regime.
The fate of the thousands who die in doomed efforts to cross seas and deserts is not just a human tragedy.
It also represents the most acute policy failure: Unregulated, mass movements in desperate circumstances fuel a sense that borders are under threat and governments not in control.
We must fulfill our basic obligations to safeguard the lives and human rights of migrants that the system has failed. We have to envisage ambitious international action to resettle those with nowhere to go. We should take steps to avoid unregulated large movements of people.
We must aim for a world in which we can celebrate migration’s contributions to prosperity, development and international unity. The global compact can be a milestone on the road to making migration work for all.
Mr Guterres is secretary-general of the United Nations.