There is growing talk of the benefits of international migration. Yet these opportunities cannot be realised until we tackle the social and spatial inequalities with which migration is associated.

Migration is rarely out of the headlines. Mostly the focus is on the horrors with the movement of people has come to be associated – deaths at sea, the incarceration of children at borders, the exploitation of workers. Occasionally there is good news – the contribution of remittances to economic growth, improvements to food security and the opportunities migration provides for women to access education and employment. What is often lacking is an analysis of the relationship between migration and the structural inequalities that characterise the world in which we live.

We know that global inequality has risen sharply since 1980. In 2018 the 26 richest people on earth had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, some 3.8 billion people. Overall levels of poverty may have gone down but the wealth gap continues to widen - those who are already doing well have benefited the most.

Meanwhile global migration continues to rise. In 1980 150 million made the move to migrate. Last year that figure was just under 270 million. The composition and geography of migration flows has also changed - today more women and children are on the move, and migration between the countries of the Global South accounts for nearly half of all international migration.

So what, if anything, is the relationship between migration and inequality? Is increased migration a consequence of increased income inequality or a contributing factor? How might these interact with income inequalities and migration policies to shape outcomes for individuals, households and communities? What about inequalities associated with gender, age and race? These questions are at the heart of MIDEQ’s work.

Unpacking the relationship between migration and inequality

There is growing interest in the impact of inequality on development and delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Equally, there is growing recognition that migration can contribute to positive development outcomes. Development agencies and policy makers in the Global North are devoting significant resources to understanding migration’s potential and implementing policies to reduce the associated costs. Migrants and their families can benefit from increased income, skills and capacities, allowing them to spend more on basic needs, access education and health services, make investments, and reduce inequalities.

But the potential for migration to reduce inequality and contribute to development is neither straightforward nor inevitable.

Migration can also create new inequalities; from irregular and precarious migration, poor labour conditions to a lack of rights for migrants and their families. Not everyone has equal access to the benefits of migration: migration often reflects and reinforces existing spatial, structural and social inequalities including those related to gender, age and income. For example, income inequalities in countries of origin can be expected to increase with international migration. This is because the poorest of the poor seldom have the means to migrate.

Migration for development and equality

The time has come to centre inequality in our thinking about migration. Inequality is morally objectionable and worthy of attention in its own right. But it also provides an important analytical tool for understanding migration – its drivers, its consequences and its relationship to broader development processes:

- If we want to tackle poverty, we need also to tackle inequality, including inequalities with which migration can be associated

- If we want to create opportunities for decent work, we need to understand the ways in which migration can create these opportunities – but also potentially undermine them.

- If we want to increase gender equality then we need to recognise that whilst migration can potentially liberate women it can also make them vulnerable to exploitation.

- If we want people to have safer migration journeys and rights in the countries to which they move, then we need to address the fact that whilst some people can move others and freely, others cannot.

Transforming our understanding of the relationship between migration and inequality in the context of the Global South will not be easy. Migration issues have become deeply politicised, not only in Europe but also in South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Brazil and many countries of the Global South. Migration has come to serve as an important symbol of change and (perceived) instability, one that is intimately tied to national and regional debates about national identity, political autonomy and demography.

But migration also offers the potential to reduce social, regional and global inequalities and contribute to broader processes of social and economic development. MIDEQ aims to harness this potential; through generating new knowledge and insights into the relationships between migration and inequality, and supporting others to translate this knowledge into concrete policies and practices. We are ready for the challenge.