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Making migration a choice

2017-10-18 00:00:36
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Many Sri Lankans migrate for economic reasons, as they see no other viable option for escaping poverty and food insecurity 

Migration is at the forefront of global debates on the directions of social and economic development. Yet, migration has been central to human evolution since humankind walked the planet and is deeply rooted in our collective history.

Migrants as a group are extremely diverse people. Migrants may move from one place to another either permanently or on a temporary basis, and their movements can depend on seasonal conditions, occurring during only part of the year.


  • Migration should be a choice and people should not be forced... especially since the conditions needed for profitable employment can be created with stakeholder involvement.
  • A sizeable share of the Sri Lankan population migrates from rural areas to cities and overseas every year. Almost 243,000 workers departed for foreign employment...
  • Sri Lankan migration is pushed by poverty and low income and pulled by better employment, education and health, and by reunification with family members who already moved

Despite widely held perceptions, most migrants move within their own countries. However, many others do cross borders and move internationally, some, too many, fleeing conflicts in their home areas. The United Nations estimates the international migrant figure at 244 million people, while recording 763 million as internal migrants. Migrants originate mainly from developing regions but, increasingly, move among countries of the global south. 

Thus, South-South migratory flows, like that unfolding in Bangladesh, are now larger than those from the developing to the developed nations. 

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report found that while most countries had achieved significant gains in reducing hunger in the last 25 years, progress in the majority of countries affected by conflict had stagnated or deteriorated. 

Migration due to conflict can devastate the economy, disrupt agriculture and lead to forced population movements.

A sizeable share of the Sri Lankan population migrates from rural areas to cities and overseas every year. Almost 243,000 workers departed for foreign employment in 2016, the majority for jobs in countries of the Middle East. 

Similar to other countries, Sri Lankan migration is pushed by poverty and low income and pulled by better paying employment, by improved education and health, and by reunification with family members who already moved.

Food insecurity and subsistence agriculture are often push factors behind migration out of rural areas. Permanent or seasonal food shortages encourage departures, while the agricultural sector is perceived as having low profitability and few prospects for a better lifestyle.

More than 75 percent of the world’s poor and food insecure live in rural areas, mostly depending on agriculture and natural resources. In Sri Lanka, roughly 30 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture, but an increasing number, especially the young do not find it to be an attractive source of livelihood.

Food insecurity at the household level, also caused by income poverty, often leads to insufficient intake of nutritious food. Young children - who have higher needs for good nutrition to ensure growth and physical and cognitive development, pregnant women and nursing mothers, usually suffer the most from the lack of adequate nutrition. 

Based on the recent Demographic Health Survey(2016), stunting, being too short for one’s age, is steadily increasing–(prevalence of 13.1% in 2012 to 17.1 %), giving a clear indication of increasing long term food and nutrition insecurity in the country. Further, the prevalence of wasting, being too thin for height, among children under five is at the critical level 15 percent - highlighting the need of immediate action to address household nutrition insecurity.

Many individuals and families, in Sri Lanka and across the globe, migrate for economic reasons, as they see no other viable option for escaping poverty and food insecurity. 

However, migration should be a choice and people should not be forced to move due to the lack of decent job opportunities, especially since the conditions needed for profitable employment can be created with stakeholder involvement.

This year’s theme for World Food Day (16 October), “Change the future of migration. Invest in food security and rural development”, acknowledges the structural drivers of large movements of people and recognizes the need to respond. One of the solutions is to invest in rural-urban areas and leverage food systems for inclusive rural transformation.

Growing the roots of rural transformation
Since the 1990s, agriculture and rural development has helped millions of people escape poverty by addressing some of the root causes of migration, including rural poverty, food insecurity, inequality, unemployment and natural resource depletion due to environmental degradation and climate change.

A transformation focused on connecting rural areas with the development of the agro-industrial sector and infrastructure can help to make agriculture more profitable. The recently launched Vision 2025 of the Government of Sri Lanka is an important contribution to this goal. 

Rather than remaining at subsistence level, agriculture can be made a viable income generating venture by infusing it with modern technology, education and knowledge, and through the diversification of crops, livestock and fisheries. Furthermore, developing linkages between the producers and the market and increasing the value addition through upstream and downstream value-addition will encourage youth to come into the sector and stay in it. Integrating nutrition objectives and interventions within the agriculture sector could be an effective way to address some of the key nutrition issues in Sri Lanka. 

In other words, investing in sustainable rural development, climate change adaptation and resilient rural livelihoods is an important part of the global response to the current migration challenge.

Migration, if well managed contributes to economic growth in the host country and country of origin. It is also important to note the impact of migration on cash and knowledge flows into the home country. 

The challenge is to make productive use of the knowledge and remittances to create longer term benefits, encouraging investment in agriculture or off-farm income generating activities in rural areas that create better livelihoods.

FAO, IOM and WFP are working together to address the root causes and effects of migration by promoting policies and pro-poor initiatives that favour the most vulnerable people and create opportunities to stay rather than the imperative to leave. 

Together, the agencies will advocate for solutions that make migration an act of choice and not a necessity.

Brenda Barton, Nina Brandstrup, and Giuseppe Crocetti are the Country Director of the World Food Program, the Representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration in Sri Lanka, respectively


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