Migration: Making the Move from Rural to Urban by Choice

Amina, a former pastoralist and now displaced by drought, tends a garden that is nourished by the run off from a nearby water point in an IDP camp in Somalia. Photo: Muse Mohammed/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017 

Amina, a former pastoralist and now displaced by drought, tends a garden that is nourished by the run off from a nearby water point in an IDP camp in Somalia. Photo: Muse Mohammed/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017 

Amina, a former pastoralist and now displaced by drought, tends a garden that is nourished by the run off from a nearby water point in an IDP camp in Somalia. Photo: Muse Mohammed/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017 

Statement by UN Migration Director General William Lacy Swing on World Food Day, 16 October 2017 

For the first time in history, more people live in cities than rural areas. 

Every year millions of people leave their homes in the countryside and migrate towards urban centres both within their own countries and across borders. Some of these people move simply to seek new opportunities and improve their lives. Others are forced to flee due to conflict or sudden or slow onset disasters, such as drought, flooding or rising sea levels, which are often exacerbated by climate change and environmental stress. 

Rural populations, whose livelihoods depend on agricultural, are particularly vulnerable to migration pressures. They are more exposed, have high natural resource dependency and limited ability to cope with and manage risk.  

We cannot ignore the families, who put down the hoe and pick up their suitcases, because they make less and less each year from the same plot of land. Even when the yield is good, they struggle to survive. In this common case, migration to cities is not a true choice. The impact of this migration in urban planning and development must be acknowledged for the migrants and cities to thrive and prosper. 

Slow and sudden onset disasters are expected to continue to impact millions of rural households around the world. Towns and cities will be a magnet for migrants and displaced people, which risks swelling the ranks of the urban poor. Key to combatting displacement is to address its root causes by helping rural communities better prevent and prepare for disasters and other crises that might affect them, developing more resilient agricultural livelihoods.  

Thousands of IOM staff around the world work to empower rural communities to assess their own risks and develop their own responses, suited to their local context. Let an international organization put a risk reduction measure in place for a community, it will be extremely expensive and probably fail. Empower community members to assess, develop and build their own programmes, they will succeed more often than not. 

Of course, this alone will not stop displacement. 

Climate action is paramount. Climate change is having far-reaching effects on agricultural productivity and food security. It is among the main reasons for the record numbers of people compelled to migrate from rural areas to towns and cities around the world.  

Importantly, the Paris Agreement recognizes the need to protect vulnerable populations, including migrants, and establishes a dedicated task force to advance strategies that avert, minimize and address displacement related to climate change. We need to systematically integrate migration, climate change and agriculture into rural development and poverty reduction programmes, disaster risk reduction and crisis planning and develop agricultural policies and practices that enhance resilience in the face of climate-induced migration.  

What about those, who do not flee their homes because of conflict or disasters, but for whom migration is still their only option? Poverty is forcing families from their farms and villages. Real rural development is key to a better shared future, where young people have more opportunities at home that can compete with those in cities.   

This is not to say that migration is not beneficial. It overwhelmingly is when well-managed, and especially as a risk reduction, adaptation and socio-economic development strategy - benefitting both home and host community. Inclusive policies are key to making migrants more resilient, and more resilient migrants help reduce risk for both communities of origin and of destination.  

Proactive and inclusive urban planning at the local level and effective national mobility management policies are essential not only to reduce the vulnerabilities linked with movement into cities, but also to leverage the socio-economic potential of migration for the development of migrants and host societies. Further, migrants’ remittances can be a powerful force for strengthening rural food security and increasing socio-economic investment in places of origin. 

A vital change that needs to happen to make the future of migration wholly beneficial to migrants and host communities is ensuring that all migrants – internal and international – feel like they have a real choice to stay or to go. 

IOM and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are working towards this change in the future of migration together. At a strategic level, this is emphasized through our upcoming joint co-chairmanship of the Global Migration Group (GMG) in 2018.  

The GMG brings together heads of international organizations to promote the wider application of all relevant international and regional instruments and norms relating to migration, and to encourage the adoption of more coherent, comprehensive and better coordinated approaches to the issue of international migration.  

At the operational level, FAO and IOM collaborate on projects related to strengthening the resilience of vulnerable populations in rural areas to the impacts of natural hazards, climate change, food security and displacement. It is a cooperation that I think will continue to grow and strengthen as migration continues to be a megatrend in the world, which will become only greater with the worsening effects of climate change. 

This future that we are working towards cannot be a distant one or we are doing a disservice to the people both IOM and FAO are meant to support and advocate for.