By Jon Sward and Priya Deshingkar
Today marks International Migrants Day, named as such because on this date in 1990 the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families was signed.
The goal of the Convention was not to extend additional rights to international migrants, but rather to explicitly safeguard their human rights. Progress on the Convention’s implementation has been slow; it took 13 years for the minimum number of countries (20) to ratify it before it entered into force in 2003. As of October 2011, 40 nations had ratified the Convention, and almost without exception these have been states in the Global South, many of which are net emigration countries, including major migrant sending countries such as Mexico and the Philippines.
As we mark International Migrants Day, it is important to acknowledge that while migration to relatively wealthy OECD countries continues to be the focus of attention of policymakers, academics and the media, South-South migration accounts for about half of all international migration. It should be noted, however, that an estimated 65 per cent of this migration occurs to neighbouring countries – thus involving cross-border migration. Thus while key OECD countries which receive large numbers of migrants are conspicuous in their absence from the convention’s list of signatories, so too are important regional receiving countries within Sub-Saharan Africa as well as South and Southeast Asia, including the likes of India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Malaysia and Singapore.
This is significant, as South-South migration has important implications for developing countries and regions, because it tends to involve poorer people than long distance international migration. These poorer migrants are often undocumented and there is very little systematic understanding of the magnitude, structure and impacts of such migration. For example cross-border migration in many parts of Africa involves large numbers of women traders and not much is known about the poverty impacts of such migration on the women themselves or their families. Research at the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium is seeking to better understand the implications of South-South migration for poverty reduction and development in five global regions across Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
In the case of Sub-Saharan Africa, the role of South-South migration is particularly important, as African destinations remain the most common ones for international migrants in the region – the recent increase in attention to African (irregular) migration to Europe notwithstanding. According to the World Bank’s 2011 Remittances Factbook, all ten of the most common international migration corridors from African countries of origin are to destinations within the region, underlining the dominance of these flows, as compared to other patterns of international migration.
Not only that, South-South migration flows in Sub-Saharan Africa consist primarily of the migration of ‘low-skilled’ migrants, many of whom find work in the informal sector. Conventional wisdom has it that work in the informal sector rarely leads to poverty reduction but recent evidence suggests otherwise and needs systematic probing. But there are also other important dimensions of these flows. In 2005, 17.5 per cent of skilled migration worldwide was to destinations in the Global South, with Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Africa being significant Southern recipients of the skilled – along with the Gulf Cooperation Countries.
Given that South-South international migration may be relatively more accessible to people in developing regions, due to both geographical proximity and increasingly restrictive immigration regimes in many traditional OECD receiving countries, this type of migration likely has important knock-on effects for poverty reduction and development.
However, the still incomplete efforts to ensure migrant rights in major migrant receiving countries – of which the UN convention on the protection of migrant rights represents just one example – means that these migrants still face widespread risk of vulnerability, marginalization and exploitation.
 Global South is here defined according to the UNDP definition
Jon Sward is a Doctoral Candidate at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, and Priya Deshingkar is the Research Director of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.