Today’s young people are a geographically mobile generation – seeking better educational and employment opportunities and more affordable access to technology and markets. The U.N. Population Fund estimates that about 3 percent of the world’s population lives outside their country of origin, while UNICEF reports that nearly 35 million, or about 17 percent, of international migrants are between the ages of 10 and 24 years. It’s fitting therefore that this year’s International Youth Day, being marked Monday, has the official theme of “Youth Migration: Moving Development Forward.”
But with such mobility comes challenges. UNICEF says 21 percent of the total international migrant population between 10 and 24 years of age live in “less developed” countries. But even within this broader figure there are often significant differences, whether across gender lines, or geographically.
And new migration patterns are emerging – for example, a number of countries that previously had high levels of emigration, including Argentina, Ireland, and South Korea, are now experiencing rising immigration rates. More generally, countries achieving sustained economic growth and increasing prosperity are new “hot” destinations for young (and indeed all) migrants. For young people who move in search of higher education abroad, Europe and North America rank as top destinations, hosting about 70 percent of foreign students at universities worldwide.
Yet while the quest for better education remains an impetus for youth migration, the global recession and subsequent youth unemployment crisis are driving record numbers of young people from their communities in search of better opportunities. Around the world, youth struggle to find decent and sustainable work; young people are up to three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Attracted by a favorable wage differential and access to services, young people are, in rising numbers, leaving their farms and rural homes for the prospects of the city, and as hopes diminish at home, they increasingly look abroad for more and higher-paying opportunities.
At the same time, surveys have shown that young people worldwide (except in the Middle East and North Africa) are equally keen to move abroad, whether or not they have jobs at home. Fewer commitments, the ability to pick up and go, and knowledge of other countries undoubtedly contribute to the desire to move. Finally, young people in too great numbers are involuntary migrants, forced to flee their homes and countries due to conflict, disaster, or trafficking.
All this offers benefits for individuals and communities, but also poses challenges. Remittances, for example, are a critical source of income (in some cases the only source) for millions of families and are often invested in education and health or used to support other small business income-generating activities. However, skilled migration (“brain drain”) remains of real concern for developing countries, undermining as it does economic growth in countries of origin and affects the employment market in destination countries.
The reality is that while young migrants are often a source of innovation and leadership in their adopted homelands, they may also arrive with high expectations for a better life in the city, or abroad, and can quickly become disillusioned when work is hard to find or pay is low. This economic aspiration gap, when combined with social exclusion and limited awareness of and protection for their rights, makes migrant youths more vulnerable, and it can fuel instability and civil unrest in many destination communities. When migration occurs through irregular channels or is involuntary, young people find themselves exposed to violence and health risks and without access to medical or legal services. This ultimately places a social and economic cost on local governments and communities at large.
It is clear, then, that better policies are needed. But to be effective, such policies require more specific data and greater sensitivity to and understanding of the multifaceted and unique challenges facing young migrants. Specifically, results can be improved by assessing the barriers to education, workforce entry, and civic participation and connecting the dots between youth unemployment, migration, and social inclusion with integrated and coordinated cross-cutting policy and programs. There is also a need for greater participation by, and leadership from, youth in policy and program design, implementation, and evaluation.
Young activists and social entrepreneurs offer much needed vision, passion, and capacity to design and lead activities that best meet the needs of their peers and communities. Governments and donors, in collaboration with civil society, must therefore work to strengthen policy and institutional environments, as well as to implement targeted need- and demand-based activities for young people around better education, entrepreneurship training, increased access to lending institutions, safety and protection of rights, peer and community networks, mentors, and service learning.
Ultimately, with more comprehensive data and discussion on youth-specific migration trends and outcomes, we will achieve a stronger awareness of youth migration and be able to better respond to the challenges and realize the opportunities facing today’s global youth – and indeed all of us. On International Youth Day, let us commit to expanding the conversation on how best to harness the power of today’s global, mobile, and ambitious young people so as to increase prosperity and security for us all.
Nicole Goldin is director of the Youth, Prosperity, and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the International Youth Foundation. You can follow her @nicolegoldin @CSIS. The views expressed are her own.