Belgium turns migration into a positive story

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© iStock

Migration is a timeless issue. People have always moved to live, work or study. In essence, we are all the result of migration.


In 2020, 281 million people left their country of origin, representing 3.6% of the world's population. 48% of them were women and girls, 74% of them were between 20 and 64 years old, which is roughly equivalent to the working age.

Contrary to popular belief, most ‘international migrants’ are not moving from poor countries to rich countries. About half move between developing countries, and even then primarily within their own region. Many more people – some 750 million – migrated within their own countries. Some others migrate between rich countries. For example, in Belgium, 75% of people of foreign nationality come from other European countries.

Most ‘migrants’ leave their places of residence voluntarily. They are looking for different work or better life prospects, but love, a more pleasing climate or an attractive culture can also be a motive. In this sense, those migrants include Belgians who, for one reason or another, leave for abroad – temporarily or otherwise. Currently, about 500,000 Belgians live abroad.

Refugees and those forced to flee

A lot of people, however, are forced to leave their places of residence. They are fleeing violence, conflict or persecution or relocating under the pressure of natural or environmental disasters. In 2020, 82.4 million people were living forcibly displaced. Most of these forcibly displaced people live in miserable conditions.

The largest group of forcibly displaced people consists of 48 million people displaced within their own countries. In addition, by mid-2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had 26.6 million refugees in its care, while 4.4 million were seeking asylum in another country.

Notably, 86% of all refugees are received in developing countries and 73% by immediate neighbours. 68% come from just 5 countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

Jongetje in vluchtelingenkamp

A little boy in a refugee camp in Kenya eats from a bucket. Forced displaced persons often live in miserable conditions, which must be avoided.
© Marcel Croizet/ILO


Migration and development are inextricably linked. They influence each other, both positively and negatively. It is precisely this inextricable link that prompted the Belgian Development Cooperation (see box) to pay greater attention to migration from now on.

For example, migration can contribute to the personal development of migrants and their families themselves. By leaving, migrants hope to increase their chances of finding a job, a stable income or a decent home, or create opportunities to send their children to school or access high-quality healthcare.

In addition, most migrants maintain close ties to the country or region they came from. They support their family or community by sending money (known as remittances) or transferring knowledge and skills, technology, innovative approaches and culture. For many families of migrants in the countries of origin, this creates opportunities for development or makes them more resilient in the face of urgent or unexpected difficulties.

But it can also benefit the countries where migrants settle or transit. After all, migrants often fill labour market shortages, contributing to a country's economic activity or diversity. In our case, for example, during the corona pandemic, we owed a lot to migrants. Indeed, many work in key sectors such as health and home care or provide essential services as shopkeepers, cleaners or food producers.

However, this positive impact of migration on development is not guaranteed. Important preconditions must be met so that migration does not exacerbate inequalities and thus make development impossible. As an example, when migrants have difficulty accessing decent work or basic services such as education or healthcare, this cripples their opportunities for development. Moreover, migrants who are forced to leave their home countries under the pressure of violence or natural causes must be protected and their fundamental rights guaranteed.

Finally, development also affects migration. Those who are better able can make a free and conscious decision to migrate. Others are forced to migrate for lack of prospects or are so poor that they are not even able to do son.


Man maakt houten stoelleuning

Migration can be an enrichment! This Syrian refugee cabinetmaker uses his talent and craftsmanship for the benefit of his host country Turkey.
@ Fatma Kankara/ILO

Development cooperation

With its new strategy, the Belgian Development Cooperation aims to ensure that migration contributes effectively to sustainable development. In doing so, it is signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, they argue that the achievement of most of the SDGs depends on how migration is taken into account. In addition, SDG10.7 advocates for the ‘orderly, safe, lawful and responsible’ migration and mobility of people.

What is the Belgian Development Cooperation?

The Belgian Development Cooperation brings together all the development cooperation actions at the federal level. These are governmental (from country to country), non-governmental (NGOs, universities, trade unions, etc.) and multilateral (international institutions).

Its core mission is to do its part to create a world with less poverty and inequality. To this end, it supports actions, especially in the Sahel region, the Great Lakes region, North Africa and the Middle East. It also includes an important humanitarian aid component.

Ideally, migration should no longer be a sheer necessity. This will only lead to extremely risky travel and a lot of misery.

Do note that better living conditions early on do not necessarily lead to less migration, for example from the South to Belgium. Not coincidentally, people mainly migrate from middle-income countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, Morocco and Turkey. The poorest of the poor simply cannot afford that journey. But in the long run, raising the quality of life in the South does lead to a more equal and stable world.

The Belgian Development Cooperation therefore wants to turn migration into an essentially positive story. In order to achieve this, its new migration strategy has 4 main strands.

1. Supporting and promoting proper management of migration

If migration takes place in safe conditions and with respect for the rights of each migrant, its positive impact on people and society will increase.

Therefore, the Belgian Development Cooperation aims to support the countries where it is active to better manage and contextualise migrants. A well-developed migration policy, alongside reliable and appropriate data systems that provide robust and comparable information on migration, can help in this. Just like a well-performing civil registry that allows migrants to obtain basic documents that allow them to exercise their rights. Belgian bodies such as Fedasil can share their expertise.

Collage Children of migration

In the series ‘Kinderen van de migratie' by Canvas, 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation 'migrants' talk about their experiences.
© Canvas

2. Raising awareness

People often think - both here and in the intervention countries - that migration will disrupt society. Yet migration can also be very positive. Therefore, the Belgian Development Cooperation wants to provide meaningful information to the general public in order to support and encourage a balanced view and debate on migration.

For example, research on the link between migration and development will be promoted. To this end, Belgian Development Cooperation supported ‘Children of Migration’ on Canvas. The series reveals exactly how migration to our country came about after WWII, particularly at the request of Belgium to fill numerous job vacancies. First, second and third generations all recount their experiences. Educational lesson plans were also developed for secondary schools.

3. Human rights and protection

The starting point is always that the basic rights of migrants and refugees must be protected. Basic services, such as food and housing, must be able to be ensured without compromising those of the host communities themselves.

The various players in host countries – both governmental and non-governmental – must better inform migrants of their rights and obligations, the opportunities for ‘regular’ migration, and the dangers of ‘irregular’ migration. They should also be better able to combat human trafficking.

Belgium, through its humanitarian aid, has extensive experience in helping refugees. For example, our country is investing in education and employment for Syrian refugees residing in their region. This gives them the prospect of building a new life there or returning home as soon as the situation allows.

Students with a migration background

Students from 'the South' do lab work as part of a master's degree in nematology at the UGent (VLIRUOS). That too is positive migration.
© ICP Nematology/UGent

4. Harnessing potential

Our country will also seek to better harness the potential of migration for sustainable development. This can be done, for example, by reducing the transfer costs for the money that migrants send to their families. Such remittances are globally 3 times larger than all the official development aid combined.

The diaspora – the groups of foreign origin in our country – can be encouraged to invest more in the country of origin or transfer its knowledge.

All policy areas, both in Belgium and the intervention countries, should take greater account of migration (known as a whole of government and whole of society approach). This includes education, health, agriculture and food security, work and social protection, climate and environment, and so on.

For example, Belgium cannot currently fill all its job vacancies; there are also many bottleneck occupations. The promotion and opening of legal migration routes between Africa and Europe can remedy this. This, as it happens, is an oft-repeated question from African countries.

At present, more than 1,500 scholarships are made available each year, mainly to Africans, to study or conduct research in Belgium. This could be expanded, including between African countries themselves. Robust inter-university collaboration ought to prevent ‘brain drain’.

Many migrants voluntarily return to their countries of origin. These should enjoy greater support to reintegrate with dignity and permanence.

The strategy is consistent with efforts around migration at the international level. These include the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

Migration is inextricably linked to humanity. A world without migration is simply not possible. Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, we should try to create the right conditions so that migration can be an enrichment for all. With its new strategy, the Belgian Development Cooperation is already taking up the challenge.

Some definitions

Migrant: someone who moves, temporarily or permanently, to another region (in their own country) or another country. This can be either voluntary or out of sheer necessity.

International migrant: someone who moves, temporarily or permanently, voluntarily or out of sheer necessity, to another country.

Refugee: a person who is fleeing war, violence, conflict or persecution and crosses an international border in order to seek safety in another country. A refugee under this definition enjoys protection as determined by the Geneva Convention.

Asylum seeker: a person who applies for asylum in another country, or in other words seeks international protection and a right of residence, because they are being persecuted in their own country.

Internally displaced person: someone who is forced to leave their usual place of residence due to circumstances, but still resides in their own country. They are still under the protection of their own government.