Endgame: Why YOUth should engage in the migration debate

As world leaders struggle to keep their heads above the shifting sands of global migration, the youth must rise up to one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Migration is a complex, highly-politicized topic that runs circles around most modern governments. Whilst most migrants are believed to be in pursuit of economic opportunities, it is wrong to misconstrue the motives of large migrant populations as being so simplistic or self-centered. Most of those denied mobility typically come from disenfranchised populations and would rather stay in their native land, if not for the confluence of external factors and extraordinary circumstance that compel them to leave the comfort and familiarity of loved ones.

Migration policy platforms are typically inundated with scholars and politicians, who may be perceived as being somewhat long in the tooth, while the children and youth are grossly underrepresented in decision-making bodies even though more than 30% of all migrants are under the age of 30 (1). More young people are on the move but, currently, data do not accurately reflect this reality due to the illegal and undocumented means by which they choose to cross borders. As a divisive topic, there is an inherent risk of migration being used as propaganda to advance one’s personal interests. The future looks bleak if migration is not promptly managed, instigating extremist ideologies and sedition. The good news, however, is that the youth of today possess the open-mindedness, dynamism, and collaborative mindset required to reshape popular discourse on migration for the better.

World leaders at the Intergovernmental Conference on Global Compact for Migration in Marocco. Source: United Nations Blog

The study and management of contemporary migration call for multidisciplinary collaboration that is capable of wading through the political, economic, and social noise. Examining migration under a singular lens will result in either myopic outlook of the matter. Conversely, multiple perspectives will help cut the Gordian knot and disentangle the very fabric of issues surrounding migration. The seemingly juxtaposing views on migration converge on the fact that it is a “global phenomenon that requires a comprehensive response and global synergies (2).”

Migration is about people and being identified as migrants, one immediately gets the short end of the stick. Similar to the quantum realm where motion aptly defines a particle, migrants are segregated according to their intent. Labeling people based on fleeting classifications may not be the best way for the states to handle the quandary but it enables comprehension of an intricate concept such as migration. It is paramount to espouse the humanity of migrants when talking about migration.

Today’s youth have been ardent champions of education, health, and climate change, but migration seems to be a misnomer for them. The disconnect between the youth and migration advocacy may be due to the common misconception that one must be “qualified” to discuss the complexities and impacts of migration policy; and that the youth cannot understand the high-level political character of such a subject. However, the ramifications of blindly delegating our future to our elected officials are far-reaching and dangerous.

The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, is but a snapshot of one of the countless tragedies of migrants, who meet their demise whilst seeking a better life. The Rohingya crisis in 2015 signaled the gravity of the migration situation for ASEAN leaders and ultimately led to the signing of the Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers at the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila (3), as an initial step towards addressing migration. The inaction of leaders on this sensitive issue is detrimental to regional stability and causes great agony in the lives of innocent children. The stopgap measures are better than lip service but the youth should demand accountability from their governments.

A girl is being rescued by Turkish authority after their migrant boat sunk. Source: Anadolu Agency

Another plausible explanation for the youth’s lack of participation is that migration is not explicitly stated in the Sustainable Development Goals. It is lost in the broadness and abstraction of SDG 10; under the nonspecific title of “reduced inequalities,” the coverage of the issues associated with immigration is diminished for younger audiences. If we want to influence the current dialogue surrounding migration, we need to assert that our concerns are valid and deserve to be heard. Alongside the Intergovernmental Conference on the Global Compact for Migration in Morocco last December, a youth forum was held wherein the position of the youth representatives was consolidated into a single voice, directed towards world leaders (4). The event sets an important precedent for the engagement of youth as key partners in migration governance.

Young people are more likely to explore new interests and collaborate with other disciplines because of their idealistic and receptive demeanor. We should move to harness this positive attitude and not shy away from difficult questions such as that of migration. Although we might be criticized for our inexperience and shut out, such discomfort is nothing compared to the hardships experienced by the migrants on a daily basis at the border. Educating the youth on migration is imperative to change the trajectory of our future. We shall encourage the youth to stand up for the rights of the migrants abandoned by the state. One only needs empathy to significantly contribute to the migration debate.


  1. United Nations. (2016). #YouthStats: Globalization and migration. Retrieved from the UN Youth Envoy’s website: https://www.un.org/youthenvoy/globalization-migration/
  2. European Union. (2019, April 6). Priorities for future cooperation on migration discussed at EU, IOM strategic meeting. Retrieved from the Delegation of the European Union to the Philippines’ website: https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/philippines/63636/priorities-future-cooperation-migration-discussed-eu-iom-strategic-meeting_tm
  3. Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (2017, November 14). ASEAN Leaders commit to safeguard the rights of migrant workers. Retrieved from ASEAN’s website: https://asean.org/asean-leaders-commit-safeguard-rights-migrant-workers
  4. United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth. (2018). Youth for migration. Retrieved from UNMGCY’s website: https://www.unmgcy.org/yf-faq

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