UNITED NATIONS, September 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Estimates suggest there are now at least 190 million migrants in the world and the question increasingly being asked by governments is whether they should coordinate their migration policies rather than try to deal with this global flow individually.
It is that question that lies at the heart of the first conference held by the UN's General Assembly to address international migration patterns and how countries around the world should respond.
Migration has become so widespread that in many of the world's richest countries, migrant workers make up a substantial portion of the population.
According to newly released UN statistics, there were 38 million migrants living in the United States as of 2005. That is some 13 percent of the U.S. population.
There are other countries where the percentage is even higher. Almost 20 percent of Australia's population is composed of migrants, and almost 19 percent of Canada's.
Migration In The Post-Soviet States
In Europe, hundreds of thousands of workers and their families are moving from east to west, the UN says.
Five countries from Eastern Europe -- three new EU members as well as Russia and Ukraine -- now rank among the top 10 countries of origin for migrants to Western Europe.
But the picture is more complex, particularly in Russia. There, UN-data shows that the outflow of people is counterbalanced by the arrival of 3.7 million people from former Soviet republics.
Konstantin Romodanovsky, the head of Russia's Federal Migration Service, told the meeting there are four priorities in Russia's migration policy: "the assurance of optimal conditions for the advancement of unified legal standards; protection of human rights; the achievement of a stable law and order; and the maximum positive effect of migration -- economical, political, social and demographic."
But the conference organizers believe the increasing number of migrants should convince countries that they can no longer hope to deal with migration flows individually. Instead, they say, states should view migration as a global economic resource and coordinate their policies to deal with both the challenges and opportunities it presents.
For countries of destination, migrant workers play an increasingly important role in the economy. For some countries of origin, migration is also essential to their economies, as migrants send huge amounts of money back to their own home countries.
Minimum Requirement: To Protect Human Rights
Peter Sutherland, the UN secretary-general's special representative for migration, said that as workers move from some former Soviet republics westward, they present Western states with an ironic challenge. "Looking back to the era of the Soviet Union, we complained about the denial of the right of individuals to leave," Sutherland said, continuing that "now we have a situation where the right to leave is propounded, but the right to enter is often not so easily available."
He called for the creation of an international legal framework that -- at the very least -- protects migrants' basic human rights as they move between countries.
"There has to be dialogue between countries of origin and countries of destination to deal with the issue of irregular migration," Sutherland says, "because irregular migration doesn't work for anybody and creates great difficulties for the migrants themselves because they often become the victims of smugglers and traffickers and can become victims in the societies where they go to improve their lot."
But Sutherland recognized that getting international agreements over migrants will not be easy. He said that many countries still regard the issues of migration and development as sensitive national problems that are better solved domestically than internationally.
He particularly pointed to the United States, which he said "has been doubtful about the desirability of multilateral discussion on this issue."
The sensitivities are so great that, in his opening remarks at the conference, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that "just a few years ago many people did not think it possible to discuss migration at the United Nations."
Sutherland said he expected no agreements to be signed by the time the meeting ends, on September 16. Instead, he said, the meeting is intended to be part of a process of dialogue that will continue through multilateral forums in different world capitals.
"What we really need is a non-adversarial, non-finger-pointing dialogue where you can exchange best practices, learn how best to deal with the issues," he said.
Sutherland said that Western European countries are much more inclined than is the United States toward developing unified policies to tackle migration.