It's taken more than a decade for the world to get from proposing a global dialogue on international migration to actually having the discussion.
This week, the United Nations finally holds the "high-level dialogue on migration" first envisioned at the Cairo conference on population in 1994.
Yet even as migration and global policy experts hail the meeting that begins here Thursday as an important threshold for an issue of growing economic, social, and cultural impact, the two days of discussion may not yield concrete goals or recommendations. That's because for many countries at the receiving end of migration especially – including the United States – the issues raised are jealously guarded as domestic policy.
"A lot of countries think migration policy is primarily a matter of national sovereignty, and they don't see the point of discussing it in a multilateral context," says Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
Still, Ms. Newland and other experts say change is gradually reshaping the global view of migration – from both the receiving and sending countries' perspectives.
As birthrates fall and populations age in developed countries, the view of immigration as an economic benefit – indeed, necessity – is gaining ground, even as the social and cultural impact is debated. And as sending countries take a closer look at migration's impact, more credit is being given to its role as a development tool, even as concerns over "brain drain" persist.
"Migration is a key element of the world economy that doesn't get the attention it should get. Or when it does, it's more often seen as a lose-lose proposition" for both the migrants and the countries they go to, says Michael Doyle, a former UN official who now teaches international relations at Columbia University in New York. "But it can be a win-win, and discussing how we get to that, and then giving these new ideas a better hearing in the world, is one of the things the UN can do."
Just how ready the world is to give migration a new "hearing" is one question this week's meeting should help answer. Migrant advocates are hoping for a commitment to an ongoing dialogue. "The fact that such a meeting is happening at all is a quantum leap. A few years ago it wouldn't have happened," says Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva.
Global migration has evolved and expanded to become a crucial element of global growth and social change, experts say. According to the UN, the world today has an estimated 190 million migrants, although that number would be much larger if all the people at some point involved in the global migrant flow were counted. Women today make up just under half of all migrants, but they constitute a majority of migrants going to developed countries.
And for a sending country, total remittances from its nationals working abroad surpass its total amount of foreign aid two to three times, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
These facts and the reality of an increasingly globalized economy might seem to make migration a common and accepted part of international dialogue. But sensitivities on both sides of the migration equation – and debate within countries themselves – have kept it a thorny topic, experts say.
"Migration was already an issue of intense debate at the Cairo population conference. It's just that it was overshadowed by abortion and other issues [like family planning] that were even more hotly discussed," says Hania Zlotnik, director of the population division of the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York.
Ms. Zlotnik notes that a growing body of work suggests that the market system encountered by migrants in the US offers more opportunities than more regulated welfare states in Europe. "The US tends to have some very good ideas and experiences others can learn from," she says.
Others are hoping the UN meeting will place more emphasis on how migration can be a plus for both sides.
Mr. Chauzy of the IOM cites two examples that make this point: a program linking Italy and Sri Lanka, in which healthcare workers from the South Asian country are placed in jobs and skills development classes in Florence, where an aging population lacks nursing professionals. And in Afghanistan, another program helped more than 500 Afghans return – with new skills, and a determination to rebuild their country.
Such programs are leading to a "broader definition" of migrants' remittances to their countries, says Zlotnik – and to a revised view of migration she hopes will pervade the conference. "It's not just money, but also a generator of ideas, development, and an entrepreneurial spirit."