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Towards Sustainable Food Systems: the Critical Role of Migrants

23 September 2021

On the occasion of the UN Food Systems Summit, the United Nations Network on Migration calls on States to recognize safe, orderly and regular migration and empowered migrants as levers of positive change for sustainable food systems. The Network also urges Governments to protect the right to adequate food and safeguard food security and nutrition for all, including migrants and their families.

All people, including migrants, should have access to rights such as health; safe drinking water and sanitation and safe, sufficient and nutritious food that could contribute to active and healthy lifestyles throughout their lives.

Worldwide, there are 281 million international migrants, of whom 169 million are migrant workers. Migrants work across food systems, from farm to table, at sea and on land, across all food and agricultural value chains. In many countries, migrant workers carry out more than a quarter of the farm work. Through remittances, savings and investments, migrants also directly contribute to improved food security and rural development in their countries of origin.

Despite playing a vital role in feeding the world, migrant workers face pervasive decent work deficits, including high levels of working poverty, malnutrition and poor health, lack of safety and labour protection. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including human trafficking. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragilities of our food systems. It has also highlighted the centrality of migrant workers and the importance of addressing decent work deficits in food systems in order to ensure their sustainable transformation.

Migrant women, youth and children suffer disproportionately from unfair and unsafe working conditions. Women migrant workers face gender discrimination and unequal access to property, healthcare, education and credit. They bear a heavy and unequal burden of unpaid care work and are usually overrepresented in seasonal work, often earning lower wages than men. Migrant children or children in migrant families are often malnourished and can be exposed to child labour and trafficking.

But international migrants do not contribute to food systems only through their labour.

Human mobility is deeply rooted in the structural transformation of rural areas. Often, people leave rural areas to escape poverty, food insecurity, lack of access to basic services, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, or to find better jobs.

Migrants’ financial contributions have a direct impact on local food systems. Almost half of the US$ 500 billion remitted annually to developing countries goes to rural areas, where 75 per cent of the world’s poor and food-insecure live. An estimated 25 per cent of remittances are saved and invested in assets and income-generating activities, with much of this amount used for agricultural purposes. Migrants also invest in growing, harvesting, processing, transporting or consuming food. They promote entrepreneurship, finance agribusinesses and set up transnational companies for import-export of local food.

Migrants, especially youth, often develop new skills and introduce innovative ideas for potential investment or new businesses back home, particularly in the food sector. This has become more evident as new communication technologies have brought migrants closer to their families and communities in their countries of origin, allowing them to join forces in new investment opportunities, either at home or through transnational trade.

Pursuant to the commitments outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), the Network urges States to work with all stakeholders in food systems, including migrants to:

  • Respect, protect and fulfil the human and labour rights of all migrants working in food systems, regardless of migratory status and without discrimination;
  • Address the adverse and structural drivers of migration, including poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change and environmental degradation, and gender inequality, making migration from, to and between rural areas a choice;
  • Promote dialogue between all stakeholders in food systems to strengthen policy coherence and ensure agricultural policies and programmes recognize migrants’ role and agency while migration policies embed the needs of food systems;
  • Facilitate regional and cross-regional labour mobility for migrants in food systems, through international or bilateral cooperation arrangements in accordance with decent work principles, national priorities, and local market needs;
  • Improve access to healthy diets, including by promoting educational and information campaigns on nutrition, accessible to all, including migrants and their families;
  • Facilitate access to – and use of – remittances, particularly in rural areas, lower the costs of sending and receiving remittances in line with SDG target 10.c, and foster digitization, financial inclusion and remittances-linked financial products;
  • Support measures and instruments that encourage migrants and diaspora to invest in the transformation of food systems.

By recognizing the role of migrants in promoting sustainable food systems and empowering them to become agents of development in their countries of origin and destination, the Food Systems Summit provides a unique opportunity for States to build better food systems and help societies reap the benefits of migration.

The United Nations Network on Migration was established to ensure effective, timely and coordinated system-wide support to Member States in their implementation, follow-up and review of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. While the Network’s mandate is focused on migration, States are called to also implement these recommendations to refugees and asylum-seekers and to protect the human rights of everyone equally, regardless of migration status.