The Position of “the South” and “South-South Migration” in Policy and Programmatic Responses to Different Forms of Migration: An Interview with Francesco Carella

In this interview with Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Francesco Carella, Labour Migration and Mobility Specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), reflects on the position of “the South” and “South-South migration” in policy and programmatic responses to different forms of migration. He discusses how and to what effect terms such as “South” and “South-South migration” are used by different stakeholders in his professional field, terms that we have been critically exploring in the Southern Responses to Displacement project in our ‘Thinking Through the Global South’ blog series. Carella also outlines contemporary challenges and opportunities to better understand the needs and rights of migrants, and to promote the rights of migrants and their families around the world.

You can read the full interview here, and the entire Open Access Special Issue of the Migration and Society Journal in which the full interview was first published, here.

If you find this piece of interest please access our Thinking through the Global South blog series, which includes the abridged version of Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s introduction, ‘Recentering the South in Studies of Migration,’ to the Open Access 2020 Special Issue of the Migration and Society Journal (here), or you can access the recommended reading at the end of this piece. 

The Position of “the South” and “South-South Migration” in Policy and Programmatic Responses to Different Forms of Migration: An Interview with Francesco Carella

Prof Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh with Francesco Carella

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (EFQ): We are interested in “Recentering the South in Studies of Migration,” and examining the position of “the South” and “South-South migration” in policy and programmatic responses. Given the heterogeneity of the countries you have worked in – currently Central America, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, and previously North Africa – and the diverse forms of migration taking place, how useful do you think that the term “South-South migration” is?

Francesco Carella (FC): The expression “South-South migration” is useful as it contributes to shifting migration discourse away from the repetitive assertions that migrants are “invading” countries of the global North. It is a clear reminder that much migration occurs within and across the countries of the developing world. For instance, contrary to popular belief, most Africans migrate within Africa, rather than toward Europe. In East, Central, and West Africa, more than 80 percent of international migrants come from a country in the same region.[1]

On the other hand, these expressions are inevitably oversimplifications at best, or sweeping generalizations at worst. When analyzing a migration/displacement situation, whether for academic or policy development objectives, one has to zoom in and examine the precise and multifaceted type of South-South migration. It would be challenging to find a single country that was not simultaneously a country of origin, destination, transit, and return for migrants.

EFQ: To what extent, and how, are the terms “the global South” and “South-South migration” used by different stakeholders in your [professional] field?

FC: The expression “global South” is used to refer to developing countries. It stands in contrast to the “global North,” used by many as a synonym for “the West,” although “the global South” is not quite a synonym for “the East”.  The most commonly used expression in the United Nations system is “the developing world.” The “global South” is sometimes used in contrast with the “global North,” whereas the expression “Third World” is not accepted in my field. Using the term “Third World” assumes that a First and a Second World also exist, in an order that was arbitrarily established by someone in the so-called First World.

As for “South-South,” I believe it has become a very popular approach, which applies to both academic analysis and policy work. There is more and more “South-South” going on at the ILO and in the United Nations system in general, including the establishment or strengthening of national development aid agencies that focus on South-South cooperation.[2] The United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC)[3] was established in 1974 by the UN General Assembly to promote, coordinate, and support South-South and triangular cooperation globally and within the United Nations system. In 2012, the ILO was the first UN agency with a dedicated strategy on South-South and Triangular Cooperation.

EFQ: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using these terms?

FC: The terms are handy shortcuts to convey complex concepts but they are oversimplifications and semantically inaccurate: North and South should be determined by the hand of a compass, not by a country’s GDP or external influence. The rising influence of “the South” is a question of empowerment, which is particularly crucial to countries with a colonial history that now share their savoir faire with other countries.[4] The use of the expression “South-South migration,” is helpful not just as a conceptual tool; it also has powerful political implications, in that it helps counteract the rhetoric that would see migrants “invading” the “global North.”

I think one key disadvantage is that the expression “South-South migration” tells more about what a migratory flow is not, rather than what it is, given the diversity of migration flows within the “global South.”

EFQ: “Migrant workers, especially those who work in the informal economy, often face multiple violations of their labor rights” (Carella, quoted in IOM 2018b). What, if anything, is particular about migrant rights in regions of the “global South”?

FC: The fulfilment and protection of migrant workers’ human rights (labor rights being part of these) is a challenge worldwide. However, some aggravating circumstances contribute to an increase in violations of these rights: these include an irregular status and being in informal employment.

The existence and growth of informal employment, both in origin and destination countries, is closely related to irregular labor migration flows. Vibrant “underground economies” characterize many countries of the “global South,” and are attractive for undocumented migrant workers, employers and consumers. This is particularly common in countries that do not have functioning labor market and migration policies to match the needs of the labor market with workers available not only nationally, but also internationally.

Measures to transition to the formal economy can be implemented, including in the global South, taking account of gender-specific challenges to formalization, while also ensuring equality of treatment for all workers, regardless of nationality, to prevent a “race to the bottom” in wages and working conditions, also known as social dumping.

The opening of more regular migration channels can also be beneficial: there is an urgent need to address the disconnect between existing labor market needs and the willingness of governments to open up more regular permanent or temporary migration channels to meet these needs, especially in low-wage sectors.

EFQ: Do you think that it is helpful or dangerous to think about migrant rights through the lens of “South-South migration”?

FC: One key principle about human rights is their universality: they should apply indifferently and equally to any human being. Labor rights are part of human rights. I make specific reference to labor rights because, crucially, the three existing, legally binding, human rights standards on migration [5] refer and apply to migrant workers specifically, and their families. In contrast to refugees, there is no legally binding international instrument that grants specific rights to migrants.[6]  Migrants enjoy fundamental human rights, by virtue of being human beings, and may enjoy labor rights, if they are workers but they do not enjoy any specific rights for being migrants.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that the recently adopted Global Compact on a Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (GCM) was born as a nonbinding instrument, not an international treaty. At a time of widespread anti-immigrant sentiments and political rhetoric, it seems very unlikely that any government would suggest the development of a legally binding instrument on migrant rights in the near future.

Labor migration also entails costs for migrant workers and these costs are often intensified by intersecting factors such as gender, age, race, migration status, and geographic location, which is where the South-South dimension comes into play.

In a South-South migration context, I have often found that countries that see themselves as (exclusively or mostly) countries of origin will promptly go ahead and ratify binding international treaties, with the key objective of ensuring protection for the rights of their own nationals abroad. Nevertheless, as they start transitioning toward becoming countries of transit and destination of migration, they will probably be much less forthcoming in advocating for the application of those treaties for migrants on their own soil.

EFQ: You have also noted that, while they are important in different ways, international conventions are insufficient to protect migrant workers’ rights (Carella, quoted in IOM 2018a). What role, if any, do you think that South-South cooperation can play in promoting migrant rights?

FC: Please allow me to qualify that statement! I truly believe that international standards, including the ILO labor standards on migrant workers[7] as well as the International Convention on Migrant Workers’ Rights (1990) are key instruments for the protection of migrant workers.[8]  Around 90 countries have ratified one or more of the international standards and these standards set minimum benchmarks for the treatment of migrant workers across all regions. However, the mere formal act of ratifying a convention is not sufficient per se in ensuring the protection of migrant workers’ rights. Conventions need to be implemented, national legislation needs to be adjusted and then enforced. Complaint and redress systems must be in place and access to justice must be guaranteed for everybody, regardless of nationality or migration status.

Migrant workers, as providers of labor and skills, and as consumers, make valuable contributions to their countries of origin and destination that are often overlooked, especially in a South-South migration context. They also create jobs, develop markets, contribute to social security systems, and act as mediators between countries of origin and destination. By developing and returning with new skills, they can also transfer much-needed knowledge acquired abroad.

Unfortunately, when migrant workers are exploited, they often have no recourse but to leave their employer, or to shut up and continue suffering more abuse. South-South cooperation can be a powerful tool to prevent and redress abuses through, for instance, the negotiation and implementation of bilateral labor agreements (BLAs) between countries of origin and destination. These, in turn, should be based on the aforementioned international legal instruments.[9]

EFQ: One critique of institutionalized policy engagement with “the global South” is that it risks “instrumentalising and co-opting [South-South cooperation] and hence depoliticising potential sources of resistance to the North’s neoliberal hegemony” (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley 2018: 2). Indeed, it has been argued that policy makers are strategically embracing “South-South migration” and “South-South cooperation” in order “to enhance development outcomes” and “keep ‘Southerners’ in the South,” in ways that particularly benefit the global North (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley 2018: 19). What, if any, are the dangers of enhancing “policy engagement” with “the South”? To what extent, and how, do you think that processes of instrumentalization and co-optation can be avoided?

FC: Policy engagement with “the South” is officially promoted by “the North” through “triangular cooperation,” which is a form of South-South cooperation supported by a Northern partner. Additionally, if we see regional integration as a form of enhanced cooperation, then I think there is a tendency to promote “Northern” models of regional cooperation, such as the European Union, in the “global South.”

It could be argued that at least some policy makers see the promotion of this type of South-South cooperation as an opportunity to foster South-South migration, thereby preventing “Southerners” from “moving North”; but I would not say it is its main driver. Usually, if socioeconomic opportunities are available locally, most people will prefer to either stay where they are, or move within the same region, rather than where migration will be more costly and adaptation may be less straightforward.

Overall, a recent trend can be identified, in both academia and practice, whereby the “global South” has been developing its own, multiple, understandings and critical analysis of migration,[10] rather than having South-South migration concepts and models imposed from the “global North.” Nevertheless, given the close historical (as well as economic, political, and cultural) links between some Southern countries and countries in the North, it may well prove ultimately impossible to avoid co-optation completely.

EFQ: How can responses to migration within, across, and between the countries of the “global South” more meaningfully respond to the needs and rights of different people, including migrants and their families?

FC: Recent examples of massive forced displacement in the global South are teaching the entire international community lessons on how better to respond to the needs and rights of migrants, refugees, and their families, in often creative or innovative manners. Facing the Syrian crisis since 2011, neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey hosted overwhelmingly high numbers of refugees. The sheer magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis has been considered a game changer in the level of challenges faced by developing countries in responding to migrant/refugee flows. (Incidentally, one could argue that the support provided by Northern actors such as the European Union could be considered a form of “co-optation.”)

In the Americas, the Venezuelan crisis caused the unprecedented movement of Venezuelans into neighboring countries, such as neighboring Colombia. Colombia’s immigration-management and migrant-integration experience was close to zero until Venezuelans started crossing the border en masse. The adoption of flexible requirements for the regularization, principles of solidarity and brotherhood, recent memories of Colombians seeking asylum in Venezuela during the Colombian conflict, and proximity in the culture and customs, facilitates social cohesion.

Migration is typically associated with the national/central level of governance because immigration policies are usually determined at, and immigration laws usually apply to, the national level. However, social and economic integration has to be fostered, or at least dealt with, at the local level. The local level is a crucial layer of activity and should be a key level of analysis when thinking about South-South cooperation [see here].

Similarly, one should not think of South-South cooperation as restricted to the state or central level: city-to-city cooperation is an area with huge potential for development in the near future, especially in reference to migration.[11] Latin America as a region seems to be a laboratory for innovative practices: in addition to the examples of Colombian cities facing the Venezuela refugee/migrant crisis, other cities can pride themselves on implementing creative local governance measures aiming at fostering the integration of migrants. The two continental megalopolises of São Paulo, Brazil, and Mexico City, Mexico, are prime examples of this.

EFQ: What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities in this field over the coming years?

FC: Governments face significant challenges in addressing the policy implications of the changing patterns of migration, increasingly driven by conflicts, climate change, and lack of employment opportunities, which disproportionately affect women, youth, and vulnerable groups. Mixed flows of people in need of international protection, such as refugees and migrant workers, will be increasingly common; and the complexity of drivers of mobility will often make it difficult to distinguish between the two categories.

These challenges extend to the governance of labor migration and mobility across regions and migration corridors, but also within regions, as tends to be the case with South-South migration; they are exacerbated by a disconnect, in government, between migration and other policy areas, and a lack of coordination between different levels of governance. Cities will inevitably play a crucial role in the implementation of the Global Compact on Migration.[12] Enhancing international cooperation specifically at the South-South level can equip countries of the “global South” with more appropriate tools to rise to the challenges at hand.


This article expresses the views of the author and does not reflect the official views of the ILO.

You can read the full interview here, and the entire Open Access Special Issue of the Migration and Society journal in which the interview was first published, here.

If you found this piece of interest please access our Thinking through the Global South blog series, which includes the abridged version of Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s introduction, ‘Recentering the South in Studies of Migration,’ to the Open Access 2020 Special Issue of the Migration and Society Journal (here), or access the recommended reading below:  

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. with Fiori, J. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring Refugees’ Conceptualisations of Southern-Led Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N (2018) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR


Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena, and Patricia Daley. 2018. “Conceptualising the Global South and South-South Encounters.” In The Handbook of South-South Relations, ed. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley, 1–28. Oxford: Routledge.

IOM (International Organization for Migration). 2018a. “Central and North American Countries Discuss Labour Migration Governance.”

IOM (International Organization for Migration). 2018b. “Regional Conference on Migration Promotes Consular Protection for Migrant Workers.”



[2].  South-South cooperation (SSC) is defined by the UN as “a process whereby two or more developing countries pursue their individual and/or shared national capacity development objectives through exchanges of knowledge, skills, resources and technical know-how, and through regional and inter-regional collective actions, including partnerships involving governments, regional organizations, civil society, academia and the private sector, for their individual and/or mutual benefit within and across regions.” 

[3].  The UNOSSC was established by the UN General Assembly:

[4].  A striking example of this is ATCT, Tunisia’s Technical Cooperation Agency, which promotes the placement of Tunisian professionals in other countries. Please see ATCT’s website:

[5]. ILO Conventions 97 and 143 and the 1990 International Convention on Migrant Workers’ Rights. See–en/index.htm and

[6].  See the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol:

[7] (Convention 97 and Recommendation 86 from 1949; Convention 143 and Recommendation 151 from 1975)

[8].  So are other relevant international standards, such as ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189):

[9].  The aforementioned ILO Recommendation 86 annexes a “Model Agreement on Temporary and Permanent Migration for Employment, including Migration of Refugees and Displaced Persons,” which states can use as a basis for developing their own agreement:

[10].  As regards academia, see, for example, the Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP):

[11].  For an example in the European/Mediterranean context, see: At the international level, see:

[12].  See, for example, “The 5th Mayoral Forum on Human Mobility, Migration and Development: City Leadership in Implementing the UN Global Compacts”:  


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