For Greater Fairness in Migration Policy: The United Nation Compacts in the Gaze of Civil Society

United Nations published first drafts for global compacts on refugees and migration. Though civil society representatives have been involved in the development of the first draft, there is still room for improvement as far as this involvement goes. The Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Bertelsmann Stiftung took this as an incentive to host a day’s event to give representatives of civil society an opportunity to enter into a dialog with one another and, in a second stage, with representatives of the German government.

Lea Wagner | March 2018
Mann vor Wand mit Bildern und Aussagen
Manuel Frauendorf

Migration concerns us all, including and especially civil society. Indeed, it is civil society that can not only contribute significantly to making integration and participation of migrants in society a success but also raise other challenges concerning migration, ensuring that all benefit: migrants, host countries, and even the countries of origin. In early March, the Robert Bosch Stiftung in cooperation with the Bertelsmann Stiftung invited 150 civil society representatives to Berlin to provide an opportunity for them to engage more directly with shaping the approach to migration and to enter into an exchange both within the group and with the German government. “Often enough, we are only seen as decoration, despite the fact that our expertise could have a decisive impact on the success of integration. But that requires that we are invited to sit at the table,” one participant commented.

Global compacts on refugees and migration

Migration is a global phenomenon. As a result, it is also becoming an increasingly relevant topic for the United Nations. In 2016, the UN adopted a resolution aimed at ratifying two new compacts, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. The refugee compact is intended to make fleeing a country safer, and to bring those groups that require special protection more strongly into focus. It also aims to provide relief to host countries and work toward a system of globally shared responsibilities. Finally, the compact deals with issues including voluntary return to the home country and protracted refugee situations.

The migration compact aims to ensure safe, orderly, and regular migration. The draft recommends, among other things, that migrants should be provided with comprehensive information at all times. Moreover, the quality of data on migration should be improved, and the factors leading people to leave their home countries analyzed and, if possible, dealt with. Other issues raised in this compact include stronger action against trafficking networks, improved access for migrants to advisory services, the fight against discrimination, and cheaper and more transparent ways for migrants to send money back to their home countries.

The current debate: #FairCompacts

The United Nations published its first drafts for the two compacts in early 2018. The member states are currently discussing these non-binding policies, with the goal of signing off on them by the end of 2018.

Though civil society representatives have been involved in the development of the first draft, there is still room for improvement as far as this involvement goes. And there’s no time to lose: According to German government sources, negotiations should reach their final stage by summer 2018 at the latest.

The Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Bertelsmann Stiftung took this as an incentive to host a day’s event to give representatives of civil society an opportunity to enter into a dialog with one another and, in a second stage, with representatives of the German government. Run under the hashtag #FairCompacts, the event agenda focused on providing fresh input – since passed on to the German ambassador to the United Nations in New York – as a German contribution to the ongoing negotiations. Participants at the event included representatives of migrant diaspora organizations, refugee initiatives, foundations, unions, research institutes, as well as stakeholders from the business world. It was a lively exchange with a fair share of controversy. The interactions were refreshingly direct, especially those involving government delegates, who at times had to make a strong case for themselves, whilst maintaining an atmosphere of geniality and eloquence in the face of criticism brought to the table. As one participant put it: “Criticism just shows we care.” Another added: “The government should not act as an obstacle to migration but should provide incentives for migration and act as a role model for other countries.”

Manuel Frauendorf

What civil society thinks

Overall, the two compacts received positive feedback. Considering them an important step in the right direction, participants nevertheless criticized that too many measures were not specific enough, that there was no periodic evaluation mechanism in place, and that it remained unclear who would be responsible for implementing which measure. Furthermore, children’s rights should be made a greater priority, and internally displaced persons and climate refugees included. In regard to the refugee compact, a lack of binding target parameters, making it easier for donor countries to shed responsibility, was another complaint voiced several times. One scientist objected to the fact that the migration compact did not resolve the conflict between national sovereignty and the need for international cooperation.

However, constructive recommendations outweighed criticism by far. Most civil society representatives agreed that more positive migration narratives were needed and that the opportunities involved in migration should have much more emphasis. More funding for diaspora organizations and their greater involvement in political decision-making and integration efforts were also considered key. “We are the experts,” one poster proclaimed. There was also a general consensus that remittances to home countries should be handled more economically, quickly, and transparently in the future – which entails a need for new systems, as well as regulatory control.

Another complex issue was the subject of return. It need not necessarily be “the dark side of migration,” according to one participant. However, it requires evaluation of the extent to which an individual’s return is really voluntary. The working groups on return issues gave feedback that the best incentive for people to return to their countries of origin is a positive economic outlook in the long term.

Generally speaking, a reasonable approach would be to invest more in professional training – in home, transit, and host countries alike. To make migration control more sustainable, conditions in the countries of origin will have to be improved first. Plus, trade with the southern hemisphere has to be handled fairly and on a level playing field. To build greater mutual understanding, an expansion of the Erasmus program to cover African countries – as at one point suggested by Chancellor Merkel – would be a good option. There were many more ideas, and the document handed to the UN ambassador was long. It is now a matter of time before we find out to what extent the recommendations developed during these sessions are included in the new drafts of the compacts.