War in Ukraine, climate change and the pandemic: Severe crises dominate the migration debate and oftentimes trigger ad-hoc national responses. At the International Migration Review Forum in New York in May the UN member states are meeting to discuss how far states have come in implementing the Global Compact on Migration. Can the multilateral approach be revived? Here, three leading experts from civil society organizations explain what needs to be on the agenda – and why all hope is not lost.
Marta Foresti: This is an utter scandal on so many levels. The fact that a wealthy country like the UK does not fulfil its obligations under international law and deports asylum seekers and other migrants to a poorer country for their application to be processed is distressing. Not only is it morally dubious, it’s also probably illegal and highly inefficient: Research has shown that the drivers of migration, the aspirations and motivations that people have, are deep seated – and offshoring this issue will not deter people from moving but only make their journey more dangerous.
Colin Rajah: Bilateral deals are one of the worst trends in global migration policy right now. Take for example the Remain in Mexico program, as we call it, where the U.S. pays Mexico so that people who apply for asylum “can” do so from Mexico. This kind of border externalization deal might seem like a good deal on paper – one country “fulfils” its moral duty to asylum seekers by allotting aid, while the other country can increase its GNP by receiving this money. From a humanitarian perspective, it’s the wrong route to take.
Jessica Bither: This deal between the UK and Rwanda is part of a broader trend. One negative side effect of the agreement between the EU and Turkey, for example, was that it put a price tag on people. As part of this “deal making” refugees and migrants are being commodified and sometimes even weaponized, like when the President of Belarus deliberately enabled people from the Middle East to travel to the European border in the fall of 2021.
Refugees at the US-Mexican border
Marta: The GCM was created 2018 in the aftermath of the so-called European refugee crisis. And here we are again with another crisis in Europe, the war raging in Ukraine, and the ongoing climate crisis in the background. We simply cannot manage the reality of global human mobility one crisis at a time. We need long-term and sustainable solutions, which in turn require international cooperation. But the so-called ‘multilateral system’ we have is not enough, or no longer fit for purpose to deliver on this. Reform is needed.
Colin: The GCM was put in place specifically to deal with situations like this one – to allow multilateral responses for managing migration flows and protecting refugees. And yet we barely see the war in Ukraine mentioned on the IMRF agenda. The most important responses to this crisis are formed ad hoc within individual European governments; we seem to have completely dropped the multilateral approach.
Jessica: What the IMRF will show is whether the conversations that are taking place at the UN are just about technical policy issues, or whether the Forum can be developed to inform political decisions. The GCM itself is not legally binding for member states, so the question at the IMRF is whether there can be a more honest and transparent discussion of the crucial political issues and policy options between various stakeholders.
In 2019 the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) was ratified by most UN member states. It is the first inter-governmental agreement that aims to address international migration in a “holistic and comprehensive manner”. The document is non-binding and does not interfere with the sovereign rights of member states and the decisions on who can enter or stay in their territory. The Global Compact is connected to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On a concrete level, the GCM wants to provide a menu of policy options for states from which they can select measures to address some of the most pressing international migration issues. In addition to the GCM, there is also a Global Compact on Refugees under the umbrella of the UNHCR, which covers issues connected to forced displacement and refugees.
Jessica: I think the example of Ukraine shows part of a “construction failure” of this topic in the international system, namely that we have two UN Compacts, one for refugees and one for migrants. Originally, the idea was to have one single Compact that covers both issues. That having said, the people fleeing Ukraine have brought up issues that are not only related to the Global Compact on Refugees, but also to the Global Compact for Migration, such as access to health care for migrants and labor market integration, as well as the issue of non-discrimination – for example when it comes to treatment of third-country nationals fleeing Ukraine and reports that these were denied entry or treated differently by border authorities.
Marta: We are stuck with this unhelpful dichotomy and narrative of the ‘deserving refugee’ versus the ‘dishonest economic migrant’. But in reality, most examples of migration fall between these two poles. So we have to deal with all the realities of the full spectrum of human mobility and the protection needs and opportunities for all people on the move.
Offers of help in Berlin for refugees from Ukraine
Marta: Yes, I believe we have seen significant progress in understanding how migrants can develop their skills and talents and contribute to economies and societies. The labor shortages in many countries finally brought home the message that migrants' contributions are vital. There are multiple initiatives being piloted matching job offers and talent abroad. The EU is developing frameworks and partnerships under the European Skills Agenda. But these are just first steps and immigration policies continue to be very restrictive. There is a lack of consistency in that we are creating opportunities without creating legal pathways for people to actually move and work.
Colin: The keystone objective of the Compact was to create legal pathways for migrants. Unfortunately, we haven’t addressed this in a comprehensive way yet, so people who are seeking better opportunities for themselves still have to take enormous risks and put themselves through precarious situations to do so.
Jessica: But some progress has also been made in building a greater consensus on finding alternatives to migrant detention, for example. So in cases where the status of an individual has not yet been determined and many states have detained people during that period, lives on the ground are really being improved. I see the GCM as an opportunity for the future. After all, what is the alternative to safe, orderly and regular migration? Unsafe, disorderly and irregular migration.
"We need a new narrative, a new vocabulary even, to discuss migration – one that focuses on the talent, skills and aspirations of all human beings."
Jessica: One topic that has been glaringly missing so far from the discussions in the GCM is the role digital technologies will come to play, not just in managing human mobility but also in refugee policy. I don’t think it’s a question of whether digital tech will play a role, but which tools we choose, how we use them, and which rules and principles apply.
Jessica: One area where technology is already being used is in the forecasting of migration events by analysing large data sets. How this knowledge influences policy making depends entirely on what governments do with it. They could put measures in place to deter people from crossing borders, like armed drones. But you can also use the same data model to proactively provide assistance to people on the move. Already, we are seeing the use of biometric data and algorithmic decision-making being tested in border entries and visa policy. There are many potential issues with this. Discrimination and bias can also be automated. This is definitely something we need to look at during the IMRF.
Marta: These are good points. I would argue though that is also necessary to detach the debate from current crises and megatrends – and make the case for long-term, sustainable and pragmatic approaches to address the fundamental reality that people are on the move and will continue to do so. Movement is an essential part of the human experience, people always travelled to search for new opportunities. We need a new narrative, a new vocabulary even, to discuss migration – one that focuses on the talent, skills, and aspirations of all human beings. Migration is not about ‘us and them’, it's about our collective future.
"The rubber meets the road when national policies reflect the global conversation. And here the most important work is being done by civil society."
Colin: The GCM has a lot of language for the importance for whole-of-society engagement. The reality is that it this a very carefully managed and controlled process. Civil society organisations cannot even decide who will speak for them at the Forum. Needless to say, that goes against the principle of self-organising and makes us feel like second- or third-class participants at the event. And there are great disparities in funding between organizations in the Global North and Global South – but the latter is where a lot of migrants are coming from. There are organizations that, without a guarantee of funding, cannot even buy a roundtrip plane ticket for their representatives, which they need to apply for a US visa.
Jessica: Meaningful stakeholder engagement is relevant for many of our partners. We want to make sure that all relevant voices have a seat at table, like those of mayors and cities – work that we support, for example, with the Mayors Migration Council. We also contributed to a travel fund to allow civil society members from the Global South to travel to the forum. And we want to put topics on the table that might not be politically convenient but relevant.
Colin: The rubber meets the road when national policies reflect the global conversation. And here the most important work is being done by civil society to push implementation that can directly affect migrants’ lives. So, we want to be real partners in the implementation of the GCM.
Marta: Politically, it was very important that we have the GCM. It is a less than perfect solution but look how long it took to get traction with the SDGs. Global frameworks take time to become real.