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Interview: is rights-based ‘good migration governance’ possible?

The director of the migration policy and research department at the International Organisation for Migration goes in-depth on global migration policies, the forthcoming global compacts, and the policy challenges going forward.

David Cantu/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cameron Thibos (oD): The New York Summit held in September 2016 has put us on the road to global compacts on migrants and refugees. Yet while this should signify that there is sufficient political will to make real progress on these issues, the moods in many countries suggest otherwise. What needs to happen for this process to be actually worthwhile?

Michele Klein Solomon: I think we have to recognise that the New York summit and the declaration for refugees and migrants that came out of it really is a watershed moment in the migration area. This is because it really recognises, for the first time at the heads of state and government level in the UN context, the rights of migrants regardless of status and at all times. It also expresses high-level political commitment on looking at how, collectively, member states and communities can work toward better, more safe, regular, and orderly migration.

You're certainly right that what we've seen in many political contexts – they're not limited to Europe and the US but obviously that's very visible – is a tendency to not only be concerned about the security-related aspects of migrants, but also to look inward and to want to protect nationalism as opposed to welcoming new comers and societies. Yet the weight of evidence over the years that has been generated shows overwhelmingly that migration has been positive. This is true not only for individuals, but also for the societies they come into in terms of entrepreneurialism, filling jobs that are not filled, creating dynamism, and of course affording protection space to those who need it.

So much of the debate or action that takes place appears at least to be taking place on the basis of fear or presumption rather than analysis or evidence. We're seeing a lot of a fear of 'the other', and a tendency to externalise blame for difficult economic transitions that really have to do with other things like the growth of the knowledge economy and the end of manufacturing in many places. Yet migrants and refugees tend to become the visible face of globalisation. Even though they're not the causes of it, they do seem to be the scapegoats of it in many respects.

To my mind, one thing we need to reconcile the gap between the high level of ambition and commitment that the New York summit recognised, and the backward looking nationalism that we're seeing in many countries, is a strong evidentiary base to really get the actual figures about the impact of migration in various different host countries, as well as the impact on the countries of origin. We need really careful academic and policy-oriented analysis, and then we need the means to feed that into the discussions at the local, regional and global levels. We need to have a more evidence-based approach to policy making, and really look at what the actual impact of migration is and what it is not, in order to generate a more holistic debate.

Cameron: States like to talk about protection gaps, yet if you add up all existing conventions and regulations and laws there actually is already a lot of protection on the books. So, what is the point of making new legislation, and new compacts, instead of better enforcing what we already have?

Michele: There is a huge amount of international law and standards that exist. Obviously on the refugee side, with the central document being the Refugee Convention, but on the migration side as well. All of the human rights instruments apply to migrants because they're human beings. That's a first and foremost. But there are also dedicated instruments that apply to migrants as well in other areas: international labour standards, transnational organised crime, and specifically the trafficking and smuggling protocols, for example. Also global health law applies to migrants. There's a whole host of law at the international level, and I agree with you that the issue isn't so much a gap in normative standards, as a gap in implementation of what already exists.

The issue isn't so much a gap in normative standards, as a gap in implementation of what already exists.

I think part of the problem is that it's not centralised in one place, and that it doesn't have that same weight – in a sense – as refugee protection, because it's not pulled together in one coordinated instrument. I'm not suggesting that we go into a normative, standard-setting mode. I think that would actually risk being counter-productive. But I do agree with you that the challenge is how to encourage the implementation of existing standards.

That's where I do think that political efforts like the Global Forum for Migration and Development (ed note: this interview took place at the GFMD in Bangladesh in December 2016), can help. They raise awareness of existing legislation and standards as well as of the gaps in their implementation. So, rather than being seen as something that is going to create new standards, I think we should see this as an opportunity to highlight the existing standards, and to really look at what it means to bring those into effect in practice. That's what I hope this will come up with.

Cameron: Speaking of that, I've heard many delegates here at the Global Forum say that they don't know if this can ever be a transformative space, and they question the point of these sorts of gatherings. So, from the point of view of an enormous international institution, how can the ideas from here get inside the system?

Michele: I think the Global Forum is a hugely important space. Over the last nearly 10 years it has created a space at the global level where you can bring civil society, private sector, international organisations, and member states together. I'm going to make the analogy again with the refugee field, where there has always been a very dedicated refugee advocacy community. It's been more dispersed in the migration area. There are different organisations in different parts of the world that advocate on behalf of migrants' rights, or that provide services to migrants, or that do analysis and research on migration, or that are diaspora organisations.

But before this space was created, there wasn't really a place to come together and actually share perspectives across regional and national circumstances, and frankly to generate energy, commitment and an agenda. I firmly believe that civil society and all the various stakeholders need to be an integral part of the effort to develop a global compact, and I credit this space for having made that a possibility. I very much hope that now we'll see even a greater integration of all those voices.

Cameron: At the same time, this has been going for nine years, and over that nine years xenophobia and anti-migration politics have gained a lot of currency rather than the other way around. What needs to be reframed in the debate to turn the discussion to another direction?

Michele: We're all asking ourselves the 'how', and I think that at one level we need a 'how' that's at the global level. And then at another level we absolutely need a 'how' that's very national, and situation-specific. You're right, the rise of xenophobia, discrimination, and racism is very very concerning. These have always been features in many countries and globally, but it feels particularly acute right now.

In terms of the narrative, we believe it is necessary to recognise that overall migration is a natural phenomenon. It's an inevitable phenomenon. It's actually a necessary phenomenon assuming the conditions are right: meaning that there are adequate safe, regular and orderly channels for migration; that the rights of migrants are protected throughout; and that governments have the ability to know which non-nationals come into their territories and to make judgements about that.

Actually, an overwhelming number of international migrants migrate through safe and legal channels. The perception is that it is completely out of control, but the reality is actually something different. The UN counts 244 million international migrants in the world today, and those who migrate irregularly and not through safe and regular means are a tiny fraction of that amount. That's of course the most concerning part, particularly when major protection concerns are involved. It's also the most concerning part for governments when trying to manage the process. It's of course also the most visible part, and it fuels a sense of a lack of ability to control.

One of the major issues is this loss of public confidence in their institutions to be able to govern in this area. I think it's a major concern that governments face around the world, and it's precisely what leads to the rise of populist, nationalist parties – the feeling that governments are not coping with this phenomenon. That's the crux, where we really need to get at this. So to articulate that overwhelmingly migration is positive, it's inevitable, it's desirable – and most of it is that – and then to focus attention on the parts where that is not the case.

I think we really have to condition publics and politicians to recognise that the system is not fundamentally broken just because there are isolated instances where things don't go as planned. Now, I'm not suggesting we break down all the barriers to movement, or that we give up borders and just open up the floodgates. But rather to focus on what actually works and to highlight what works. The overwhelming majority of systems do work. We need to get that message out there and then identify where there are gaps, where there are breakdowns in practice and focus attention on them.

Cameron: You've spoken a lot about migration governance, and about safe and legal channels of migration. Governments often use 'better migration governance' as a euphemism for more control over migration with an aim to being more selective and to reducing overall numbers. Those priorities are at odds with the profiles of many of the people on the move today, and as long as that conflict exists is it possible to actually have 'good migration governance'?

Michele: I think it is possible to have good migration governance, and I think there are lots of examples of good migration governance. I know they are distinct in the historical contexts, but if you look at the major immigration countries – the Canadas, the Australias, and the USAs of the world – they're not perfect obviously but they did put in place safe, orderly channels for migration.

They also prepare the process. Canada in particular does an excellent job, and Australia as well, of preparing migrants for the migration experience, and of matching skills and people in addressing gaps, and with family unity and educational opportunities. I don't want to single out just one set of countries, and I know that there are limitations. But it is possible to have truly well-governed migration that takes place according to the rule of law and due process principles, and to actually engage a full society debate on valuing that.

It's no accident that the core migration component of the sustainable development agenda comes up in the chapter on inequalities.

To our minds, the best migration that takes place is well-prepared. So, migrants know where they are going, and what to expect. They know the laws and their obligations to the host society. They are prepared in terms of skills and cultural understanding in order to integrate into a new society, even if it's just temporarily. I've done some work recently in some of the Gulf states, where they're really looking at better preparing migrant workers for their stay and to inform them about what to expect; what their rights are; where to go for recourse if they feel that their rights are not being respected; and to put in place mechanisms for addressing that.

As for the question of selectivity, I think that at least within our lifetimes, there's always going to be selectivity. The reality is that governments do retain the sovereign discretion to determine which non-nationals to admit to their territories and under what conditions. While, today, international migration is only 3% of the global population total – it's tiny compared to the overall population – it's likely that there will always be more people who wish to migrate than there will be available legal spaces for them to do so.

So there will always be elements of selectivity where host governments decide which no nationals to let in, either based on skills or demographic needs, or humanitarian priorities. What I hope that we'll be able to do is to try to shift the mindset to move toward recognising the benefits all around of creating more of those safe opportunities.

Cameron: To tie that up with one final question: there are two parallel narratives that run through most migration discussions, and where the emphasis is placed depends on who you're talking to. The first is that the streets (or welfare systems) of richer countries are paved with gold; the second that migration is natural and has happened since time immemorial.

The answer is, of course, ‘a bit of both – but also a lot of other things’. You noted earlier that migrants are often the faces or scapegoats of globalisation, and part of the reason they’re linked is because globalisation has contributed a lot to global inequality. Migration and inequality are connected to each other, yet the refugee convention does not have anything like an ‘economic refugee’. So, at a more introspective level, how do we speak our own responsibility for creating a need to move, and not just a desire?

Michele: I think you're really right. In many ways I think the answer lies in really reflecting on the sustainable development agenda and the 2030 goals. These really encourage a more profound look at conditions that create a compulsion for people to move, but those aren’t going to be rectified through migration policies. That must be addressed well beyond that realm: it has to be addressed in peace and security, and in fundamental development. It's no accident that the core migration component of the sustainable development agenda – 10.7, where governments committed to cooperate internationally to facilitate safe, regularly and orderly migration with humane treatment and respect for rights – comes up in the chapter on inequalities.

That's a really interesting placement in the sustainable development agenda. I think we need to see it in that regard, not only in terms of migration opening opportunities to reduce inequality, but as you say, what are the inequalities that fuel migration and where does responsibility lie for generating that and for addressing that? We need to look at both aspects of that, and I really hope that in looking to realise the sustainable development agenda that we can bridge those discussions.

I don't think that it's useful in the migration discourse about drivers to adopt something totally new. The sustainable development agenda was developed over a significant amount of time, and in a very inclusive process, and with regard to overall development for all peoples. It's the mantra of 'leaving no one behind'. Let's not reinvent the wheel on that. Let's see how that plays out in the migration context, both in terms of generating migration and in terms of how migration can help.

One of the obvious areas now is the whole linkage to environmental degradation, climate change, and the increased frequency of natural disasters becoming a driver of migration. We need to look at that, and there is no question that with the long-term effects of environmental degradation linked to climate change that there are parts of the world that are becoming unproductive, uninhabitable, and unsafe for people to live. Whether it's desertification, or sea level rise, or increased flooding, all of the various effects of a changing climate and what that means in terms of where people can live safe and productive lives.

It's something IOM has been advocating for a while. Obviously, yes, we want to prevent – not in the sense of preventing migration but the factors that force people to have to move. But we also have to proactively look at migration as one of the adaptation strategies. So if we know a particular area, or a particular region, or even an entire country may become uninhabitable, let's not wait until there's a disaster to deal with the migration. Let's plan ahead! By anticipating, you get people out of harm's way and allow them to live safe and productive lives.

Many people talk about the example of Kiribati, which is one of the countries where the sea level rise is an existential threat. They have bought land in Fiji, which is also at risk, but the idea is already anticipating and working out arrangements. Of course, they hope they don't get to that. But before people are literally drowning and at real risk, let's find productive ways for them to be able to live.

Here, my own inclination is to say that we're unlikely to get a global agreement on climate migration. But we might be able to look at regional solutions, and regional zones, where there can be really meaningful cooperation and collaboration on all those aspects – on reducing the drivers that compel people to move, and on looking proactively at how migration can be an adaptation and coping strategy. There's a lot of room for cooperation, and a lot of room for anticipation, and a lot of room for governance. It can be, and needs to be, rights-based and people-centred. But it does take planning, and not being in a reactive, responsive mode.

One last comment. I think the New York Declaration and the New York summit took place because the sense of crisis had reached a certain proportion and a certain set of countries. You know, many countries in other parts of the world have been crying about these issues for years and weren't heard. I think it's legitimate to say that yes, in some respects it took the refugee and migration movement to Europe to really bring this to a global political level. That's true.

On the other hand, that can be a benefit for countries around the world and people around the world. It can shine a spotlight on situations elsewhere and to mobilise the political will that is necessary to address those longer standing issues and those more fundamental dynamics. In a sense what we're seeing in the Mediterranean and Europe is just the last bit – it's not the fundamentals. I know it's obviously a significant issue, but it's really made those governments aware of the need to plan and manage, and to question, and it raises a consciousness with others around the world. I see it as an opportunity, and we need to make it an opportunity.

Cameron: Thank you for your time.

Michele: Thank you.

About the authors

Michele Klein Solomon is Senior Policy Advisor to the Director at the International Organization for Migration.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and Mediterranean Journeys in Hope. He is a former research associate at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and holds a D.Phil from the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 

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