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Interview: making the global compacts on migrants and refugees worthwhile

Achieving meaningful global compacts on migration and refugees by end-2018 won’t be easy. Learn the challenges ahead from someone involved in the process.

The fence around the Spanish enclave of Melilla in 2006. Sara Prestianni for Noborder Network/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

Cameron Thibos (oD): Let's start with what has happened so far. In short, global compacts for migrants and refugees are being developed as a result of the UN Summit in 2016 and the New York Declaration that came out of that. What happened there, and why didn’t the compacts come out immediately as some reports suggested would happen?

Sarnata Reynolds: In the summer when it all went into negotiations, there was supposed to be a global compact on refugees done – ready to sign – by the end of the summer. The negotiation process for the global compact on migration was always about, 'what's the roadmap?' The negotiations themselves, however, ended up being crazy. There was a huge, strong, organised and impressive contingency of member states that wanted as strong a language as they could get on a roadmap on migration.

They fought really hard for it, and basically took the global compact on refugees hostage. They said ‘we will not allow that to go forward unless we have what want in the global compact on migration’. It was a really good negotiating position for them, but it meant that the global compact on refugees actually didn't happen.

So what we ended up with was something called the New York Declaration, which is a series of commonalities, statements, citations to human rights. Not a bad document, except that there's nothing in it that's a commitment to anything, except a commitment to – at a later point – have a global compact on refugees and at a later point have a global compact on migration and development.

Cameron: And this is supposed to happen within two years, correct?

Sarnata: Yes. By the end of 2018 both of them are supposed to have gone through the process.

Cameron: So there are two years of negotiations before us. What are the sticking points, challenges, and points of common interest that will determine whether we will end up in two years with compacts worth having?

Sarnata: I'm going to answer the question separately for each of the compacts. The roadmap for the global compact on refugees was that UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, would be the lead. They would do a series of pilots that would try to implement what was called 'the comprehensive regional refugee framework', through that process learn lessons, and then propose a draft for the compact.

The primary critique of that by many people in civil society is that the comprehensive regional refugee response framework reflects how business is already done on the ground and it's already not working. We know it's not working – that's why this whole process got started. So we don't know what's going to come out of it beyond what already exists, which we already know is not working. The good thing with refugees, at least, is that we have some base, strong, international rights and humanitarian law that applies. That's good, as it means we won't get lower than that.

Cameron: And for the global compact on migrants?

Sarnata: On the migration and development side, there isn't as much law. There's a migrant workers convention, but that's specific to migrant workers and their families. There isn't a convention around forced migration that isn't about refugees. There isn't a lot of international jurisprudence, there isn't a lot of policy. So it's much more in flux.

Furthermore, even though we know that all human rights apply to all people, governments have a lot of room to create exceptions. If they talk about national security, they can create exceptions. If they talk about criminality, they can create exceptions. If they talk about fraud or misrepresentations, they can create exceptions. That's where it's really scary and dangerous, because those sorts of considerations are political. It's not that there aren't true concerns there, but they're nevertheless inherently political decisions.

Even though we know that all human rights apply to all people, governments have a lot of room to create exceptions.

The other point on that is that the states that wanted to make sure the language was as strong as possible are the states that send migrants out. So they're absolutely invested in having a strong document that protects the rights of their own citizens as they go into other countries with a legal pathway or otherwise. That's good, and hopefully they will continue to push that as far as possible. There are good indications that they will, but the flip-side of that for sending countries is that they also take back a lot of remittances – people sending money back home, and that money is often a big part of the economy – so they also have incentives to perpetuate outward migration. That isn't necessarily good for families or communities in their own countries.

On top of that, because there isn't as much hard law, there will be real efforts by some non-traditionally sending countries to talk about border security, returns, detention, and other restrictions on liberty that they should be able to implement. That already started coming out in the negotiations – to talk about migration as a negative instead of as a positive. The bloc of countries that were strong on migration were great at fighting back a lot of that language, but we'll have to see how it all plays out. The context now is much different that it was even last summer.

Cameron: A lot of this discussion is around trying to create so-called 'better migration governance' or 'a safe and orderly migration process'. That sort of language is, however, often used euphemistically for minimising or at least reducing overall migration into a country – and attenuating the flow of low-skilled migrants. But is it possible, in your view, to create a workable migration governance system that is so at odds with the actual composition of the people on the move?

Sarnata: That's a really good question. For countries that have lots of jobs available – jobs which the people in those countries are not willing to take yet there are a lot of people in other countries who are – it is in their best interests to facilitate that in a safe, orderly and regular way. That's very basic economics, and it would be good for the country of origin, the migrants, and the receiving country. It makes total sense from a labour perspective and from an economic perspective. It cuts out the need for smugglers, it decreases the chance of trafficking – it's good in every way. But politically, domestically, it's very difficult to do. Having just witnessed what happened last summer I'd like to see them do that, but I think it would be very difficult to get there.

It's difficult even when they talk about refugees, who obviously have the right to seek protection. The states which have taken on the vast majority of refugees are also often times developing states as well. Yet ultimately we couldn't even get governments to commit to 10% resettlement out of these neighbouring countries, or to develop other legal pathways for refugees who have rights. So the idea that they would create a system for migrants who have rights but don't have the same international protection [is even more remote].

The Refugee Convention could not pass now – it would never pass now.

The reality too is that, unfortunately, irregular migration is not bad for some businesses in many countries. Having a workforce that is undocumented, that may or may not have labour rights, who are too afraid to go to the police, who are easily exploited, and who will work in conditions that are illegal – because they don't know, or they don't have a choice, or because they're coerced – is a business model. It's used in the United States, it's used in a lot of countries.

Cameron: During the negotiations over the summer, was there any push at all – or was it very much a red line – to discuss expanding the definition of refugee beyond its current definition to include people moving due to climate change, inequality, etc.?

Sarnata: There were definitely one or two countries that used the word 'climate refugee'. Immediately 10 hands would go up to object that it's not correct usage. And it's not, under international law right now. I would say no, there was no discussion of reopening the definition.

I personally would not want the definition to be reopened, because I think that if that refugee convention was reopened it would get worse. It would get gutted. That refugee convention could not pass now – it would never pass now. So, as limited as it is, it's still massive. It still covers a huge amount of people and provides protection in an important way, yet even the interpretation of that is precarious right now.

Cameron: I've asked that question to a lot of people, and there's a sharp divide on that between academics and anybody that works anywhere near policy. The academics often says, 'this has to be discussed. This has to be opened up'. The policy people say, 'if you do that, it's all going to fall apart'.

Sarnata: Yeah, that's the reality.

Cameron: Last question. We're conducting this interview at the Global Forum for Migration and Development in Bangladesh (held in December 2016), and many of the civil society people here are very sceptical that this could ever be a transformative space. What is your view on that? What is the value of this sort of forum?

Sarnata: This is my first time at this forum, and I have to say that I've been really impressed. It's been terrific to listen to people from all over the world as they speak about their own experiences, what they're working on, what are their priorities, etc. But, one of the things we learned in New York over the summer is that while having advocates for the common voice there was good, it was much more important to have people in Mexico to go talk to their capital; to have people in Turkey go talk to their capital, people in Lebanon, people in Uganda, etc. This was important because that's who they listen to – that's their constituencies. As much as we're in an international forum, they're domestic issues, so governments need to have the pressure domestically.

So that's what I've been wondering: how does the massive amount of expertise that is currently in the room stay connected, such that we can get to the next step? This process at the UN could be profoundly good or profoundly bad, or just be neutral. We want it to be from neutral to profoundly good, and neutral might be the best we get right now. That's just reality, but then we want neutral to profoundly good.

How do we get there, what is the process to organising? That I don't know. Over the summer there was an action committee that did a lot, but hopefully something broader. That was limited in geography and in who we could influence, because of who was on the action committee. But the problem is that that is a lot of work, and people already have a lot of work, especially when they work locally.

So how do we build capacity? Instead of finding a way we have to fund a way. And we do have to fund a way. One of the things we need to work on is getting funding, and not just for New York but for people who can advocate in their national capitals on these issues. I don't know how that's going to happen, but I'd love to be part of the conversation.


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