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It's about us! People's global action for fair migration policy

With the UN High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development underway in New York, migrant-led organisations have gathered to argue for policies that value and prioritise people over profit, protection of the environment and advancement of sustainable growth over short time gains.

Nunu Kidane
2 October 2013

What do people do when things get unbearably difficult? What they’ve always done since millennia - they move, change location and try a different life. Many times not so much for themselves as for the loved ones they leave behind.

According to the UN, about 214 million people live outside their countries of birth; this is about 3% of the world’s population - which has doubled in the past 25 years. 

What is going on in the world that could increase so drastically the rate of human mobility in less than a generation? Can it be attributed to industrialisation, globalisation and massive economic development which are displacing people? “People do not casually leave an inherited way of life; events must be extreme enough at home to compel them to go, or alluring enough elsewhere for them to override an almost tribal instinct to stay among their own", says Iris Chang in The Chinese in America.

Current economic development policies are exasperating life for the majority at the expense of a few. We measure the “advancement” of countries by the size of their economic growth where growth is good and more growth better. Migration is a manifestation of faulty neo-liberal economic principles which are not harmonious with respect to life and the environment.  

This week, the United Nations General Assembly will host the second High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development (HLD). Most UN events like this are of little interest to grassroots organsations but this one has captured the attention of migration-focused groups from around the world who are hosting the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights (PGA). 

A brief review of the history of global policy dialogues on migration is helpful here in emphasising the importance of the UN HLD and PGA processes.

First, although the UN has multiple conventions on protection of labour rights and urgent needs relating to refugees and the internally displaced, it does not have a permanent organisation or platform on migration as a whole.

The 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt marked a definitive moment where migration was prioritised with policy recommendations. In 2002, the UNDESA (Department of Economic and Social Affairs) issued a report that recognized the obvious gap in setting policy directions on global migration. The Doyle Report, as it was known, said: “absence of an authoritative UN ‘voice’ on migration becomes more obvious and more keenly felt, the question arises as to how the Organization [meaning the UN] might most effectively fulfill a role in migration governance and establish a presence in the migration debate.”

This report led to the first High Level Dialogue on International Migration & Development (HLD) in 2006 with the stated purpose “to discuss the multidimensional aspects of international migration and development in order to identify appropriate ways and means to maximize its development benefits and minimize its negative impacts.”  

Setting up a permanent organisation within the UN for coherent policy and analysis migration was not welcomed by a number of influential UN member states. Instead, a the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) was subsequently established “to place the issue of international migration on the global policy agenda, to analyze gaps in current approaches to migration, to examine the inter-linkages between migration and other global issues, and to present appropriate recommendations to the Secretary-General and other stakeholders."

In the time between the 2002 Doyle Report and the first High Level Dialogue in 2006, there had undergone a discernible shift in the general framework on migration discourse. The original mandate of examining the “inter-linkages of migration and other global issues” in Doyle Report had now put emphasis on exploring “aspects of international migration and development” as the focus of the HLD. Migration policy at global level would now consider first and foremost the need to “maximize its development benefits” and considerations to “minimize negative impacts” would be secondary at best. In other words, ensuring economic development and corporate interests would take precedent over concerns for migrant rights and protection second.

Hence, it was in this atmosphere that the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) was established in 2007. As an intergovernmental agency which is not part of the UN, the Forum would “informally discuss relevant policies and practical challenges and opportunities of the migration-development nexus.” Designed to be “an informal, non-binding, voluntary and government-led process” its intended mission is simply to provide space for policy dialogue which governments are free to adopt or ignore at will. 

From its inception, the GFMD involved space for civil society organisations which are considered important stakeholders in the dialogue on global migration. "Civil society group", by its very term, may imply to readers labour unions and non-governmental organisations only. However, the Forum’s interpretation of civil society includes the World Bank, Western Union and the World Economic Forum in addition to migrant and diaspora organisations who sit alongside corporate sectors as “equal” partners. 

The creation of the GFMD is largely credited to one man: Peter Sutherland, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Migration and Development. Mr. Sutherland's impressive credentials include Chairman of Goldman Sachs International, British Petroleum and the European Round Table of Industrialists. His corporate and business background is said by Mickey Kantor, the US Trade Minister, to have earned him the title “father of globalization...without him there would have been no World Trade Organization (WTO).” 

The People’s Global Action on migration, development and human rights

At each of the UN deliberations of the past decades, civil society groups have been involved, contributed ideas and enriched and expanded dialogues on global migration. This is also the case in non-UN led spaces such as the World Social Forum on Migration, held in Manila in 2012 and scheduled for Johannesburg South Africa in 201.

Migrant-led organisations and their allies organised large and open platforms for migration policy debate in 2006 during the first UN HLD, and have met over the past seven years around GFMD convening, to push back on singularly neo-liberal economic development-focused migration policy proposals. The People’s Global Action (PGAs) are largely made up of progressive groups of labour, migrant-led rights and diaspora organisations, faith and secular groups, climate justice, land-rights and food sovereignty movements. They organise and bring into coherence carefully planned and considered mobilisations to strategize on alternative policy on migration. Policy that values and prioritizes people over profit, protection of the environment and advancement of sustainable growth over short time gains.

Their core value is the human rights framework: no policy recommendation on development can be considered without addressing the fundamental necessity of the protection of rights, of migrants and their families as well as and those who stay behind.  This includes implementation of existing civil, political, economic and social rights enshrined in the many UN conventions.

The neo-liberal economic model  is contributing to displacement of people, leading to forced migration, environmental damage, climate change and conflict. This economic prescription is not contributing to the well-being of migrants and is primarily harmful to countries in the Global South. The interests of the 99% must take precedent with due considerations for the well-being of the planet and all that it encompasses.

The movement building-agenda is a stated focus which brings together migrant-led organisations building alliances with a multitude of social justice movements fighting for racial justice, gender justice, climate justice and economic justice. Governments must take their bidding from their populace, not the other way around. 

Yet for thousands who will be converging in New York this week, the UN process remains a formal platform that is not accessible for the majority of grassroots groups from around the world. Planners of the People’s Global Action however recognize the significant convergence of governments and organizations during this time and are intentionally working to provide open space for mobilisation and movement-building. Events planned for the PGA include rallies, plenary and workshop sessions that will mobilise and inform a vast and growing movement, while also hosting visible rallies to flex the collective muscle of migrant organisations around the world that are holding their governments to account. 

PGA activities break down the complex language of policy into every day realities that demystify issues, making it accessible to mass participation. In contrast to the formal and restricted UN process, the PGAs are colorful and informal, bringing together diverse people from around the world in conversations in English, Spanish, French, Wolof, Arabic, Swahili, Portuguese, Akan and Urdu – reflecting the reality of issues and people organised around global migration.

The meeting of large and diverse locally mobilised migrant organisations in New York with global organisations from around the world brings critical awareness of the common agenda of migrants beyond political boundaries.

The High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development takes place October 3rd-4th, 2013.

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