Migration: breaking the deadlock

As the Global Forum on Migration and Development prepares to meet in Geneva, Don Flynn reports on the attempt to break the deadlock between civil society and governments over rights vs security in migration policy
Don Flynn
14 November 2011

The Global Forum on Migration and Development GFMD has been trying for five years to promote serious discussion about global migration. It meets later this month for the last time under the chair of the Swiss government, which hands over to Mauritius for 2012.

In an earlier openDemocracy article I described the background to the GFMD process, explaining its origins in high-level discussions promoted by the Kofi Annan during his period as secretary-general of the United Nations back in 2003. Influenced by World Bank perspectives on migrant remittances, the view became established that a ‘triple win’ was possible which would show positive outcomes for receiving and sending countries, as well as the migrants themselves.

The argument has moved on over the years, through GFMD sessions supported by the Belgian, Philippines, Greek and Mexican governments. The forum structure has experimented over this time with approaches aimed at fostering the engagement of government and civil society representatives, the latter in the form of academy-based researchers, trade unions and employers, and NGOs working on, respectively, migration and development themes. Further in the background, a Peoples’ Global Action (PGA) on Migration, Development and Human Rights has functioned as a, independent, component of the GFMD processes, acting as an assertive representative of the rights of migrants themselves.

Under its Swiss chair, the GFMD has worked during 2011 on 14 themes, chosen because of their strategic importance to immigration policy dialogues, and also because of their potential to support the development of tools which would improve the management of the evidence base for this work. An example of the latter approach is the Migration Profiles tool, designed to “promote policy coherence on migration and development.” Otherwise participants looked for ways to lower migration to enable higher development gains to be made, migration of care workers, and tackling issues arising from irregular migration.

At the end of November the GFMD will convene in a session of ‘Civil Society Days” (CSDs), followed by the meeting of intergovernmental representatives. The concept note produced for the CSDs centres discussion on “Taking Action on Labour Migration, Development and the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families”. The sub-themes will focus on the pitfalls of temporary and circular migration, partnerships to protect migrants in transit, rights-based labour migration policies, measures needed to reduce pressure to migrate, and the greater integration of private sector actors in migration and development.

Amongst civil society participants, the key awareness is that the level of coordination they aspire to which could produce policy coherence across migration and development depends critically on the support and commitment of migrants themselves. If the people moving across frontiers are not able to recognise the connection between migration management policies and the goals they are pursuing through their actions then cooperation with the authorities will be limited and even withheld altogether. Migration will continue, but in forms ways which seek advantages from the avoidance of control measures in order that space is created for the plans and projects of individual migrants to stand a greater chance of success.

Appreciation of the importance of the rights-based approach to migration hinges on the understanding that, if the protection of the security and welfare of migrants is not an explicit part of the official policy pursued by governments their capacity to manage and direct the movement of people across borders and within their territory will be eroded.

This is a desperately hard message to get across to many national governments at the present time, and the challenge in getting the authorities to acknowledge of this point sums up all the difficulties that exist between the intergovernmental and civil society wings of the GFMD. Governments, particularly those of the global north countries, have been increasingly inclined to assert their involvement in immigration policy as nothing more than the exercise of sovereign control over movement across their national frontiers. From this perspective, the rights to enter and reside on the part of non-citizens are purely a product of national legislation which is can be made without reference to any wider point about fairness or social justice. If a consequence of the exercise of this sovereign right is serious disadvantage for either the migrant or her country of origin, the remedy can safely be assumed to be that she should not come to the country in the first place.

If the GFMD is to play any role in breaking the deadlock between civil society and government perspectives it will come from the quality of its analysis of the reasons why irregular forms of migration are widespread, making up around 15% of global migrant stocks according to the ILO. It will also be necessary to explain why unilateral efforts aimed at increasing criminal sanctions against migrants who infringe laws and regulations are unlikely to result in a marked reduction in the numbers prepared to consider irregular migration if legal movement provides insufficient prospects for satisfactory outcomes. When migration is so closely associated with a basic livelihoods strategy, if not actually a means to ensure survival, then widespread evasion of unfavourable regulation can be safely predicted.

Winning national governments to acceptance of rights-based approaches to migration is a difficult task, but the GFMD at least has the chance to show that it is not totally impossible. Its intergovernmental session will involve many government representatives who will have witnessed the deterioration of conditions in their own country as a consequence of being on the wrong side of immigration laws enforced by dominant neighbours. In an article published in 2002 Peter Andreas wrote of the example of the US-Mexican border producing “perverse and counterproductive consequences” which although failing to significantly deter ‘illegal’ immigration, had paradoxically given the impression of “a more secure and orderly border.” In 2011, in face of all the evidence showing how US border controls stimulated the integration of ‘coyote’ people smuggling with major league drugs cartels and a horrific escalation of violence across the border region, the perverse and counterproductive consequences seem more evident than the apparent security.

In 2012 the government of Mauritius will assume responsibility for the work of the GFMD for one further year. In 2013 the GFMD process will return to the United Nations for another stage of the high level dialogue which initiated the Forum’s work back in 2006. Between now and then a realistic task for its supporters will be to build a common platform supporting the rights based approach which embraces the both migrant organisations and development NGOs, but also reaches out to the national governments which can demonstrate the negative impact restrictive immigration policies have had on their interests. A louder, more influential voice supporting the rights of migrants needs to become the explicit goal of the GFMD if it is to offer anything of lasting value to the world community in the future.

Migrants' Rights Network is holding 'Global migration: the challenges for the West's political leaders' at Chatham House, London 15th November

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