Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Global compacts, detention centres, and safe passage: can the world change course on migration?

The tragic spectacle of the past five years has pushed migration to the top of the global policy agenda, but it will take a lot of work to transform that opportunity into substantive change.

Stacy Topouzova Cameron Thibos
20 February 2017

People wait in line to be registered at Moria's migrant processing centre on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Socrates Baltagiannis/dpa/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Refugees and migrants have long known that the legal pathways in and out of Europe and North America are essentially closed to all but the global elites. Without the right passport, the right qualifications, and enough money, it is extraordinarily difficult to enter and remain in these areas through regular channels, even when seeking protection from violence or persecution under international law. This is not news. Yet it has taken a European 'crisis of reception' and five years of people dying in the Mediterranean, battling asylum systems, and languishing in detention – along with the accompanying political backlash from both the left and the right – to push migration to the top of the global policy agenda.

A symbol of this change was the 'high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants' convened by the United Nations last September. This resulted in the New York Declaration, a statement signed by 193 member states that among other things "acknowledge(s) a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a human, sensitive, compassionate, and people-centred manner" and that commits this group to negotiate a "global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration" as well as a "global compact for refugees" by the end of 2018.

The outcome of the negotiations at the UN have the potential to shape national migration policies for the rest of the present generation.

Policy makers and civil society around the globe are now gearing up for those negotiations, and the outcome has the potential to shape national migration policies for the rest of the present generation. But given the national moods in many countries, reaching a more humane and rights-based consensus on facilitating migration will not be easy. As Oxfam's Sarnata Reynolds says in this series' opening interview, "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".

The new series we begin today explores the issues, actors, and agendas feeding into this process alongside the lived realities of many different migrant and refugee groups. It also examines the current policy trends so as to better understand the starting point for the negotiations. Here we take a special interest in the growing securitisation of migration and some of the different forms of migration 'control' currently in use, which span measures from border externalisation and 'safe third country' lists to immigrant detention and the re-purposing of development aid. Finally, through two separate sets of case studies, we look at the specific issues facing women on the move, and the difficulties of securing safe passage for asylum seekers.

This series, which we've titled Searching for safe passage, features a wide variety of voices from policymakers, academics and activists working to influence migration policy in Europe and North America, and at the international level. Among many others we’ll be hearing from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the International Detention Coalition, Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Joint Migration and Development Initiative, the Insan Association, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the Scalabrini International Migration Network, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

Depending on their position and political outlook their views and prescriptions differ widely. However all share a belief that there are significant barriers to mobility, and are currently grappling with the question of how to best balance facilitating movement and the rights of migrants with the prerogatives of state policy makers. Over the next two months we invite you to think along with them.

A note on language

Migration, be it forced or voluntary, is both an adaptation to insecurity and an expression of ambition and aspiration. The United Nations estimated in the New York Declaration that there are approximately 244 million migrants in the world today, around 3% of the current global population. At the same time, the UN recognises some 24 million people worldwide as refugees or asylum seekers eligible for international protection under the U.N. Refugee Convention and Optional Protocol.

Outside of law the distinctions, in practice, between these different categories are blurry, contested, and exploited in the service of different political projects. Briefly stated, actors in both the ‘free movement’ and ‘controlled’ migration camps have reason to defend a distinction between refugees and migrants. For the latter camp the distinction serves to exclude the majority of people on the move from many protection frameworks, while for the former to remove it would be to take away the main area of protection that does exist. Others argue that the distinction should be done away with entirely, as it eliminates nuance and creates a hierarchy of suffering, boiling down complex matrices of vulnerabilities into ‘victims’ deserving protection and deportable ‘economic migrants’.

We recognise the arguments on both sides and as editors of the series abstain from stating our own views here. We call attention to the conflict however, as the voices featured in this series will use the same terms – refugee, asylum seeker, migrant, forced migrant, as well as several others – to mean different things, and it’s important to keep in mind the position of the person speaking in order to fully understand their comments.


People stuck in Serbia as a result of tight border controls in Hungary and Croatia try to stay warm in January 2017. Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Searching for safe passage

The series focuses its attention on core barriers to mobility and efforts to overcome them. The contributors point to an overarching tendency to ‘securitise migration’, a defensive, increasingly militarised strategy grounded in the assumption that migrants inherently constitute a ‘threat’ to the socio-economic, political, and cultural composition of a state. In practice, the ‘securitisation of migration’ propagates programmes and policies that seek to monitor, regulate, control, and deflect persons seeking entry through the physical fortification of borders, the deployment of border interception missions; and the use of incentives to outsource border policing work to other states.

One particularly disturbing trend is the growing use of detention centres to screen, monitor, and potentially deport migrants and asylum-seekers. Although states distinguish between administrative immigration detention and criminal detention, the overall tactics are shared by both regimes. The threat of being caught in these nets, and the dire consequences that can result from doing so, are one of the main reasons why many remain at risk in countries of transit and destination.

The lack of legal pathways out of detention as well as efforts to circumvent other securitisation measures increase people’s susceptibility to exploitation in informal labour markets and put them at risk of physical harm. The New York Declaration unambiguously commits states to creating sustainable solutions for migrants and refugees and ending practices that put them at risk. “We are determined to save lives,” it says. “Our challenge is above all moral and humanitarian. Equally we are determined to find long-term and sustainable solutions. We will combat with all the means at our disposal the abuses and exploitation suffered by countless refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations”. Meeting this commitment will not be possible without reversing the securitisation of migration.

The lack of legal pathways out of detention as well as efforts to circumvent other securitisation measures increase people’s susceptibility to exploitation in informal labour markets and put them at risk of physical harm.

The series will also be looking at a set of barriers that specifically seek to limit access to asylum and subsidiary legal protection, like humanitarian status or temporary protection status. A host of measures including the creation of external processing centres and the ratification of readmission agreements with ‘safe third countries’ constitute an increasing effort by states to circumvent core responsibilities in the U.N. Refugee Convention and Optional Protocol, and to limit access to asylum.

Against the background of these deterrents, the call for ‘safe passage’ initiatives, programmes, and movements that facilitate mobility is becoming ever louder. While refugee rights activists mobilise under the banner of ‘safe passage’ to enact programmes that facilitate access to asylum, groups pushing more broadly for safe, legal migration pathways regardless of the reason for movement have taken to using this term as well.

In this way, ‘safe passage’ has become a central (and centrist) rallying call for more legal pathways to mobility, but it is also in danger of becoming an empty slogan – championed by all but devoid of direction. Calls for safe passage must be accompanied by clear articulations of what is being demanded, for whom, and practical solutions to get there. To forward that conversation, we end the series Searching for safe passage with a set of case studies on precisely that: the mechanisms, initiatives, and programmes being trialled today by activists to hold open substantive ‘safe passage’ for migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers alike.

The member states of the United Nations have committed themselves to creating separate global compacts for migrants and refugees within the next two years. This does not mean that everybody sitting at the table will have migrants’ and refugees’ best interests at heart. Civil society groups and NGOs will attempt to fill this role, but they will face a tough battle against governmental security hawks pushing hard for higher and thicker walls.

If securitisation wins the day the UN will have done more than fail on the promises it articulated in the New York Declaration. It will have also endorsed a system whereby migrants and refugees are forced to attempt dangerous crossings into lands where – unless they find a way to regularise their status – they will live lives of perpetual insecurity and at risk of exploitation. And the search for safe passage will continue.

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