Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Is the world delivering on the Global Migration Compact?

UN member states promised to create a system of ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’. Are they doing it?

Bandana Pattanaik
12 May 2022, 9.06am

Dennis Skley/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nd)

Late last year, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women conducted a simple exercise within our network of women migrant workers. We asked them what they expect from the UN’s first-ever International Migration Review Forum. The IMRF, which begins on Tuesday, is a quadrennial forum created so that member states and other stakeholders can review the world’s progress in implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM).

Not surprisingly, few of the women had heard of either the IMRF or the GCM. Only 30, from a group of 200 spread across seven countries, had some idea of what these were when we began talking. But once they were brought up to speed they had many questions:

“Does the GCM say that we should not be treated badly by our employers?”

“That we should be paid regularly?”

“That we should not have to pay high fees to the recruiters?”

“Can the IMRF make sure that we are treated as human beings?

A forum for, or about, migrants?

The GCM promises to uphold the human rights of migrants and take a people-centred, whole-of-society approach to migration governance. It also makes humanitarian commitments to migrants and underscores non-discrimination and racial justice. Fine words, and the IMRF exists to ensure their transformation into reality. But will it truly be an opportunity for civil society, including migrant-led organisations and migrants themselves, to hold states accountable for the promises they made four years ago? Or will the IMRF end up as yet another exercise in showcasing rhetoric to hide an absence of action?

The on-going Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the deep fault lines in our world. Despite the disruption and destruction of the past three years, world leaders have failed to come together to address vaccine inequality let alone to strategise for a global transformational recovery programme. Despite talk of building back better, nobody at the top is discussing a new social contract. Instead, the pandemic has exacerbated nationalism, racism, and xenophobia. In many countries, migrants as well as racial, ethnic, and religious minorities have been subjected to violence, exclusion, and hatred.

Not even the climate crisis is considered a valid reason for seeking refuge.

The pandemic has also shown that while migrants work in all countries and all sectors, an overwhelming majority are employed in temporary and precarious jobs. These women and men enjoy nominal to no labour rights. They often live in cramped accommodation, where the virus can easily spread, and frequently cannot access even basic services. Thousands lost their jobs when workplaces shut, yet couldn’t return home because travel had become impossible. Those in jobs declared ‘essential’ or ‘frontline’ continued to work, but often without appropriate personal protection equipment or overtime/hazard pay. Undocumented migrants found themselves in desperate situations. Wage theft was rampant, destination countries had no record of their presence, and the threat of deportation stopped them from seeking health and other basic services.

Given all this, it’s reasonable to wonder what progress the IMRF could possibly hope to assess. The pandemic has demonstrably not served as a wakeup call. Barring a few temporary support measures in certain countries, the predominant approach remains focused on deterring irregular migration by detaining migrants and externalising and militarising borders. Continuing conflict, poverty and hunger have, to all appearances, only strengthened states’ resolve to spend millions on locking their doors. Not even displacement due to the climate crisis is considered a valid reason for seeking refuge – a particularly glaring omission given the scientific consensus about its impact and likely outcomes.

Even failure must be assessed

Climate crisis. Vaccine apartheid. Tragedies at borders and in detention centres. Deplorable working conditions. Poverty. This is the worrying reality for many migrant workers. And that is what makes this IMRF all the more important. Even if progress is difficult to find, it is imperative that we analyse how the safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration governance envisioned in the GCM and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is being interpreted and implemented by states.

The results of a recent global survey conducted by UN agencies are revealing in this regard. While a large number of states responded that they had policies and partnerships to facilitate “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration” (SDG indicator 10.7.2), many noted that they did not have strong policies to protect the rights of migrants and promote their socioeconomic well-being. In other words, states are cooperating to curb irregular migration with scant regard for human rights.

Destination states must let go of the false notion that migrants are a burden to their countries.

Statistics show that a very small number of the world’s population migrates across national borders. Their reasons for doing so usually boil down to a complex mix of aspiration and desperation. Migrants are not responsible for the disasters they’re fleeing from, and when they move in search of better lives they are ready to work hard and contribute to their countries of destination, transit, and origin. There is no data to support the notion that creating permanent regular pathways for migrants and regularising undocumented people will strain the economic or social systems of destination countries. On the contrary, such policies would go a long way in reducing livelihood insecurity, building just societies, and strengthening local economies. Destination states must let go of the false notion that migrants are a burden or threat to their countries once and for all.

The first IMRF offers a high-profile opportunity to push states to open up regular pathways for migration, regularise irregular immigrants, and protect migrants’ rights, including labour rights. Strong and persistent advocacy has already yielded some positive results, but states are still reticent on several key topics. For example, women migrants – who make up half the world’s migrants – do not merit even a separate paragraph within the GCM progress report, and at many points they are only mentioned as victims of violence. There is much work to be done.

To help move the states down a more rights-centred path, the Global Coalition on Migration with the support of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has published a Spotlight Report on Global Migration. The report centres migrant human rights in the discussion, calling for migrant rights-based, gender-responsive, and permanent regular pathways, regularisation of undocumented migrants, and protection of migrants’ rights. The report highlights grassroots organisations, activists and communities’ voices in chapters on:

  • regular migration pathways;
  • access to services, social protections, and economic, social, and cultural rights;
  • criminalisation and detention;
  • migrant workers’ rights;
  • protection at the borders;
  • climate-related displacement.

As the IMRF gets underway next week, we have partnered with Beyond Trafficking and Slavery to publish a mini-series of articles written by grassroots partners that highlight some of the key messages of this report.

We are cautiously optimistic about the upcoming IMRF. The many preparatory meetings, consultations and interactions between state and non-state actors have created momentum for the international community to imagine a just and fair world for migrants. Clearly, it is going to take a lot more collective struggle, resistance and determination to realise this. Our strategies to organise migrants and to build solidarity across many borders need to be stronger. The first IMRF, in that sense, could be a moment to renew our commitment to the rights of migrants.

Explore the series

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