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The road to riches

Anonymous author
20 October 2005

Occasionally, one encounters real-life Alice in Wonderland stories, where the narrator describes a well-known situation with such crazy inversions of commonsense and reality that incredulity sets in for the knowledgeable reader. One such situation occurred for me whilst reading Gregory Maniatis’s openDemocracy article, “The road to nowhere”. Was he describing the same report that I had read a day earlier? Was it the same Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) for which I had served as one of twenty-six expert advisors? It hardly seemed possible.

My doubts that it was the same global commission were reinforced by Maniatis’s assertion that the GCIM was launched in winter 2004; the GCIM I knew had been launched in December 2003. They were confirmed by Maniatis’s statement that the commission’s purpose was to provide exciting material for journalists and to focus on two or three important, needed actions; the GCIM I knew had a broad threefold mandate, and was interested in structural arrangements and establishing a baseline of fundamental principles acceptable across the globe.

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A problem of evidence

If indeed it is the same GCIM with which both Maniatis and I are acquainted, let me respond to some of his claims. It should be evident that a United Nations report is obliged to address all states of the world, a fact manifest throughout the GCIM report and the numerous regional consultation processes undertaken by it. Over the last two decades, the most important global effort made to set groundrules for international migration – the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families – has been ratified by only thirty states, all of them countries of emigration or transit migration.

The developed world has consistently refused to adopt provisions which give substantial protection to those who migrated in an irregular manner: thus, there is a massive gap in terms of migration principles between developed and developing countries. One of the Herculean tasks confronting the GCIM has been to bridge that gap, and establish a global baseline of rights and duties of both migrants and states.

Maniatis, on the other hand, believes that the popular immigration debate in the developed world has shifted from a 1990s protectionist stance toward a contemporaneous open-mindedness about the potential utility of immigration. This open-mindedness, he claims, has two strands – labour market and demographic problems, and opposition to illegal migration and marginalised immigrant communities. Furthermore, he argues, the GCIM has failed to grasp this “sea-change in the politics of immigration”.

Here, we seem to have landed in yet another Lewis Carroll story – Alice Through the Looking Glass. Which particular European countries are experiencing popular demand for more immigrants? Even Britain, which does not have an especial problem with demographic shift but does have a fairly good record on utilising temporary labour, has not persuaded its population of the benefits of immigration. Throughout the rest of Europe, popular opposition to immigration is at an all-time high: witness the French, Dutch and Austrian (amongst others) hostility to Turkey’s future EU accession. Insofar as illegal migration and illegal working are concerned, the informal sector goes from strength to strength – particularly, but not exclusively, in southern Europe. True, public opinion is opposed to illegal immigrant workers: employers, and perhaps some governments, are not.

A question of innovation

Has the GCIM report achieved its objectives and fulfilled its mandate? The report summarises existing mainstream scientific knowledge on migration, and lays down six universal principles for its global management. Of the thirty-three recommendations, two stand out: these are the policy emphasis on temporary migration and the establishment of a coordinating facility for various international and regional institutions. However, these must be seen in the context of the broader picture of all the recommendations and the principles, which cannot be summarised here.

Insofar as innovative policy is concerned, this was never an appropriate forum for such ideas to emerge. Maniatis is quite wrong in thinking that it is the task of an international agency to innovate, and impose or coerce policy development top-down. Policy innovation typically arises at the national or local level, frequently through policy-transfer approaches from other policy domains; it is carried out on an experimental basis by one or two countries, and if deemed successful, subsequently imitated by other states. It was not the place of the GCIM to propose radical, exciting and paradigm-shifting policies: the ensuing controversy would have delighted journalists, irritated governments and frustrated migration experts.

It is precisely this error that underlies many non-specialist proposals about migration, some of which can be read in openDemocracy’s “People Flow” debate. Theo Veenkamp’s interesting initial proposal, for example, overturns most fundamental principles of state sovereignty, legal norms and migration management.

The main problem is that Veenkamp’s plan for a reformation in the way migration is viewed and operates as a set of processes of induction into the host societies is basically ahistorical, and offers no suggestion of how to reach the proposed destination. If we take “point A” as the early years of the 20th century, since then the world (and Europe in particular) has developed a wealth of norms and procedures for managing migration. These include refugee status under the 1951 Geneva refugee convention, migrant workers’ rights under the ILO Conventions and various regional norms, implemented in nearly 200 diverse national contexts.

Also in openDemocracy on migration and movement in the 21st century, a major debate on “people flow” sparked by the innovative ideas of the Dutch thinker and policy adviser Theo Veenkamp.

Among the highlights:

Theo Veenkamp, Tom Bentley, Alessandra Buonfino, “Migration and Europe” (May 2003)

Anthony Barnett, “A world on the move” (May 2003)

Theo Veenkamp, “Taking stock of the first round” (August 2003)

Dienke Hondius, “’Become like us’: the Dutch and racism” (December 2003)

We have now arrived at “point B”, with a complex recent history of immigrations, emigrations, racial tensions and problems, and apparently increasing levels of xenophobia and racism. It is not possible simply to posit a purely rational structure of migration management at a notional “point C” sometime in the future, without taking into account this migration history. There is no guarantee that any such new structure would limit illegal migration, illegal work, the marginalisation of ethnic communities, or racial tensions; indeed, such a venture would constitute political suicide for any government, and is basically unthinkable.

Overall, the GCIM has done a fair job of setting out a “playing-field” of internationally acceptable norms and scientific knowledge concerning migration; it has veered toward promoting temporary migration alongside enhanced protection of such migrants’ rights; and it advocates structural change in order to promote efficiencies and savings in current institutional arrangements. Clearly, in trying to satisfy all parties none will be completely satisfied: perhaps the least content, however, will be the private-sector purveyors of public-policy advice. The GCIM Report challenges their particular “road to riches”.

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