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What could go wrong in this year’s GFMD?

The 2016 Global Forum on Migration and Development just opened in Bangladesh. Two return delegates from civil society explain what would make this year’s conference, in their eyes, better than the last.

Joe Lowry for IOM/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

In 2015 the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), a gathering that brings together hundreds of relevant civil society organisations and many government representatives, opened with a picture of Alan Kurdi. You know the one: the picture of a three-year-old that floated briefly above a relentless news cycle, incandescent with both innocence and horror. The Syrian toddler in his neat red shirt and blue shorts, wearing shoes so small they would both fit in a single man’s palm, lying lifeless on a Turkish shore. Yet that year’s GFMD, held in Istanbul, featured a theme so carefully bland that it stood in jagged and obvious contrast to the photo: “Achieving migration and development goals: movement together on global solutions and local action”. Amidst all this, delegates crowded into conference rooms to share frustrated stories of migration’s effects on the most vulnerable in Ghana, in the Philippines, in Syria, and from these disparate inputs we cobbled together a final report that said both a lot and very little.

This contradictory attempt to marry together a hodgepodge of equal truths, this combination of charged stories and political politeness, seems to be characteristic of the GFMD (see, for example, Stefan Rother’s article on very different civil society strategies towards the GFMD). The GFMD is a voluntary, informal, non-binding and government-led process open to all member states and observers of the United Nations. Since 2007, its stated goal has been to advance understanding and cooperation on the mutually reinforcing relationship between migration and development, and to foster practical and action-oriented outcomes. It is comprised of three distinct yet reinforcing activities that occur in the following order: ‘civil society days’, in which hundreds of ngo representatives gather; a ‘common space day’, where government and civil society representatives mix; and then ‘government days’, a closed space where civil society is not invited. It is thus only on the ‘common space’ day that the civil society chair delivers a report emanating from that year’s ‘civil society days’ to government delegates.

This year the GFMD’s ‘civil society days’ opened on 8 December and the ‘government days’ will begin on 10 December in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In a context where global migration has become a way of life for many, a call to action has never been more relevant. We are lucky enough to be once again in attendance, but on its opening day we are taking the opportunity to share four insights which we believe could help strengthen dialogue within the entire conference.

The North/South divide in the representation of migration and development issues

In the previous GFMD, there were 36 participants from the Americas, 49 from Asia Pacific, 50 from Africa, 71 from Europe, and 19 Turkish civil society organisations represented. While that representation seems quite diverse, and in comparison with many other conferences it surely is so, the composition of panels was less so. Topics discussed tended to circle around particular regions and this was reinforced by panelists predominantly from the Global North. This could potentially be because civil society organisations in regions like the Southern African Development Community are unaware of the forum. Or when they are, their activities are often stifled by limited funding or a perception that global policy forums have limited influence on sovereign, national migration policy processes.

Whatever the reason, their absence prevented Southern issues, cases, concepts, and solutions from being fully advanced and discussed at the conference. For example, most case studies on xenophobia and integration of imagined ‘diasporas’ primarily drew on European perspectives. While we recognise that these perspectives are valuable, the result was that the agenda was not regionally aware or contextually nuanced. It is problematic to envelop xenophobia into one rigid concept; and although some links were drawn to Southern contexts, these connections tended to happen inadvertently.

The underlying assumption that migration can, or should, be halted or minimised

Discussions at the 2015 GFMD ‘civil society days’ furthermore tended to revolve around preventing or ‘better regulating’ South-North migration by supporting initiatives (livelihoods and decent work) perceived to minimise such flows. For example, following the GFMD processes, many civil society practitioners and government officials saw the Valleta Summit in Malta as a possible solution to the ‘migration crisis’, as they hoped it would generate the incentives and persuasion needed to keep migrants at home. A Niger mission chief for the International Organisation for Migration was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “of course, we cannot match their [Niger youth] dream of being in Italy, but we can give them a local development project”.

This is problematic. Research conducted by our partners in South Africa, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Singapore shows that in spite of the opportunities available domestically, people will often move anyway. They do so for not only economic but also moral, social, gendered, and even symbolic reasons. For example, we have argued elsewhere that remittances sent home to families in Bangladesh expand youths’ ‘capacity to aspire’; remittances are transformed into social wealth, such as education and marriage, which in turn prompts migration in the next generation.

Despite much optimism about the power of migrants’ remittances to combat poverty, in Zimbabwe we found that the moral economy of remittances is directed towards ‘social’ and ‘god taxes’ instead of poverty alleviation: paying for neighbours’ immediate needs, investing in events (such as funerals and weddings) intended to boost one’s social status, or donating large sums to the church. Considering these findings, it serves little practical sense to reduce global migration and development discourse to the analytical level of mainstream, formal economies.

The gap between imagined and actual civil society participation

At the GFMD, proposals to improve the management of migration and development and to foster practical and action-oriented outcomes through policy often occur during the two ‘civil society days’. The civil society chair then engages with government delegates by delivering a report on the opening plenary session of the ‘common space day’. This space is important, but it was far removed from political actors who have a mandate to receive recommendations on state policy obligations.

Indeed, even though civil society does get an opportunity to engage with government representatives on this occasion, the format and space of the ‘common space’ itself shapes participation in a unilateral, top-down manner. The ‘common space’ programme and panelists are shaped by the input of the international steering committee, and there is a balance between government and civil society delegates. But civil society representatives are provided minimal input during panels, plenaries are highly formal and tightly controlled, and much of the fierce discussion, fiery debates and sparks generated from the diverse perspectives that characterise the civil society days are lost. While we recognise that these are the often inevitable downsides of bureaucratic systems, it also means that the benefit for most of the civil society groups there was confined to making valuable connections in the interstices of the conference.

Is there room for research?

Part of advocacy is making declarative statements so that we can shift goal posts in the right direction. Our research, however, often works to dismantle larger myths about migration, which leads us to be cautious about standing unequivocally behind broad ‘global’ policy recommendations. While calls for reform – such as zero recruitment fees – are admirable and important, they also do not take into account many on-the-ground realities.

For example, the current debt-financed migration system in Indonesia is necessary for women who have no capital but want to, or need to, move. How would a call for zero recruitment fees affect women’s access to labour and mobility? Another example relates to well-meaning state regulations. While governments are often beseeched to better regulate and inform migrants departing for work abroad, our research shows that in Indonesia, protective policies which mandate compulsory pre-departure training for migrant workers wind up penalising experienced former workers. This bureaucratic confusion (or a deliberate gap that migrant brokers have taken advantage of) has led to experienced workers ‘clocking in’ at training centres for months before they can leave the country, resulting in workers repeatedly incurring thousands of dollars of debt in order to migrate for work.

Is there room for research which hesitantly cautions these broad calls for reform in spaces like the GFMD? How can we ensure that global policy processes and responses do not draw on essentialised migrant experiences, a few dominant narratives and hegemonic knowledge systems? Should we assume that ‘good’ data only exists in numbers and censuses, or is there a place for in-depth qualitative stories that reflect the complexities of life on the ground for would-be migrants?

Indeed, we have more questions than answers. But we have high hopes that this year’s GFMD – set in Asia – will give the South greater representation and voice in panels, move away from the fundamental assumptions that we highlighted in this article, and open up opportunities for us to incorporate our research findings into the civil society-governments agenda. Regardless, and with what last year’s Civil Society Chair Ignacio Packer calls “gentle optimism and fierce determination”, we join you again in Dhaka.

About the authors

Kudakwashe Vanyoro is a Research Assistant and MA Candidate in Migration and Displacement Studies at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa. His research is currently part of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, where he is exploring research uptake in the Global South, human mobility and health policy processes in Southern Africa.

Kellynn Wee is the Research and Communications Officer at the Migrating out of Poverty’s Asia Research Institute (Singapore) team. Her interests are in gender, labour migration, and the migration industry. She maintains her team blog—featuring research updates, fieldwork stories, and multimedia outputs—here. Follow Migrating out of Poverty on Facebook or Twitter for updates.


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