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You wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but the world is working to improve the global migration system. It began last fall at the most important international meeting on migration since the 1950s. That High Level Meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants at the UN General Assembly kicked off the creation of a Global Compact for Migration (GCM) for ratification in 2018. I saw this work up close at the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) preparatory meetings in Geneva earlier this spring.
Here’s where that process stands. There are a few signals that the GCM process could yield concrete, binding recommendations to help countries shape migration in mutually beneficial ways—especially in the face of rising nationalism worldwide.
Three signs of progress:
A roadmap to reform. Before the end of his tenure, the former UN special representative for migration Peter Sutherland (and an all-star team) authored a series of recommendations on improving international migration governance. This “Sutherland report” is the best set of fact-based, tangible recommendations out there—and has been central to the GCM debate. It rests on the reality of the nonlinear relationship between development and migration; it proposes an international forum to negotiate labor migration agreements (as set out by our colleagues Lant Pritchett and Rebekah Smith); and it recommends expanding legal migration pathways under existing law (details on one such program here). Even floating such ideas in an international forum of this kind represents major progress in the migration debate.
An inclusive process. In contrast to the parallel Refugee Compact, which will be largely developed within UNHCR, the GCM process has sought broad input from many relevant actors. These include the newly founded business mechanism of the Global Forum on Migration and Development and a research leaders syndicate (including CGD migration expert Michael Clemens). Though we want to avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen, the openness to such a diverse coalition is a positive sign that the process will be both more evidence-based and reflective of the many different incentives involved (including those of developing countries, often sidelined in such debates).
Speed. Last month, the UN agreed to a ‘modalities agreement’ establishing the roadmap for the entire GCM process, led by the governments of Switzerland and Mexico. A new special representative for migration, Louise Arbour, has been named to build on Peter Sutherland’s foundational work. In addition, the International Organization for Migration has taken on a strong leadership role in the process, perhaps unexpected when it became an official UN affiliate last year.
Three signs of challenges ahead:
A broad mandate. Some states may prefer that the Compact’s mandate of “safe, orderly, and regular migration” come to mean little or no migration—which would completely defeat the entire purpose of the compact. As Lant Pritchett has warned, this outcome would also be “completely exclusive and completely discriminatory based on national origin.”
Potential to reinforce the status quo. The GCM may simply restate existing international migration conventions—neither pushing for progress nor improving compliance (as many perceived in last year’s New York Declaration). The balance between concrete and binding recommendations is hard to strike—yet necessary for the Compact to have any effect.
Kicking the can down the road? The broad acknowledgment that the GCM is just the beginning of migration governance reform over the next 15-20 years could be positive if it encourages persistent improvement. However, an extended timeline is not an excuse for current inaction. A potential Compact should hold states accountable now, while allowing for (and encouraging) continued progress over the years to come.
The Global Forum on Migration and Development (June 2017, Berlin). The GFMD has existed for years but has recently taken on a more prominent role as the sounding board for proposed GCM content. One full roundtable discussion will be dedicated to Michael Clemens’ proposed Global Skills Partnerships—indicating potential willingness to think outside the box. The Canadian government recommended building pilot Global Skills Partnerships into the GCM at a meeting in New York last month.
Stock-taking meeting (December 2017, Guadalajara). Convened to summarize the results of six thematic roundtables and five regional consultations conducted over the course of the year. The evidence and perspectives offered by different stakeholders will be consolidated around the 24 content foci established in the New York Declaration to inform the meat of the Compact.
Draft report released for negotiations (February 2018). Countries will debate Compact content in several intergovernmental meetings in early 2018.
Likely Compact ratification (September 2018, New York). The final GCM will most likely launch at the UN General Assembly in September, though an individual country could potentially host the release at a later date.
Unequal economic development and demographic change across the world guarantee that migration pressures will continue to rise over the next 30 years. There is little guarantee that countries will work together to shape that migration for maximum mutual benefit. But if they choose, the window of opportunity is currently open.
A small community around the world is building better ways to regulate migration—not just at the national level but regionally and globally. Migration policymakers from around the world are currently drafting a Global Compact on Migration (GCM) through the United Nations. This Compact is not making headlines, but its effects will certainly ripple around the world and throughout this century.
I’ve been in the room during much of the negotiations so far, and they’ve been tough. Negotiations began in February and will continue through July. The Compact will be non-binding, but it will set out a framework for principles and practices that can work toward safe, orderly, and regular migration. First, countries need to agree on what’s in the text.
As I’ve listened to the sometimes heated debates, I hear three big issues come up repeatedly as potential sticking points. A predictable issue is how to handle returns and readmissions of migrants. One that is more prominent than anticipated is the debate around securitization, and within that the debate around regular versus irregular migrants. A third one, which surprised me, is settling the relationship between the Global Compact on Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. How these debates play out have the potential to shape global migration for the next century.
Preoccupation with returns: As expected, but with renewed vigor
Michael Clemens and I have written about the focus on returns—expressed primarily by those countries seeing significant numbers of migrants arriving (i.e., Europe)—before. Countries delivering statements at GCM proceedings prioritizing returns have been heard loud and clear.
This certainly featured heavily in the first round of negotiations. Developed, mostly western migrant receiving countries made clear there will be little discussion of facilitating regular migration—including through new regular pathways—until the question of what to do with those irregular migrants already within their borders is resolved. The origin countries have an international obligation to readmit their nationals when asylum claims fail and developed countries send them home, at least from the perspective of these developed receiving countries.
Yet those developing countries, where migrants originate from, have different views on this purported obligation, and some pushed for the Compact to preference voluntary return. The debate around forced (deportation) versus voluntary return, while just one aspect of the larger preoccupation on returns, was inconclusive at best, and divisive at worst.
As Michael and I laid out in a recent policy brief, the issue of returns does not have to be an all-or-nothing debate. Rather, more and better immigration enforcement (which could include returns) can be an effective migration management tool when paired with new lawful channels for migration.
The clear rift between developing countries not wanting to commit to take back their nationals who emigrated, and the developed countries who do not want those migrants to remain in their territory, is not new. But it was certainly marked and will likely continue to be a stumbling block throughout negotiations.
Louder than anticipated: Is the GCM too security-focused?
Questions from countries over whether the GCM discussions have focused too heavily on the security perspective is also not new, but it featured more centrally in the zero draft and first round of negotiations. The document at the time of negotiations contained language on border management, combating smuggling and trafficking, and general references to security (of migrants and of countries receiving them). While small edits were made to the second iteration of the draft released this morning, the security-focus remains. The discussions that ensued in negotiations featured a number of statements strongly focused on security issues, such as countries insisting border management is a sovereign issue and they alone must decide who enters and who stays in their country. (There were a small handful of the traditionally more hardline countries who even framed migration as a terrorism and/or general security threat more explicitly than others.)
On the flip side, several countries raised concern in their remarks over whether the GCM draft was too focused on security, and whether the debate itself was likewise too preoccupied with the security implications, real and/or perceived, of migration and management of it. The migration debate is far larger than those aspects seen through a security lens, and some countries suggested the draft text should better reflect the positive contributions of migrants (economically and otherwise) rather than oversimplify with a risk-mitigation approach.
One notable example within the security-focused debates was that around regular versus irregular migration. For instance, the draft document called on states not to criminalize migrants who had been smuggled; several of the significant receiving states pushed back on this, citing sovereign rights or asserting that ensuring non-criminalization of smuggled migrants could undermine efforts to combat smuggling networks, as this administrative versus criminal offense could incentivize rather than deter use of smugglers. Even more broadly than the smuggling question was a debate around whether irregular migrants are entitled to access to services, education, and other support and protections in the destination country. Relatedly, a proposed firewall between immigration enforcement and provision of services for migrants (interpreted as a firewall between enforcement authorities and entities providing services to irregular migrants) was hotly debated, with a few countries requesting it be edited or even deleted from the text.
Not as expected: How countries feel about the cloudy relationship between the Global Compact on Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees
For those engaged in the Global Compacts process, the relationship between the GCM and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) has been fairly consistently “TBD.” Two parallel processes, the GCR is built off the New York Declaration, with the new portion being the Programme of Action. Led by the UN Refugee Agency, the GCR features less Member State engagement at the substance level. The two compacts are meant to interact and include points of relevance and crossover, but if there was any expectation that these points of convergence would be more clearly laid out at the time of the zero drafts, that expectation certainly was not met.
During negotiations of the Global Compact on Migration, I was especially surprised by a debate over whether and to what extent the GCM and GCR are related versus totally distinct documents and substantive issues. Some countries called for parallels to be recognized, and non-refoulement—the return principle which applies to refugees—was suggested at one point to be applied to migrants. Other countries insisted the GCM not concern itself with refugee issues at all. This was particularly prominent in the discussion around status determination, and the draft’s recommendation that the UN Refugee Agency be included in protection discussions and practices when responding to mixed migration flows. Some country pushback appears to be aimed at avoiding having to open up discussion around existing refugee protections, which could mean a step backward. At other points, some pushback appears to be more pessimistic, aimed at ensuring new commitments do not arise that could burden or otherwise hold countries accountable to refugee-like protections for migrants.
As increasing research shows, the drivers of migration are far more complex than simply economic aspirations. The parallel processes of the GCM and GCR are an opportunity for countries to adopt ideas and innovations to tackle the challenges that come with mixed movements (whether it is refugees, asylum seekers, and/or migrants on the move for a variety of reasons). These challenges impact people on the move regardless of status—challenges such as harmful smuggling and trafficking, and other safety and protection concerns, including those particular to child migrants. Some countries drew a thick line in the sand between refugee and migrant issues, with a few simplifying the issue to refugees versus economic migrants. Such an oversimplification means some of the most critical issues could be swept under the rug, ultimately watering down the GCM and rendering it more or less useless for answering important questions around mixed migration.
So, what’s next?
The first step of getting countries to the negotiating room and willing at least have the conversation was successful. But now figuring out how to engage countries in productive rather than repetitive discussions focused on common goals and concessions versus short-sighted and contradictory wish lists will likely continue to be a challenge.
The co-facilitators of the GCM have amended the format of the second round of negotiations to allow for three days of discussion on central contradictions and differences in country approaches to issues including irregular versus regular migration, and migrants versus refugees. As Michael has written before, the zero draft of the GCM contained a multitude of contradictions that Member States will need to reconcile and make concessions on if the process is to move forward. This second round of negotiations—happening next week—provides an opportunity to do just that.
UN Member States are gathering today in New York at the United Nations Headquarters for the first round of negotiations on the Global Compact on Migration zero draft. It is a once-a-generation chance to shape migration cooperatively, for mutual benefit. Global migration governance is, in its current form, unprepared and insufficient to manage future flows.
The negotiations on the first draft of the Global Compact are therefore critical—especially considering the very brief window of opportunity between the end of this month and the start of summer this year, when the negotiations period is expected to close. The drafting process has cast a wide net. The “zero draft” of the Compact includes the multitude of commitments, ideas, and issue areas heard from Member States and other stakeholders throughout the months-long consultation phase last year. But with all suggestions in this one kitchen sink—and a very technical one at that—the side effect is that many could find something to object to in the current document.
I’ve been at some of the key meetings in this process. Some of the presentations and conversations I’ve heard point to a handful of potential sticking points in the negotiations. Some could bite in the short term as the text is negotiated, others in the long term as it is implemented. Here are three.
Conflicting Member State desires on high-skill versus low-skill migration
As Michael Clemens has articulated before, this tension is a crack at the heart of Global Compact negotiations. Richer, developed countries are wary of low-skill immigration, while poorer developing countries are skeptical of high-skill emigration, fearing a “brain drain.” In previous years, this crack has been largely patched over by promoting “circular” or temporary migration, in which low-skill workers are supposed not to stay forever and high-skill workers are supposed not to leave forever. But labor rights-focused organizations have been vocal within the Global Compact process about their objections to circular migration, raising a number of important concerns about migrants’ rights.
An alternative tool to address the same conflicting interests is Michael’s proposal for Global Skill Partnerships. A migrant-destination country supports vocational training for potential migrant workers before they migrate, in the country of origin, bundled with training for non-migrants. Developed countries win out via getting migrants with the skills to integrate and contribute right away, developing countries gain from increased human capital, and migrants have the opportunity to move along lawful channels to pursue better lives for themselves and their families.
New lawful channels—such as that laid out in the Global Skill Partnership example—are necessary given the current and projected demographic and economic pressures. But this discussion introduces a second potential sticking point: Are returns an obligation, and to what extent is the Global Compact going to be some sort of “grand bargain” on greater lawful channels conceded to get greater cooperation on returns?
To what extent are returns an obligation?
I heard several times in Member State remarks at the Stocktaking meeting in Puerto Vallarta that, from the perspective of numerous receiving European states, developing countries have an obligation to accept back their returned nationals. The zero draft of the compact calls on states to “cooperate in facilitating dignified and sustainable return, readmission and reintegration.” While the draft never names the “obligation” of states to take back their failed asylum seekers, the question of returns and the extent to which there is a universal obligation for states to accept back their migrants may become a stumbling block in negotiations. There are indications some Member States are less willing to discuss the potential for new lawful migration channels until the unauthorized migrants within their borders are dealt with—marking a contradiction Michael highlighted previously.
However, as we lay out in a recent policy brief, returns and immigration enforcement do not need to be undertaken independent from and before creating new lawful channels. Rather, past experience indicates creating new lawful channels, when coupled with enhanced enforcement, can displace and suppress unauthorized migrant flows—effectively achieving the aims of developed countries to reduce irregular migration, while providing a viable and lawful alternative migration path. In the example of the Bracero program, the reduction in unauthorized immigration happened during a time when legal pathways were expanded and immigration enforcement was enhanced (albeit in ways that were controversial), which required partnership with the Mexican government and willingness to cooperate, including on issues of deportations. More research on the nexus between irregular migration, regular pathways, and enforcement is needed, but this one example could prove a starting point for productive considerations.
More broadly, the question of returns introduces what could be a third sticking point related to mixed flows—something that doesn’t necessarily seem like a sticking point significant enough to stall negotiations in the weeks to come, but could prove a point of conflict down the road, including during implementation.
Who are the people within mixed flows, and how is mixed migration governed?
The de facto answer thus far has been to split the global compacts into two—one for migration, and a separate one for refugees—and proceed as if there is a bright line distinguishing forced displacement from non-forced migration. But migration flows are often “mixed,” with migrants seeking both security and opportunity. The Zero Draft of the Compact mentions mixed flows several times, with calls for protection and addressing vulnerabilities. But sticking points around mixed flows are likely to arise at some point unless Member States seriously tackle the question of what constitutes mixed flows and what governance mechanisms are needed.
Central America’s Northern Triangle is one illustration: recent CGD research shows the unaccompanied child migrants (UACs) have been fleeing a complex mix of economic factors and generalized violence. However, most are not considered refugees, as generalized violence is not covered under the 1951 Convention. Central American and other countries have previously pushed for greater attention and effort to address the child migrant crisis stemming from the region. The more likely substantial stalling could come in implementation versus negotiations. On the broader scale, Central American UACs are an example in part of a population that falls into the “migration” category and that is made up of people who are therefore missing the likely necessary protections afforded to refugees.
Calls for more and better data and research on the “root causes” of migration, as increasingly heeded, will reveal even more nuances in driving factors of mixed flows that fall well outside a simplified category of “economic migrant.” Unaddressed questions of mixed migration could eventually blur the dividing line enough that implementation of the Global Compact is hindered.
The window of opportunity to address these and other potential sticking points is a narrow one. Countries are set to meet in Morocco next December to formally agree on the final Global Compact on Migration, and the de-facto final text will be agreed to well before that. Overcoming these conflicts won’t be easy. But the alternatives—a bootless Compact or pure unilateralism—cannot rise to this historic challenge.
Richer countries are under pressure to respond to and suppress high levels of irregular migration reaching their borders. One prominent recommendation is for richer countries to expand opportunities for lawful or regular migration. Suppose they do. Will more regular migration simply raise migration overall, or will it substitute for and reduce irregular migration?
The question underlies discussions around the Global Compact for Migration, a future international agreement on migration governance now being negotiated by United Nations Member States. Country delegations will gather in New York next week at UN Headquarters for the first round of intergovernmental negotiations.
Many governments around the negotiating table are caught in a dilemma. It is politically difficult to say “yes” to expanding channels for regular migration when they are currently dealing with large numbers of irregular migrants who have already arrived. But many understand that overwhelming demographic pressures make some future migration inevitable, and closing regular migration channels too tightly might actually exacerbate irregular migration in years to come.
Those governments have rightly asked for clear evidence that regular migration channels can help suppress irregular migration. There has been very little such evidence in the policy debate.
In a new policy brief, we review evidence from one historical episode in which regular migration channels did clearly substitute for and suppress irregular migration. This is the last 76 years of policy change at the US-Mexico border, scene of one of the largest bilateral migration flows on earth.
Lawful migration channels are often suggested as a tool to reduce unlawful migration, but often without much evidence that they work.
There is evidence that lawful channels for migration between Mexico and the United States have suppressed unlawful migration, but only when combined with robust enforcement efforts.
Massive demographic pressures for migration between Africa and Europe will continue to resemble past pressures between Mexico and United States. The evidence from the US suggests that regular migration channels could be one critical tool for Europe, alongside enforcement, to suppress irregular migration.
Here is a glimpse of how regular migration channels (green) have displaced irregular migration from Mexico (red) over time—primarily during periods of robust enforcement: