With or without the US, global migration needs collective action

8 December 2017
Insight
Thousands of migrants enter Cambodia. Photo: Joe Lowry/IOM

Last Sunday I landed in Mexico to attend the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) preparatory meeting and heard the news that the US had withdrawn from the process and negotiations. Like many others, I wondered whether this meant that the GCM was dead on arrival.

Yet the meeting went ahead, and delivered a number of concrete recommendations. These will be consolidated in the GCM ‘zero draft’ and negotiated by states in 2018. More importantly, states appeared to proactively contribute, engage, listen and learn throughout the formal proceedings and informal discussions in the corridors. By Thursday, the mood was positive; with one of the co-facilitators, the Mexican Ambassador to the United Nations Juan José Gómez Camacho, describing the meeting as ‘historic’.

It is too early to say what will end up in the final text. What we have now is a ‘long list’ of priorities. Some have a certain amount of convergence, such as enhancing labour mobility and skills recognition, protecting migrants in vulnerable situations, investing in better data, reducing the transaction costs of remittances, and enhancing the role of the diaspora. Others remain hard to crack, such as expanding legal pathways and facilitating return. But even here, progress is being made and state positions have shifted since the process began.

Creating a meaningful framework for cooperation

However, what matters more is whether the GCM will provide a meaningful framework for cooperation, not just between states but also with migrants themselves, businesses and employers, regional organisations, cities and mayors, the diaspora and more.

This speaks to the heart of the US withdrawal: they wanted to set their own policies, determined by Americans and for Americans alone. Those in Mexico agreed this is short-sighted: state sovereignty and international collaboration are compatible, and indeed desirable. But how to achieve international collective action is a different matter, and one that will require some thinking and action in the months to come.

More needs to happen on at least two fronts:

1. Stop presenting migration as movement from countries of origin to countries of destination.

So much of the global migration discussion assumes that it is a matter of compromise between the needs of ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ countries. Yet many member states acknowledged in the preparatory meeting that they are both a country of origin and destination. For example, one memorable quote from the preparatory meeting was from Ola Brown, a British/Nigerian medical doctor, who ten years ago moved from the UK (where she was earning £20,000 a year) to Lagos (where she now owns a $20 million business).

Retaining this dichotomy perpetuates an artificial and unhelpful divide: like ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, ‘developed’ and ‘developing’, aid ‘donor’ or ‘recipient’ countries. In short, ‘us’ and ‘them’. Instead, states should recognise the mutual benefits and challenges of human mobility, and negotiate its terms alongside a number of other key relationships and mutual interests: trade, development and prosperity, political stability and more.

2. Recognise that migration cannot be managed through migration policies alone.

The capacity of states (and cities or regions) to integrate migrants and reap the benefits of doing so depends on a range of factors including demographic trends, the labour market, the resilience of existing social services and the local diaspora. Similarly, migrants themselves make decisions based on employment opportunities, education for their children and the opportunities for a better life.

The GCM must provide a framework to engage with these different policy areas, as well as a platform to bring new actors on board. We need entrepreneurs and business leaders, mayors, finance and social welfare ministers, arts and culture leaders, and others to see they all have a role to play in managing global migration. This will help break through the increasingly toxic public and political debate.

Thanks to the US withdrawal from the GCM, there is now more scrutiny and interest in what was, until last week, a pretty obscure UN process. What I witnessed this week is a process which is making some real progress towards a more collective approach to addressing the opportunities and challenges of global migration.