Will a Global Compact on Migration Lead to Lasting Change?
By Karen Campbell
By now, the images are familiar: dozens—sometimes hundreds—of people crowded into unseaworthy boats, refugee camps the size of small cities, a child’s dead body washed up on the shore. The very presence of these migrants at the borders of powerful states forces governments to confront immediate and pressing protection concerns, and migrants to bear the worst in racist and xenophobic rhetoric, policies, and violence.
On September 19, heads of state from across the world will gather at the United Nations for an unprecedented high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants. It will be followed by a leaders’ summit on refugees hosted by President Obama, where calls should be made for global commitments on increased funding and more welcoming policies. Out of the UN summit will emerge a political declaration and plans to develop a comprehensive refugee response framework and a global compact on migration over the next two years.
The UN will also commit to initiating a global campaign against racism and xenophobia—part of an effort to demonstrate collective action in response to what the UN calls “mixed flows,” or people displaced due to economic, political, or environmental upheaval, many of whom fall outside the legal definition of refugee. These efforts are intended to result in “safe, orderly, and regular migration” for all. President Obama’s summit is expected to see calls for global commitments on increased humanitarian funding and more welcoming policies for refugees.
Will it work? The Global Coalition on Migration and our civil society partners have been monitoring shifts in the global governance of migration for many years. Time and again, we see “crises” arise, followed by calls for collective action. In process after process, states pretend that they are responding, but what we see in reality is the repetition of the same vague commitments they have made for years—to respect the human rights of all migrants regardless of status—without moving in the direction of actually doing so. Is the UN’s global compact process shaping up to be any different? So far, the signs aren’t good.
For one, migration is characterized primarily as a national security and enforcement concern. Despite the welcome and necessary commitments of states to combat racism and xenophobia, deterrence continues to be the cornerstone of migration policy, rendering migrants vulnerable to human rights violations, racism, and xenophobia at all stages of the migration process. Migrants continually struggle to have their voices heard in this context.
The rise of far-right political parties and candidates has intensified these trends and fueled militarized responses to large groups of people on the move. Fear-driven political rhetoric leads to billions spent on border fences, detention, and mass deportations, criminalizing migrant communities, and presenting a persistent challenge to achieving long-term social integration rooted in human rights and nondiscrimination. These responses also fail to address the drivers of mobility.
Migrants from developing countries are also valued only insofar as their labor can be exploited for the benefit of the economies of destination and origin countries. Rather than policies to expand decent work opportunities for all, states favor circular migration regimes—visa programs that place workers from developing countries in low-wage jobs in rich countries, providing temporary status only for work, without opportunities for family reunification, and rarely with paths to permanent residency. Under these schemes, migrants’ employment and immigration status are precarious, rendering them vulnerable to human rights violations, including violations of their labor rights.
In contrast, those from developing countries who are considered highly skilled and those who hold passports from rich countries move across borders with relative ease. The social and political contributions of migrant workers are key to building diverse and plural democracies, but are undermined through routine violations of their rights.
Recognizing that urgent action is needed to ease the suffering of migrants and refugees is commendable—but it’s only the first step. Real progress would mean using the considerable resources of the UN system to support the implementation of international law and labor standards that, if monitored and enforced, would actualize the protections we all seek.
It would also mean states cooperating to fulfill their commitments to protecting the rights of migrants regardless of status and providing pathways for regularization. States would establish strict firewalls between immigration enforcement authorities and government agencies to ensure that all migrants have access to social services and the justice system without fear of detention or deportation.
We need migration options that are more than “safe, orderly, and regular.” Policies must be migrant-centered and respectful of migrants’ agency and leadership. People from all countries should be allowed to move across borders freely for a range of purposes, such as making asylum claims, looking for work, pursuing education, reuniting with family members, starting on a path to citizenship, or escaping the effects of failed economic policies, environmental degradation, political instability, conflict, or other push factors at home.
Circular migration programs that exploit the low-wage labor of migrant workers perpetuate a race to the bottom in wages and rights protections. Migrant workers’ visas shouldn’t prevent them from changing their employer, deny them the right to organize and collectively bargain, or create conditions that make accessing justice difficult if not impossible.
Whether next week’s summit and subsequent negotiations will result in real change in the lives of migrants and refugees remains to be seen. Will states commit to actual plans to implement the international laws and standards designed to uphold the rights of all migrants, beyond providing assistance to the most vulnerable? This would require a sea change in approach. Anything less, and we are likely gearing up for more of the same.
The Global Coalition on Migration is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.