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The allure of non-binding talks

by Stefan Rother
This year’s Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) will take place in Athens in early November. Last year, 163 governments participated when Manila hosted the GFMD. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took part too. [ By Stefan Rother ]

The GFMD was started in the UN context in 2007, with the aim of fostering dialogue among governments on the one hand and civil society on the other. Yet, the GFMD is not an official part of UN-processes. That decision was taken deliberately in order to facilitate non-committal meetings. Doing so promised more participants – and ultimately a stronger impact. At the GFMD in Manila last year, Ban Ki-moon indicated that he saw no chance of bringing the migration dialogue under the UN roof for the time being.

The GFMD consists of separate two-day meetings of government officials and civil-society activists. There is not much exchange between the two events. Talks remain informal, binding decisions are not on the agenda. The GFMD does not have much of an apparatus of its own. Immigration and emigration countries take turns hosting the meetings. The civil-society events are funded by private foundations.

In spite of this rather informal setting, strong interest in GFMD is manifest – as shown by the annual cycle of meetings. Mexico is preparing to host next year’s Forum, followed by Spain in 2011 and Morocco in 2012. Last year, a total of 33 international organisations were present at the GFMD.

It is hard to assess the GMFD’s tangible results. But according to Peter Sutherland, it is already quite an achievement that representatives from sending and recipient countries sit together “without yelling at each other”. The Irish politician and former WTO director-general is one of the driving forces behind the GFMD. In 2006, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed him special representative to the UN on migration and development. Sutherland’s task was to ensure that the momentum the international debate had picked up on the issue would not be lost again.

Indeed, one achievement of the GFMD is that countries like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates have begun to mention the terms “migrant” and “rights” in one breath. In the GFMD context, the Emirates were willing to talk with sending countries ­about enhanced protection of migrants for the first time. Immigration is a controversial topic for Gulf countries – because of massive disparities between local people and migrants and the high percentage of foreigners among the resident population.

Stronghold of sovereignty

The international flow of goods is regulated meticulously. For capital flows too, there are stringent agreements. Migrant people, however, are only inadequately protected. It goes without saying that internationally binding rules for migration would make sense in an increasingly globalised world. How­ever, such rules will at best come about in the distant future.

The main reason is thinking according to the “container model”. The state is considered as a unity of territory and population. This view still dominates the way of thinking. Defining entry and exit rules for this “container” is a core competence of every nation state. Migration control is thus one of the last strongholds of states’ sovereignty. And where such rights are yielded to a superior authority – for instance, the European Union – the container concept is simply enlarged accordingly.

Indeed, migrants’ organisations blame the EU of enforcing a “migration prevention regime”. Ever since 09/11, foreigners have been increasingly perceived as a threat to national security. Besides, there is a long domestic tradition of restrictive policies that are convey­able in a populist way.

Immigration countries are far more powerful than emigration countries – and the former are reluctant to sign agreements with the latter. Most of all, they avoid contracts which might compel them to accept more migrants. For new EU members, the free movement of labour typically comes only at the very end of the accession process. Most bilateral negotiations result in non-binding memoranda of understanding. On the other hand, regional consultation processes have been initiated, such as the “Budapest Process” or the South American Conference on Migration (SACM). All of them are non-committal.

Missing regime

The GMFD is not concerned with refugees who are object of different international contracts and institutions. 147 UN member states have ratified the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and are hence committed to cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

For “voluntary” migrants who leave their homes for work reasons, these rules do not apply. No doubt, these people act under (mostly economical) constraint. Nonetheless, there is no authority comparable to the UNHCR. Swedish migration expert Sara Kalm there­fore speaks of a “missing regime.”

The topic of migration has always been neglected in international and multilateral politics. The „International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families“ was ratified in 1990 by the UN General Assembly, but its regulations are hardly observed. It took almost 15 years for 20 member states to sign the convention, which was necessary to put in force. Even today, the convention has only 37 signatories. By way of comparison: the UN has six other central human-rights instruments. Of these, the Multilateral Rules against Torture enjoy the least support, but it was signed by 144 countries.

In 1994, the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was held in Cairo. It brought about a certain breakthrough. Migration was acknowledged a significant topic. In 2002, in the context of UN reform, the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) was launched as an initiative of Kofi Annan.

At the same time, debate was taking off on possible connections between migration and development, as noted by Devesh Kapur, the Indian political scientist, in his much-quoted paper: „Remittances: The New Development Mantra?“ Apparently, development policymakers in rich nations are more open-minded on migration than those in charge of domestic, security or economic affairs.

Residence permits of temporary duration are less controversial than permanent ones, of course. To some extent, “circular migration” is being propagated – and the benefits that returning migrants bring to their home countries are stressed.

In truth, however, there is often migration instead of development. The deployment of workers abroad eases tensions on domestic labour markets, and remittances that are sent home boost consumption and investments. They accordingly support the national economy.

New start

The GFMD got underway in a rather unorthodox manner. Romeo Matsas, a political scientist who works on behalf of Belgiums’s foreign ministry and helped organise the first GFMD in Brussels, points out that conference modalities were defined during rather than ahead of the preparations for the first meeting.

The first GFMD was a result of the High-Level Dialogue (HLD) on Migration and Development in 2006, an event held on behalf of the UN General Assembly. Sutherland had helped to prepare this summit of UN members, and migrant organisations were involved too. During the HLD, the decision was made to establish a forum for migration and development.

Thanks to the Belgian government, which hosted the 2007 GFMD, the first gathering was realised within one year. Subsequently, migrant associations complained that participants in Brussels had barely talked about migrants’ rights, mostly focussing on remittances instead. The Philippines, a nation which sees itself as an exemplary sending country, made “Protecting and­ empowering migrants for development” the core topic of the second GFMD, which took place in Manila last ­year. This year, the leitmotiv in Athens will be “Integrating migration policies into development strategies for the benefit of all”.

The GFMD is primarily about exchanging views. Tangible results ultimately depend on the commitment of every single country. Providing them with a platform is the GFMD’s main achievement.

Northern European countries have traditionally been very active in human-rights issues. During the present Swedish presidency of the EU Council, a common EU position is to be prepared. The EU should thus soon call attention to migrants’ rights as well as to their developmental potential. The EU supports the GFMD process, acknowledging its opinion-shaping role. Nonetheless, it continues to advocate its non-binding nature.

The Federal Republic of Germany shares this view. In Athens, Germany will be actively engaged in two roundtables about reintegration and the effects of the financial crisis on migration. As to the latter topic, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) will present case studies.

Protest potential

Whether or not the exchange will result in tangible solutions to urgent problems, is a different question. “The Forum is an interesting approach, yet it is not very promising so long as massive global disparities persist,” an African delegate said in Manila.

Many migrants’ organisations share that view. In Manila, they were not content with the discussions, so they organised street protests. Some associations were pursuing an “inside-outside” strategy: while taking part in the GFMD process, they also founded the Peoples’ Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights (PGA), which then organised workshops – as well as public rallies for migrants’ rights.

Migrant associations are active in many countries. However, the movement is split. The International Migrants’ Alliance (IMA), which was founded in Hong Kong in 2008, opposes the PGA because it considers the GFMD unacceptable. The IMA argues that the GFMD treats people as commodities and promotes neo­liberal policies. In cooperation with other left-leaning associations, the IMA has therefore started to hold the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR) in Manila, with the goal of providing a counterweight to the GFMD.

For a long time now, protests and parallel events have accompanied many international summits. Often, the opposition events are more exciting and intellectually more fruitful than the negotiations between government officials. It is therefore hardly surprising that radical GFMD adversaries from the IAMR have announced events on the occasion of this year’s summit in GFMD – and so has the PGA. Both umbrella organisations want to stress topics such as the destiny of undocumented migrants, deportation methods and xenophobia.

In the medium term, the participating governments will surely succeed in preserving the non-binding nature of GFMD, but that will not suffice to get a grip on the growing political dynamics of migration.