In May, UN Member States gathered in New York for the first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF). The aim of this four-day event was to share progress on the implementation of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), a non-binding framework for comprehensive international cooperation on migration adopted by 164 countries in 2018.
Much has already been said about the GCM. Some have noted that the language of ‘safe, orderly and regular’ migration reflects a particular vision of what migration should look like. It has been suggested that the conceptual framing of the GCM pushes responsibility onto migrants to behave in a particular way while ignoring the inequalities with which migration is often associated, including in terms of access to legal pathways.
Others have highlighted the divergent paths of the GCM and its sister Global Compact on Refugees, noting the disjuncture between conceptual and policy categories and the lived experiences of those on the move. The fact that the situation facing Ukrainian refugees fleeing the consequences of the Russian invasion was largely off the table at the IMRF is illustrative of this point.
While there was plenty of talk about inequality at the IMRF, there was too little reflection on the types of policy interventions that would be needed to address the inequalities associated with migration.
But my main takeaway from the IMRF is that more needs to be done by Member States to address the inequalities with which migration is associated, a view echoed by speakers at our side event with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
While there was plenty of talk about inequality at the IMRF, there was too little reflection on the types of policy interventions that would be needed to address the inequalities associated with migration. Speakers at various side events drew attention to the inequalities associated with gender, both as a driver of migration and in shaping outcomes for women who move.
For example, speakers at an event hosted by the Canadian Government drew attention to the work of the Gender and Migration Hub, which supports governments, civil society, and other stakeholders to ensure that migration and other relevant policies are gender-responsive and align with the guiding principles of the GCM. Others, including the International Organization for Migration’s Director-General António Vitorino, highlighted the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has served to deepen existing inequalities associated with migration.
These inequalities have been highlighted by our work in the MIDEQ Hub. In some countries, undocumented migrants found themselves excluded from State support and healthcare during the pandemic, while in others, migrants lost their jobs overnight or became scapegoats blamed for the spread of the virus. A recent animation based on the findings of MIDEQ’s research has also highlighted the impacts of these inequalities for families ‘left behind’ in countries such as Nepal.
In the absence of opportunities for decent work, people will continue to move, and they will do so irregularly if there are no other options available to them.
Member States will need to grasp the importance of addressing the inequalities associated with migration if implementation of the GCM is to be successful and effective. That will require identifying policy responses that could effectuate change on the ground.
Firstly, the structural inequalities associated with migration often go well beyond the issues facing particular groups, and they often intersect. There was little discussion, for example, of the ways in which global inequalities in income and opportunity shape migration experiences and outcomes: simply put, wealthier people, regardless of their gender and/or race, do not face the same barriers to their migration as poor people, and their outcomes are almost always better.
Global, regional, and national income inequalities drive the movement of people looking for work, many of whom are then exploited by companies looking for cheap labor (as well as natural resources and land) in order to maximize their profits. Acknowledging and addressing the connections between capitalist production and migration is key. In the absence of opportunities for decent work, people will continue to move, and they will do so irregularly if there are no other options available to them.
Secondly, Member States are deeply connected by virtue of long-standing economic and political relationships that can exacerbate inequalities and contribute to the unsafe, irregular, and disorderly migration that the GCM seeks to address. Speaking at our side event, Louis Herns Marcelin (INURED) emphasized the intersection of global and local inequalities in shaping migration experiences and outcomes in the context of Haiti, pointing to the ways in which Haiti’s relationships with other countries have set the scene for large scale-outward migration in the face of multiple interconnected crises. Without addressing the underlying structural economic and political inequalities which destabilize countries and drive migration, the GCM is unlikely to address root causes.
The challenge now is to turn those commitments into improved policies that harness the contribution of migration towards the Sustainable Development Goals and deliver improved outcomes for migrants and their families.
Thirdly, despite repeated calls for a rights-based approach to migration governance, there remain huge inequalities in access to rights for migrants, many of which were highlighted at the IMRF. Human rights are critical to the implementation of the GCM, acting as an important lever for reducing inequalities associated with migration. Speaking at our side event, Pia Oberoi (OHCHR) drew on the findings of new research in the Asia Pacific region to draw attention to the complementarity of humanitarian and labour-based approaches: in some countries, human rights, humanitarian, and other non-labour pathways enable migrants to regularize their status and secure access to rights. What is needed from Member States is the political will to make this happen: in practice migrants are often punished for failing to enter through regular migration routes, even where these routes are unavailable.
Finally, migration is deeply embedded in wider economic, social, and political processes, intersecting with existing inequalities and injustices in ways that have yet to be properly understood. The GCM calls for a ‘whole-of-society approach’ and yet in practice, migration policy is often driven by immigration control interests to the exclusion of other sectors. Speaking at our side event, Jason Gagnon (OECD Development Centre) drew attention to inequalities in integration and inclusion, emphasizing the importance of policy responses to address inequality beyond the migration sphere, including in relation to the possibilities of accessing social protection. Extending social protection to migrants and their families is an important mechanism for reducing migration-related inequalities and delivering the objectives of the GCM.
It is important not to underestimate the importance of the GCM, which builds upon international standards in human rights, development, climate change, and labour protection and addresses the multiple ways in which migration relates to these. The GCM also represents a normative consensus, reflected in the adoption of the Progress Declaration, reaffirming the commitments of the Member States to the GCM and its implementation. The challenge now is to turn those commitments into improved policies that harness the contribution of migration towards the Sustainable Development Goals and deliver improved outcomes for migrants and their families. Centring equality in the implementation of the GCM is an essential first step.
More information about the GCM and IMRF, including a summary of the plenary session, roundtables, and policy debate, can be found on the United Nations University Migration Network website.
This article was first published by the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research.