Migrants: evolving a global compact

In early December, news tickers were abuzz with the 'breaking news' that the administration of President Trump had withdrawn the United States from a United Nations pact to improve the handling of migrant and refugee situations, deeming it inconsistent with its policies and, in the process, projecting immigration as a sovereignty issue. It is somewhat ironic that this announcement came just two weeks before International Migrants Day on December 18.

By the next day, this 'breaking news' had gone right off the radar, signifying that either it was just another 'expected' position, or that it didn't really matter! Somewhat cynical, maybe even cyclical. News is never static - especially if its 'breaking'.

In 2016, the 193 members of the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a non-binding political declaration - the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants -pledging to uphold the rights of refugees and migrants, help them resettle and ensure they had access to education and jobs. The initiative had the enthusiastic backing of former president Barack Obama and was embraced by UN Secretary-General Guterres as one of his major challenges for 2018.

The aim was to publish a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration this year, in time for adoption by the UN General Assembly in September. It's very much a global requirement and eagerly awaited, especially by sending countries.

Is that objective off the table now? Will there be enough countries that continue to back the need? It's, after all, been on and off the global table for years and it looked like finally, we were getting some 'movement' on it. Like it or not, the issue of mobility is here to stay. Globalisation demands it. So do corporates. It brings the best of human resource from around the world to ensure sustainability and competitiveness for the economy.

And yet migration continues to be seen through the filter of border control and internal security. This suits the political positions of domestic protectionism but continues to be a short-term response to the larger demands of the 21st century knowledge economy. Many countries don't get it - mainly because they don't want to. Many do, because they have to. That is the reality of migration.

There are, in fact, two different types of migration: what you could call "discretionary" and "non-discretionary" migration. Non-discretionary refers to the fact that there are certain forms of even legal migration over which governments do not have much discretionary authority. Amongst the reasons is that governments have signed international treaties committing them to do certain things.

One example is the treaty of Rome in the European Union, which gives EU workers the right of free movement within the EU. Another is the Geneva Convention for handling requests for asylum.

A third example is the US H1-B Visa, which comes from the commitment under the GATS that the US gave at the World Trade Organisation. Discretionary, of course, is when countries decide who they will allow in. The global compact is to seek to find guidelines for 'managing' migration.

Unsustainable response

Interestingly, on December 6 at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico concluded the three-day global stock-taking conference on the global compact. This was very well attended from across the globe and the press statement released on its conclusion was both aspirational and hopeful.

The president of the UN General Assembly clearly stated that the current response to international migration is not sustainable and this is a global phenomenon that needs an international response. The negotiations this year will show if such a response actually comes about where member-states while formulating their own migration policies do align these to a global position that is both sustainable and humanitarian.

At the moment, a more practical solution seems to be two-fold. First, at a regional level, the response to these voluntary submissions is being subjected to the scrutiny of priorities defined.

In South and South East Asian countries, many are not exclusive sending or receiving countries. What is implementable is being debated. For these countries, ethical recruitment and reducing the vulnerabilities in the migration cycle are high on the agenda. Similarly, mutual recognition of skills and harmonisation of standards are also important issues.

The second and extremely important development is the interest and participation of the private sector in regional for a, such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development's Business Mechanism, the Colombo Process meetings and the Abu Dhabi Dialogue.

This is important because it is only with the involvement of the private sector in migration policy that we can move forward on these priorities that have been identified. Without the private sector at the high table of migration, little can be achieved at a national, regional and global level.

(The writer is a former Secretary, Overseas Indian Affairs and presently adviser to president, FICCI)

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