What good does the Global Forum on Migration and Development do?

A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany Hungary Central Europe September. Mstyslav Chernov, CC BY-NC-ND

Here at the end of 2016, migration issues are once more the subject of heated international debate. Today, the media regularly depicts the innumerable deaths and tragedies of migrant journeys.

From December 10 to 12, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, delegates of about 160 countries met during the Global Forum on Migration and Development. Organised by the Bangladeshi government, this edition had the motto “Time to Act”, focusing on better global governance on migration. Its aim was not to make decisions: rather, in this consultative process, states would engage in dialogue and draft the basis of a new international migration policy.

For those interested in international migration, 2016 has been both sombre and overwhelming. Fuelled by the war in Syria, about 4,000 migrants died in Europe and the Mediterranean region, making 2016 the worst year ever for migrants and refugees.

Calais’s ‘jungle’ migrants on the move again in North of France, February 2016. Malachybrowne/flickr, CC BY-SA

In October, the French government tore apart the Calais “jungle”. The massive camp that had provided temporary shelter for the numerous people seeking to immigrate to the UK, but who were blocked on the French side of the English Channel

In June Britain had voted to end their membership of the European Union– a decision motivated, among other factors, by the hope of reducing immigration by avoiding the EU’s freedom-of-movement rights and rules.

November saw the election of a new president in the United States, Donald Trump, who has promised to build a wall at the Mexican border.

That decision is not new, but it will exacerbate existing tensions around Latin American immigrants in American society.

What the forum can actually do

The consensual and plush atmosphere of the Global Forum contrasted with the chaos and violence that often characterise global migration dynamics.

As its name suggests, the Global Forum focuses on links between migration and development. Its primary aim is to make sure that migration policies are useful for economic development of migrants’ home countries such that, in the long run, people don’t need to leave anymore.

Such a virtuous circle would first take the shape of a new policy for temporary migration. Such policies were widely used in Western Europe in the 1930s to bring Turkish workers to Germany, North Africans to France and South Asians to the United Kingdom.

After the oil crisis of the 1970s, the programmes were dropped. Such an approach has since become unpopular as governments realised that working migrants often settled in Europe rather than returning to their countries of origin.

Today these policies seem to be in favour again. Canada for example, which used to attract permanent migrants, is increasing its hiring of temporary workers.

According to supporters, these programmes present a good deal for destination states: they get a cheap work force for fields that need it, like construction, agriculture, catering and personal care services. For out-migration countries, these programs help them regulate their labour markets and encourage remittances.

According to the World Bank, global remittances – cash flows from country to country – amount for more than US$440 billion a year, and more than the total sum of development aid. In Senegal or Philippines, for example, it represents over 10% of GDP.

Such programs could be an alternative to irregular immigration which is today the main drive behind hiring of migrant workers. As a reminder, in the US, 5% of working population is comprised of clandestine workers, mainly Mexicans.

The forum also insists on the many advantages of security rights and labour protection, so that workers will not be forced to work illegally, under the rules of the black market.

A sensitive but necessary cooperation

But for these policies to work, states must cooperate. And this is the other major objective of this forum. For instance, countries that recruit migrant workers need to be assured that their states of origin will take them back at the end of their stay. Out-migration states also need to ensure that other countries do not attract too significant a portion of necessary workers. In Kenya for example, 600 doctors are trained annually, but 30% to 40% of them immediately leave the country to work abroad, which is a major issue for public health there.

Many Kenyan doctors have joined US army research programs. US Africa/Flickr, CC BY-SA

This cooperation is sensitive; migration is a sovereignty issue. Even within the EU, where state cooperation is very high, members are not keen to adopt a common migration policy.

It is indeed interesting to notice that the Global Forum is organised by countries, and not by the UN, because governments fear the interference of this international organisation in their national policies. Developed countries are concerned that their Global South neighbours could use the UN influence to criticise the way their countrymen are treated and question local governance over immigrants.

This forum was thus only one step in long reflection that should lead to a common and consultative global migration policy. Like trade or climate change, migration is transnational. Yet it is not the subject of real international cooperation. This year’s forum is not the first nor the only step in this process: it is its 9th edition, and the UN has been meeting on these issues since the early 2000s.

Last September, the UN organised a conference called Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. Similarly, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015, bring up for the first time a strong commitment regarding migration. Goal 10 is to:

Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well managed migration policies

A meeting of cynics ?

Not everyone is convinced by the sincerity of the process. After all, the same states that build walls and exclude migrants by any means possible send their envoys to Bangladesh to discuss the urgency of migration policies.

But perhaps states will take seriously the propositions put forward by the Global Forum. It’s possible that its aims, seemingly charitable, actually hide a political agenda, focused on the necessity of organising international labour mobility.

We should remember that goods and capital cross borders very easily, while labour often stays stuck at national frontiers. This situation is unsustainable. Though industrial work can be outsourced to countries with cheaper labour, the same is not true for other professions such as cleaning services or construction. Consequently, even developed economies need low-skilled labour.

These considerations have played a significant role in the German decision regarding generous refugee policies since 2015: feeding, housing, training, offering health care services and shelter for a cost a little over 86.2 billion dollars in the next four years.

Migrant workers in sweet potato fields in North Carolina, United States. Gerry Dincher/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Often, the political answer to this dilemma is black market labour and irregular immigration, which creates controversy and tension. Global governance on migration policies would create an alternative, based on the necessary circulation of workers but under strict conditions controlled by countries.

It would also initiate a strong competition for workers worldwide and, with it, mounting pressure on labour rights and protections. Under cover of making migration policies a tool for sustainable development, the Global Forum would actually push a free-market economic agenda, which would control borders, security and grant access to a flexible, unprotected labour force.

Unions have always been careful on this point, insisting on giving migrants the same social rights and protection that national citizens and workers enjoy in order to avoid a “dumping” of labour.

Without jumping to conclusions about the intentions of the countries meeting in Dhaka, I would underline one fact: current migration policies are failing, and new approaches must be found. A multi-nation forum may or may not be the best frame or solution. But it is a sufficient and necessary step for making progress on the issues. The Global Forum must be seen as more than an obscure meeting, disconnected from the sharp realities it is supposed to address.

This article was originally published in French