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More open?

By Rebekah Smith

Global migration is only likely to increase. But while there are strong international institutions to address global issues such as trade and development, international cooperation on migration issues remains threadbare. Worse, it has a gaping hole: it fails to do anything to facilitate increased people flows. That urgently needs to change.

Europe’s “refugee crisis” – a misnomer, as Patrick Kingsley explains in The New Odyssey – highlights how the global migration system is unprepared to deal with even historically precedented flows of people. Yet in future, ever larger numbers of people are likely to try to move – so much so that many demographers and economists believe that “human migration will be the defining issue of this century.”

On the economic front, labour-market shortages in ageing rich countries paired with high youth unemployment in poorer countries create strong incentives to move. And contrary to popular belief – and to the rationale for the EU’s partnership agreements with Afghanistan and North African countries – continued economic development in poorer countries will increase this migration pressure; migration rates tend to increase with development until GDP per person reaches $5,000 in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms before they begin to decline.

Forced displacement is also on the rise. A record-high stock of 65.5 million people were displaced globally in 2016 (many of them within their own country). That figure is likely to continue rising; the share of extremely poor people living in fragile or conflict-affected environments is expected to rise from 17% of the global total today to 46% by 2030.

Climate change too is expected to displace many people. Together, these trends imply an inevitable increase in migrant flows. How will the global migration system cope?

Inadequate institutions

Global migration governance – in essence, the institutions and rules that shape how countries address international migration issues – has evolved quite rapidly in recent decades, as Alexander Betts and Lena Kainz point out in a recent paper. Previously taboo topics, such as migrant rights and governance, are now on the agenda, while the International Organisation on Migration (IOM) has been brought into the United Nations (UN) system (which was also unthinkable until recently).

Yet the global migration system still lacks institutions capable of facilitating increased people flows.

While the second High-level Dialogue on International Migration in 2013 expanded the agenda significantly, facilitating increased openness to migration remains taboo.

The World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) enables governments to commit to allow the movement of “natural persons” to provide services in their country (Mode 4), but little progress has been made. The WTO’s Doha Round of trade talks is all but dead; and in any case few countries have made meaningful commitments.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals refer to migration primarily as a subcategory of other aims, such as eliminating trafficking and violence against women (Goals 5 and 16) and providing safe environments for migrant workers (Goal 8).

Migration appears more prominently only under Goal 10 (“Reduce inequality within and among countries”) in the form of Goal 10.7: “Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

While that may look promising at first glance, former UN Special Representative for International Migration Peter Sutherland points out in his 2017 report that “States tend to have quite different conceptions of what ‘well-managed migration’ means in practice. Some would like it to mean more migration; others, no migration at all.”

The Global Compact on Migration (GCM) offers an opportunity to adopt a new set of priorities. Agreed at the UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants in September 2016, it will be presented for adoption in 2018. Regrettably, the six thematic consultations in preparation for the final conference suggest that facilitating more migration will once again be left off the agenda.

A better way forward?

Several factors have kept facilitating more migration off the agenda, including the heightened emphasis on state sovereignty when it comes to movement across borders, the constraints on international organisations from the interests of donor states, and campaigners’ focus on migrant rights rather than access. As a result, the vast majority of migration agreements (be they bilateral, regional or global) are non-binding. So what is to be done?

Instead of seeking an elusive global consensus, progressing through “coalitions of the willing” may be more promising. These bring together the “smallest number of states needing to have the largest impact on solving a particular problem”. Examples include the Nansen Initiative on disaster-induced cross-border displacement and the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative. Whereas global agreements tend to set out broad principles, coalitions of the willing may set out concrete action plans, although they are still mostly non-binding.

Two forms of such “mini-multilateralism” to strengthen institutional options for openness have recently been proposed. In his 2017 report, Peter Sutherland proposes several approaches, including a global alliance of labour-sending states to advance shared priorities on negotiating access for migrants; this would later evolve into a “global multi-stakeholder platform on skills and mobility for employment that would develop and review [and help implement] policies and tools on all aspects of labour mobility.”

In a recent Center for Global Development working paper, Lant Pritchett and I propose a plurilateral institutional structure that would:

Provide a forum for negotiating and registering voluntary labour agreements (be they unilateral on the receiving side, bilateral, regional, multilateral);
Support the implementation of registered agreements and resolve disputes; and
Evaluate the agreements, conduct research into labour mobility, and promote increased development-friendly labour mobility by providing good practices on the design and implementation of agreements.
Both Sutherland’s proposals and ours would create flexible, adaptive structures that could help coalitions of the willing advocate and explore avenues to accepting greater openness.

Facilitating more open migration has been conspicuously absent from the global agenda. With increasing pressures for migration, this institutional blind spot will cause ever-greater harm. As the GCM is not yet set in stone, there is still time to introduce meaningful commitments to prepare for more open migration.

But this is unlikely to occur without a coordinated advocacy campaign by key international organisations, NGOs and other interested parties. They need to accept that the “safe, orderly, regular” migration agenda is obsolete unless it is also “more open”.


Rebekah Smith is a development consultant specialising in designing migration policies, particularly in South Asia-Middle East corridors. She is an alumna of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.


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