Framing the Global Compact for Migration Narrative: Acknowledging the complexities of categorisation

The Mixed Migration Platform (MMP) participated in the first of the Informal Thematic Sessions[1] in preparation for the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration from 8-9 May at the UN Office at Geneva. In attending, MMP’s intention was to play an active role in shaping the narrative of nascent discussions around focus areas for the compact guidelines, and in doing so consider the role of definitions, data and representation of marginalised migrant categories.

The session included thematic experts, UN rapporteurs, migration activists, lawyers and leading human rights defenders in the field of migration and protection across a range of entry points, including practical implementation of existing international norms, xenophobia, racism and discrimination, and social inclusion and cohesion of migrants in host communities. Several concerning narratives emerged throughout the discussions, including the tendency of certain member states to define regular versus irregular migration along very finite lines, and the apparent absence of political consensus to discuss existing categories of migrants and their subsequent entitlements under international law.

A common concern for panellists, though only raised by a few member states, was the continuing criminalisation and securitisation of irregular migration. This is paradoxical, given that under current frameworks of migration management, irregular migration remains one of the few viable options for vulnerable people to state a legitimate claim to protection. Jaya Ramji-Nogales illustrates the shortfalls of the “Refugee Law Paradigm”[2] by lamenting that vulnerabilities are only addressed according to country of origin, thereby limiting our recognition of the needs of people on the move to a narrow, purely humanitarian approach. Conversely, the majority of regular migration opportunities are linked (either indirectly or directly) to work. Migrants are quantified, therefore, on the basis of labour value versus the level of exposure to threat, conflict or persecution, in order to determine access. As a result, people on the move are consigned to one of two categories: the regular ‘labourer’ (defined by their economic contributions to society) and the ‘weak, vulnerable refugee’ (defined by their absolute lack of agency in mobility decisions). Despite the presentation of positive stories of social inclusion and steps towards more open immigration policy from many member states, by continuing to define access according to these two categories of eligibility, we are blind to both the needs and potential of a sizeable segment of the global migrant population: irregular migrants who do not fit into either group.

A pertinent civil society intervention on the second day of the consultations highlighted how the current one-directional migration narrative tends to favour policy development on the basis of South-North mobility, and that this therefore puts it in line with the political interests of policy makers in the destination and transit countries. If we are to truly “change the optic of migration”[3], mobility must be considered as a continuous multi-directional cycle that places all migrants in equitable standing within international legal conventions, regardless of geographical origin.

There is a need for a critical eye when it comes to definitions and the framing of migrant terminology, when defining the boundaries of who exactly these two compacts seek to address. One should ask: where is the space for irregular migration in the compacts’ strictly defined categories of “Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration” and “Refugees”? Do these compacts simply reinforce the distinction between these two categories? This is something that has already been tackled by key actors in the field, including the recent Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration, Peter Sutherland, who warned against the common tendency of policy makers to frame refugees as “good” and irregular migrants as “bad”.[4] This conversation must be continued to ensure more flexible framing throughout the upcoming discussions around the regularity of migration. Jean-François Durieux, of the Refugee Law Initiative recently highlighted this grey area by calling for “clarity of purpose” in defining the legal nature of these compacts in the context of mass influx. He questions the coverage (and exclusions) of each compact using the following problem statement as a point of departure: ‘cross-border movements of people that are not regular, safe or orderly, and for whom shared responsibility has been lacking’.[5] Ben Lewis of the International Detention of Coalition likewise tackled this complexity during his panel by urging member states to avoid attempting to regularise all migration. He warned against the risk of this approach in further militarising migration management through the desire to control all movement[6]. Despite even the strongest of current and future efforts to provide alternatives to irregular migration, we must acknowledge that migration along irregular pathways is likely to continue to take place, in the absence of sufficient regular opportunities.

The OHCHR Principles and Guidelines, Supported by Practical Guidance, on the Human Rights Protection of Migrants in Vulnerable Situations[7] is a first attempt at protecting the human rights of migrants who fall outside of the conventional refugee category and sits in previously unchartered migration policy territory. The second of these principles lists the objective of “countering discrimination through promotion of “neutral terminology”[8]. As a research and advocacy platform, MMP interacts with civil society groups working directly with migrant communities, migration policy actors in both the Middle East and Europe, and migrants themselves. In light of that perspective, MMP stresses the need to approach these debates more holistically, in consideration of the potential existence of vulnerabilities for all migrants, each bearing specific and individual vulnerabilities, needs, but also strengths. We would like to engage UN member states and national policy makers on their framing of irregular migrants throughout the migration journey, within both compacts, as individuals that warrant our attention, and witness better efforts to tailor migration policy to recognise their existence, rather than exclude them.

[1] Following the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted in September 2016, the UN General Assembly elected to set into motion a consultative process, in April 2017, to develop two independent compacts that will guide refugee and migration response: one for “Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration”, and the other exclusively for refugees. The objective of the consultation process for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is to create a platform for interaction between UN member states, international organisations, civil society and the private sector on key areas to be incorporated into a concrete set of measurable guidelines (the format of which is yet to be decided), prior to the intergovernmental conference on international migration in 2018. The consultations for this compact will take place over the course of six Informal Thematic Sessions centred around specific migration themes from trafficking to human rights and labour mobility, amongst others. See http://bit.ly/2qufDEg for further information. The Refugee Compact will take shape according to thematic sessions and consultations conducted with UN member states and key stakeholders, using the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) and its pilot countries as a mechanism through which to consolidate practical guidelines. See http://bit.ly/2qvFCvL for further information.

[2] Ramji-Nogales, J. (2017). Moving Beyond the Refugee Law Paradigm. AJIL Unbound, 111, 8-12. doi:10.1017/aju.2017.9

[3] Secretary General of the International Coalition for Migration, 1st Thematic Session on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, UN Office at Geneva, 8-9 May 2017

[4] Sutherland, Peter (Feb, 2017). Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration. [online] Available at: http://bit.ly/2qulSrC [Accessed 11 May 2017].

[5] blogs.sas.ac.uk. (2017). Too many migrants, or too many concepts? | Refugee Law Initiative Blog. [online] Available at: http://bit.ly/2rtSArE [Accessed 15 May 2017].

[6] Lewis, Ben, Advocacy Coordinator, International Detention Coalition, 1st Thematic Session on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, UN Office at Geneva, 8-9 May 2017

[7] OHCHR, (2017). Principles and guidelines on the human rights protection of migrants in vulnerable situations within large and/or mixed movements. [online] Available at: http://bit.ly/2qvFwnK [Accessed 15 May 2017].

Note: This article originally appeared on the Mixed Migration Platform website.