The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Multilateralism entails the transfer by national sovereign states of legitimacy and a degree of authority to international rules, principles or organisations. We now live in an age of contested multilateralism, where a rise in neo-nationalism, infused with anti-globalism and a renewed appetite for unilateralism or isolationism, runs the risk of undermining the established multinational world order.
This essay explores the current stresses multilateralism faces, the impact of unilateral action on refugees and migrants, and the potential contradictions facing the two Global Compacts on refugees and migrants. Finally, it examines how a significant retreat from multilateralism might affect the global management of mixed migration.
The bedrock of multilateralism
International laws, norms, and institutions, including those related to human rights, are central pillars of the doctrine of multilateralism. The United Nations encapsulates the doctrine, and is at the core of the world’s multilateral system. “Multilateralism is the DNA of the United Nations Organization,” the body’s deputy head declared this year. The sovereign equality of states guided by universal human rights is the bedrock of multilateralism, which, its proponents claim, is the only credible response to global challenges such as climate change, migration, transnational crime, and terrorism.2 Ideally, multilateralism offers states a way to “pursue interests collectively, while sharing costs and risks”.
The post-Second World War multilateral structures, chief among them the United Nations, are widely recognised as having a multi-decade track record of saving lives, generating economic and social progress, and preventing a third descent into world war. Without multilateralism, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change, as well as critical multinational peace operations, would be impossible. For many, multilateralism is not a choice but a necessity: a multipolar world requires multilateral structures and agreements (although some question how multipolar the world has actually become to date).
Persistent, wide-ranging multilateralism dominates relations between states. More than 560 multilateral treaties have been registered with the UN, covering a vast range of issues, including transportation, communication, outer space, international justice, human rights, disarmament, the environment, commercial arbitration, public health, international trade and development, and the law of the sea. Treaties more pertinent to the subject of this essay deal with refugees and stateless people, the smuggling and trafficking of people, and migrant workers.
Low trust and high stress
There is a rising fear that multilateralism is under threat. In November 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council, “multilateralism today is under immense stress. […] trust is declining within and among nations, and people are losing faith in political institutions and seem less able to cooperate, even as complex global challenges are on the rise.” At this special Security Council meeting on the subject, representatives from many countries lined up to reaffirm the importance of multilateralism and condemn the new resurgence of unilateralism and breaches of international solidarity. Speakers said that “picking and choosing” which principles states will respect had degraded multilateralism at a time of multiplying conflicts, advancing climate change, deepening inequality, rising tensions over trade, and unprecedented numbers crossing borders in search of “safety or opportunity”.
In April 2019, more than 50 delegations participated in the UN’s International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, with many warning “against the rise of unilateralism, isolationism, authoritarianism, populism and protectionism as challenges to the rules‑based international order”.
Many identify the United States under Donald Trump’s presidency as a main instigator of the present assault on multilateralism. But Washington’s position is not unique, or even new: it has a long history of non-cooperation with the very institutions it was often instrumental in creating.10 Another clear example is the United Kingdom’s choice to leave the European Union – probably the world’s most tightly-knit multilateral organisation in terms of shared values and unified systems. Despite this closeness, in relation to migrants and refugees within the EU itself, member states have flouted EU multilateralism in the chaotic events and reactions surrounding the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015-2016 and continue to do so in its political aftermath.
Anti-globalism and neo-nationalism
In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, President Trump proclaimed: “We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” While anti-globalisation challenges the very basis of capitalism itself, anti-globalism can be described as a philosophy which rejects the current global economic and trade system, not least because it fuels the perception that it undermines national sovereignty. As such, anti-globalism has a tendency to disengage from multilateral processes, considering them to have gone “substantially too far” and the movement attracts those from both the right and left of the political spectrum. Indeed, centre-right parties are showing themselves more willing to identify with anti-globalism, which presents little threat to the international economic order, than the centre-left parties had with anti-globalisation. Thus, “anti-globalism succeeded where anti-globalisation had failed: it captured the popular imagination as a response to the economic impact of globalisation.”
Thanks not least to Trump, neo-nationalism and far-right ideology are increasingly visible phenomena much discussed by commentators and the media.
Nationalism, authoritarianism and populism are easily conflated, but are actually distinct and can occur independently. When commentators analyse nationalism today, they often refer to a nationalism that includes protectionism, unilateralism, xenophobia linked to nativist and identity politics, as well as anti-elite discourse. Economic nationalism illustrates that nationalism can be associated with the political left and right. Some, therefore, identify a multi-dimensional sense of marginalisation as the key structural cause of nationalism.
Visibility vs prevalence
However, the current phenomenon of rising nationalism – when measured by the rise of nationalist parties, policies, and violence (including hate crimes) – may have more to do with the growing visibility of more “virulent expressions of nationalism” [emphasis added] in a climate of political polarisation and changing priorities than with any widespread, let along globally unified, pro-nationalist changes in attitudes. Nevertheless, European Union elections results in late May 2019 also illustrated a rising support for nationalist – and green – parties challenging the hold of traditional centre right and centre left parties (both multilateralists) in Europe.
The pressure of rising neo-nationalist expressions can be seen in the US and Britain and the success of centrifugal forces of populism and Euroscepticism in the far-right parties in Europe as demonstrated Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands and France as well as the Italian, German and Austrian elections in 2017 and 2018. They are also found in the nationalist policies of the Philippines, China, South Africa, in Japan under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, amongst various global examples.
Hostile environment for refugees and migrants
There are important differences between the iterations of nationalism in these countries and nationalism may not be their only platform for support, but a pervasive anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment is evident in many of the abovementioned countries, particularly in relation to unexpected mass arrivals of those in irregular mixed flows – seen as a direct challenge to sovereignty and state control.
The responses include a variety of policies and actions, sometime contravening or contesting multilateral agreements or national laws, to deter, divert, obstruct, disincentivise, punish or criminalise irregular migrants and asylum seekers as well as those that assist them. Relatively small and manageable numbers of irregular arrivals can cause disproportionately strong (and expensive) reactions by states, while offering nationalist and populist parties more examples of “crisis” and “invasions” around which to rally further support.
Despite studies illustrating evidence to the contrary, the optics of unregulated in-flows of foreigners supposedly threatening jobs, access to education and healthcare, as well as culture and national life, is a powerful one that populists and nationalists commonly utilise. If it can be shown that the foreigners adhere to a religious ideology contrary to the national heritage the potential power of those optics is even greater.
In this current political climate, the level of refugee resettlement was below five percent of global needs in 2018, according to UNHCR. Meanwhile, in all categories the number of refugees, displaced people and migrants on the move has never been higher. In Europe, strict directives from the EU for member states to burden-share refugees arriving in Greece and Italy have been blatantly ignored while asylum acceptance criteria have become stricter. Some countries have been explicitly vocal in their anti-migrants and anti-refugee pronouncements and have been actively obstructionist in preventing asylum seekers arriving at their territorial jurisdictions, or have made their arrival as unwelcome and protracted as possible by keeping them in detention for months or years. UNHCR’s public condemnation of cases of breaches of the principle of non-refoulement appears all too frequently. Europe’s relationship with Libya in terms of training and funding its notorious coast guard in intercepting Europe-bound migrants and refugees and returning them to equally notorious detention camps in Libya is at very least a clear case of bad faith, and at worst a violation of various international and EU human rights provisions.
Tough times for UNHCR
These are tough times for UNHCR – the mandated protector of refugees and asylum seekers – as it fights to maintain the integrity of the multilateral refugee regime against multiple breaches of the 1951 Refugee Convention, whether they occur in Australia, the US, Italy, South Africa or Kenya. At a time when analysts and academics are asking whether the convention is still fit for purpose, UNHCR is forced into a defensive position, knowing that if the substance of the landmark instrument were ever re-visited it would likely lose rather than gain ground. As one refugee expert stated, “The Convention should be maintained because if we tried to renegotiate it we’d get a far worse deal for refugees today than we’ve had in the past.” This was, for some, exemplified by the UNHCR-negotiated multilateral Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). While UNHCR heralded the compact’s adoption in 2018, others saw it as a “cop-out,” where, rather than seeking greater rights and protection for refugees, the UN agency only managed (by its own assessment) to “consolidate traditional standards in tandem with a voluntarist framework”. According to one analyst, to strive for more would be to risk complete failure around the GCR; the consensus had to be “thin” because it had to be pluralist. UNHCR chose strategic consolidation instead of attempting progressive reform. The language throughout the agreement lacks teeth and makes clear that “firm commitments were not envisaged”.
“Over principled and under-performing”?
Commentators are divided on the strengths of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), negotiated and adopted in parallel to the GCR. Those supportive of what was signed at the end of 2018 see the political significance of reaching an international agreement on migration that many saw as an “impossible gamble in an age of xenophobia and nationalism”. Others dismissed the GCM as another “overprincipled and underperforming” agreement, decrying the decision to reiterate principles instead of focusing on practice or implementation. Positive impact will come from action and practice, they argue, not repetition of agreed commitments or re-wording of diluted principles and a persistence in negotiations for the “lowest common denominator”.
Madeline Albright, a former US secretary of state, gave a keynote speech in the run up to the GCM’s signing in Marrakesh. She stated that migration could only be managed through international cooperation, emphasising that the GCM’s adoption was a significant achievement in multilateralism, perhaps one all the more impressive in an age, by some states, of multilateral retreat. Additionally, mechanisms and targets are in place in an attempt to make the GCM more performant. It is still early days, but reports from the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) and the UN Migration Network, recently established in Geneva, will monitor and document the GCM’s implementation as it supports states in fulfilling this necessary but ambitious compact.
Future expectations of mixed migration
All the indicators suggest human flight and mobility linked to aspiration and abilities will continue to rise, not only in absolute numbers but as a proportion of world population. A combination of push factors, including climate change, resource scarcity, regional inequality, global demographic changes, poor governance, rising aspirations, connectivity, the role of diaspora, natural disasters, and conflict are all expected to create migratory pressures. At the same time, increasing globalisation, rising incomes, growing international labour demand, and better educational outcomes, coupled with access to transportation, financing and facilitators and smugglers, will also increase people’s desire and ability to move. The collision potential between rising mobility aspirations and abilities on the one hand, and destination states’ reduced appetite or tolerance for rising numbers of asylum seekers and migrants on the other, is clear. Indeed, the increased restrictions preventing regular mobility already heighten the demand for irregular movement, creating not only a management problem for states but, as we have seen, incendiary political tensions, as well as increased risks for people on the move in mixed migration flows.
Few states, be they countries of origin, transit or destination, are untouched by the rising and tenacious phenomenon of mixed migration. Unilateral responses, or bilateral agreements (such as the EU-Turkey Statement and Italy’s agreements with Libya) may appear to offer short-term responses or defuse particular explosive situations, but the consensus is that mixed migration is sufficiently global to require multilateral solutions. It was in recognition of this that the two global compacts relating to migrants and refugees were so widely supported and passed in December 2018. The question is whether these compacts, and other multilateral instruments related to migrants and refugees, will get caught up in the current and possibly future retreat from multilateralism and therefore fail to deliver. An assumption here is that if migration and refugees are not addressed in an explicitly multilateral manner they will fail to deliver.
How inevitable is the retreat?
What looks like an inevitable retreat from multilateralism today, however, may turn out to be something else: somewhat paradoxically, some analysts suggest that multilateralism may have a “life cycle” and that current pressures on multilateralism and multilateral institutions, including threatened withdrawals, “may be natural symptoms of those institutions’ relative success”. Instead of being an indication of failure, the current stresses on multilateralism may be better understood as “the natural growing pains of an increasingly mature set of institutions.” In other words, the future of multilateralism is one of renewal and consolidation rather than termination. It’s possible that this future consists of more local or regional “clubs” but there remain major global issues that cry out for a global response. For many, the answer therefore is more multilateralism, not less. A case in point came in 2018, when the African Union declared its intention to implement a free-movement protocol across the whole continent with a single AU passport for all citizens. Whether this is a form of aspirational multilateralism or gesture politics remains to be seen.
Reform to reinvigorate multilateralism
Deficiencies or “growing pains” do not call for a retreat from multilateralism; on the contrary, many agree that multilateralism must be reinvigorated and reformed to be more democratic, representative and effective. This reform will need to reflect the changing global balance towards multipolar economic and political (as well as demographic and military) powers within the structures of multilateral institutions, starting with the United Nations itself. Long-standing demands for such changes are expressed through the 120-member of the Non-Aligned Movement and especially felt from states such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The so-called crisis of support for the multilateral order, which is one of the characteristics of today’s nationalism, may also have roots in the fact that multilateral institutions have become “disconnected from publics in the very countries that created them”. There is a sense, for many, of having been “excluded of the promised gains of globalization” (closely associated with multilateralism), an increasing feeling of marginalisation – even by those within wealthy countries. The globalisation debate has been running since the turn of the century and continues to wrangle over its putative pros and cons.
Nevertheless, keeping perspective, when one looks at the high number of multilateral agreements that are in place and that guide the activities and norms of international relations, it is clear that, for the most part, most states adhere to their signed agreements – of which there are more than 300 active and guiding international activities. Despite the amount of literature about the crisis of confidence around multilateralism, contested multilateralism affects a limited (though important) proportion of agreements such as climate change, trade and the International Criminal Court. Issues around migration and refugees are also, typically, the subjects of highly polemical international debates, which makes it all the more impressive that the two compacts were signed last year.
Moreover, it is individual political leaders who are championing anti-globalism, and it is not clear how much of their policies will remain once they leave office.
Impact on mixed migration
There is an assumption that in relation to mixed migration, any retreat from multilateralism will result in reduced assistance for refugees and reduced opportunities and protection for migrants. This assumption deserves to be tested, particularly in relation to migration in a changing world, where the old patterns of origin and destination countries will doubtless evolve as the impact of demographic changes and economic opportunities begin to bite and a multipolar global economic profile consolidates.
In terms of mixed migration, where people use irregular pathways, in the absence of effective and implemented multilateral agreements or standards, there will be a strong tendency for countries to act unilaterally or bilaterally or in defence of regional interests, riding roughshod over existing national or international norms and treaties.
This is already the case. Australia, for example, has chosen to implement policies against irregular maritime migrants and asylum seekers that are vigorously contested at home by human rights organisation while also contravening the spirit and letter of the 1951 Refugee Convention and attracting wide spread condemnation abroad.
Equally, the sudden mass influx of people in mixed flows entering Europe between 2015-2016 resulted in countries choosing different and often contradictory policies, resulting in chaotic and desperate scenes. The migrant “crisis” almost jeopardised vital aspects of the European project, while opening the doors for more illiberal politics and populist parties. The repercussions of those events continue to influence European politics as countries continue to develop unilateral or bilateral responses. Nevertheless, however disorganised and confused the response of European member states was, it did offer hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants a chance to access the bloc and seek asylum. Irrespective of having signed the GCM or the GCR, member states continue to act to prevent national short-term political fall-out from uncontrolled and irregular arrivals and continue to act against European-wide agreements and for many, the spirit of European solidarity.
The Americas in 2018 and into 2019 saw equally disorderly and tumultuous scenes and a developing humanitarian crisis around the Mexican/US border, where a government administration led by Trump clashed not only with federal and state laws in his desire to implement restrictive policies, but also breached international norms, again attracting wide condemnation.
Multilateralism offers better outcomes
The ineluctable logic here is that principled and reasonable multilateral agreements stand a higher chance of defending the rights of refugees and migrants than does a global governance structure where individual national interests and policies prevail. However, in a climate where national politicians cannot help but react to their perception of constituents’ short-term demands, the tension between international agreements and perceived national imperatives will remain strong. A central question is whether strong future multilateral agreements properly implemented will backfire and bring about their own demise or usher in a new era of protection and burden sharing. It is unclear if the current tides of anti-globalism and anti-multilateralism will characterise the future political landscape, but what appears undoubtable is that migratory and refugee pressures will remain high and even increase substantially.
The realpolitik paradox
In relation to mixed migration, the paradox is that the more nations seek to sign up to liberal multilateral agreements, the higher the risk of situations developing where their electorates reject these more liberal positions in favour of more intolerant, unilateral ones. Perhaps this is already well understood by many of the signatories to the most recent multilateral compacts on migrants and refugees and an unspoken divergence between public solidarity and private (national) policy is accepted. Accepted without cynicism but merely part of realpolitik? This remains to be seen, but achieving a critical balance between principles and political pragmatism (and between multilateralism and unilateralism) may be the best that can be hoped for as we enter an uncertain future.