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MMC interviews Louise Arbour:
“Stick to the facts”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The current discourse around migration suffers from a “disconnect with reality,” laments  Louise Arbour, warning that the only hope of making the right policy decisions rests with getting back to grips with empirical truths and stepping back from stereotypes.

In your framing of migration issues where does mixed migration — irregular complex flows — fit in? The numbers are relatively low, but at a policy level how important is it?

First of all, I think mixed migration was probably at the heart of the crisis in Europe in 2015. It created the impetus for the New York Declaration that then became the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. So, in a sense it captures the acute difficulties in human mobility that come with large displacements of populations with mixed and different migratory experience. This brings to the forefront several things, one of which is humanitarian, where saving lives has to be a priority, and this is non-negotiable. Mixed migration evokes first of all populations in transit, as opposed to stocks of existing migrants who might have been in destination countries for a long time on a regular or irregular basis. They are often in very precarious, vulnerable conditions with different types of legal status and legal entitlement, so it also evokes a humanitarian response, the necessary status-determination process, and then appropriate policies.

How damaging has the often sensationalized coverage by media and politicians been to the wider cause of migration and refugees?

Well it cuts both ways. There are several aspects that can be quite damaging to the elaboration of appropriate policy, and there are other parts, in a perverse way, that are actually quite helpful. I think there’s no question in terms of mobilising certain elements of interest from the public around people in distress: these images have generated a level of empathy that can allow policy makers to make courageous and correct policies. On the more complicated side, maybe a more negative side, it has over-exaggerated the aspect of migration that is transitory. We forget that when we talk about migration we talk about people who have finished their migratory routes, and, in particular, regular migrants who are already established in communities but still require a lot of attention, particularly with respect to decent work standards and protection from xenophobic attitudes. This becomes completely obscured by the drama of large flows of population and so it presents migration always as a matter of emergency and crisis. In fact, lots of migration policies have to be made on the basis of a more sober appreciation of stocks of migrants or the desirability of attracting labour force in a regular manner, so it’s important to always place migration in a proper context for policy-making purposes.

With regard to migration globally, do you think an elephant in the room is the impact of climate change? How do you think the uncertainty around the potential impact will affect the migration discourse?

On the basis of everything we know, we have to say that this will be an additional factor that will contribute to forced displacement. Of course, historically, forced displacement has been associated with conflict and war, and it carried with it entitlement to international protection. Other forms of forced displacement don’t carry these types of entitlements with them. For example, forced displacement from extreme poverty, and now climate change. With respect to sudden-onset natural disasters, we do have some co-operative frameworks in place, and means of mobilising resources. Although of course with the increase in numbers the pressure will become more intense as natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis increase. What is much more problematic is the slow-onset disasters, where the lack of choice means people will be forced to leave. But that’s going to be a lot harder to get international solidarity.

How do you assess the intentions of many governments to combat migrant smuggling and disrupt the smugglers’ business model? Are smugglers the problem, or a symptom of another problem?

Dealing with smuggling is in fact one of the areas where we do have an international legal framework. So when people tell me they deplore the fact that the Compact will be legally non-binding, I often point out to them that we already have legally binding agreements that have not produced good responses and, by contrast, the Global Compact, as a non-legally-binding document, is more akin to the Sustainable Development Goals, which are also not legally binding, but [are] much more helpful as a policy-making tool. Again, dealing with smugglers generates a lot of confusing dialogue and narratives that obscure sober decision-making and policy-making.

The interchangeability of the terms trafficking and smuggling is of course not very useful in understanding the problem, because it tends to elevate the seriousness of the anti-smuggling initiatives [through] linking [smuggling] to human trafficking. Of course, it is linked in some cases but confusing the issues does a disservice to the complex nature of human mobility, where people assist others to cross international borders.

In the Second World War, those people who assisted others to escape persecution who later became refugees are not remembered as smugglers, but as heroes. But all this is easily obscured by confusing the terminology. However, there are some instances of outrageous and organised criminal networks that show utter contempt for human life, who are predatory and very dangerous. But in other instances, at the other end of the scale, you have humanitarian rescue which should never be characterized in that way. So there’s a danger in the stereotyping of all smugglers.

Migrant smugglers have been shown to be directly and indirectly responsible for much of the death and violence against refugees and migrants in mixed flows, yet many emphasize their role as facilitators and enablers of refugees and migrants. In your view, are they angels or demons?

I think it’s much more complex. You may recall in the Global Compact that if there was one part where member states were unanimous it was in getting greater data and research. I think on this we will never get sophisticated responses if it’s based on stereotypes or assumptions. We should not ideologically divide between where the smugglers are angels or demons. There are some of both of course, and the demons have to be addressed very seriously, with much more sophisticated research and analysis on the cause-and-effects as I have repeatedly emphasized. In the Compact, the opening of legal pathways is one of various instruments to reduce irregular migration. There are many who respond that now it will just open more opportunities for smugglers and their activities. These statements have to be challenged empirically, I think, based on the appropriate research. I think it’s a plausible working hypothesis that, if it was possible, people would move to legal safe channels, rather than spend exorbitant sums and [risk their] lives with smugglers.

Some observers warn that liberal democracy, and the values of progressive open societies, are under threat with the rise of popular politics with a strong anti-migration agenda. What do you think of this idea?

First of all, democracy is always at risk from its best features being turned against it. It’s the duty and the nature of the democratic enterprise to prevent this, and we have seen the same kind of discourse in relation to discussions around terrorism. I believe the greatest risk to democracy is for democracy to turn against itself and to self-destruct in response to external challenges. There’s no question that in authoritarian regimes where you can silence voices you don’t agree with you have a much better control of the opposition. I think in a democracy we don’t have that luxury of silencing those who, frankly, don’t have anything very intelligent to say. They still have a right to peddle their views, but we have to do a lot better than we’re doing now in challenging some of the stereotypes and mythology that surrounds the issue of migration because otherwise we are going lose the policy debate if we cannot regain control of reality.

What we’re seeing now is a public discourse that ten or 15 years ago would have been difficult to imagine. The most problematic part is not so much opinions that people embrace, but the basis on which they embrace those opinions. For example, most surveys show that people vastly exaggerate the number of migrants they think are living in their own countries, and they exaggerate the number of them who are unemployed or involved in criminality. This is a disconnect with reality. If we cannot regain control of the facts, then we have zero hope of gaining control of the policies that are needed to be put in place.

For example, Europe is facing for decades to come some very severe shortages in human resources. This is a reality. How can Europe best position itself to import a foreign workforce on a temporary or permanent basis? It is very difficult to develop the right policies to do that if there’s no sound grasp of what the reality is. We need to step back from ideological conflict and regain control of the facts on which sound policy can be based.

Some governments have worked to negotiate and agree on a very positive Global Compact for Migration at the same time as developing policies seemingly at odds with the Compact. How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction?

I think you get the right discourse and the right outcomes if you can step back from assumptions and stereotypes and you confront reality. I think the conversations in New York were conducted on a much more sober, respectful, factual and evidence-based basis and anchored in a framework of international law, leveraging international principles, human rights law and international humanitarian law. So when you have the conversation within these kind of sober parameters you get a very different outcome.

But are there two parallel worlds: the multilateral world, where progressive commitments are agreed, and the real world, where only some governments act contrary to these commitments?

Possibly, and to some extent, but I would like to be more optimistic and hope that these more sober discussions will eventually penetrate national discourse and government departments and push back against more stereotypical views. However, I do think there is cause to celebrate [the fact that] that states do find the space to come together and talk more rationally and more cool-headedly about these issues.

Instead of one compact focusing on human mobility as a whole, there are now two separate compacts. How can we avoid this further fuelling unhelpful binary thinking between the “deserving” refugee and the “undeserving” migrant?

Actually, I think it was very important to have two separate compacts. What is unhelpful is characterizing refugees as deserving and migrants is undeserving; that’s something we’ve always pushed back against. I think it is important to have the two different tracks because refugees are entitled to international protection as a matter of international law and domestic law and we need to reserve them that space. At least 25 million refugees currently need that entitlement and the implementation of their protection. Even if the refugee regime is not perfect, we need to take care not to do anything to erode their current situation. By contrast, the 258 million migrants globally come in many different iterations. The level of voluntary-ness can never be assumed, nor to what extent they are seeking a better life, or [whether] in fact they actually had no alternative. There’s a huge variety between migrants globally, so there’s a huge difference between refugees and migrants, and it’s important that we preserve those distinctions.

How do you see the role of NGOs and civil society in the GCM? Did they contribute and make a real difference in the process?

Absolutely. Although this was a member state process, there was wide open space for civil society and public engagement for multiple stakeholders. NGOs and others were very important in bringing a variety of perspectives and experience. The contributions were not just from the NGO movement but also the labour movement, from the law-and-order side, and so forth. The NGOs on the humanitarian side emphasised the special interest of women and children, for example, so it was a very rich level of communication and participation. I think Marrakesh1 may be a defining moment for multi-stakeholder engagement with the Compact. Not just in their presence but also assisting with the implementation. Obviously, concerning humanitarian aspects of migrants and refugees, NGOs are very big players, but also, local government, local cities and mayors have played and will play an important part. They are all critical players.

What do you think will really change as a result of the GCM?

I think the Compact will be very much the beginning of the process. Importantly, we now have the United Nations very engaged with migration as a really central issue. IOM has now joined the United Nations family as of last year and there’s a lot of energy in the different agencies involved in the [UN] Migration Network, and motivation to work together. Frankly, I think the process of getting us this far has already brought the conversation among policy makers and political decision makers onto a much more rational, fact-based footing.

Even last year, when we talked to European decision-makers about the idea of opening more legal pathways it was considered laughable. They told us “we are drowning in refugees. This is not the time to talk about legal pathways for others.” But now there’s much more of a sophisticated recognition of the necessity to have these parallel tracks. So the process itself has already brought a lot of benefits. If you look at the Compact itself there are 23 objectives, numerous initiatives that are proposed — not imposed, but proposed — but if any of them in the short-, medium-, and longer-term start being implemented I think we’re on a much better course to deal with something that has been with us for a very long time and is likely to increase in the future.

Finally, migration has a massive role in the discussion around global economics, globalisation and capitalism itself. Some say migration is the unfinished business of capitalism? What do you think?

Well, for a long time I thought that progress is linear, but now I’m more persuaded that it is cyclical, so I’m not so sure capitalism still has some unfinished business, or even if it has finished any aspects of the enterprise! But, if you look at the link between migration and development — which I think is really critical — if you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, migration is featured all over the document. But very specifically looking at SDG’s 10th goal, which of all the Sustainable Development Goals, all 17 of them, I am the most surprised was ever agreed to by the member states. It’s the objective of reducing inequalities between countries. I don’t know how capitalism fits in with that objective, but I think it’s an extremely worthwhile goal to target the reduction of inequalities. And migration is very much part of that enterprise.


1. Marrakesh, Morocco is where the Global Compacts will be signed in December 2018, along with the launch of new initiatives and programmes as a result of the Compacts.