An essential step forward down a long road: Taking stock of the first IMRF
The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
These reflections are based on the notes made by our beloved colleague John K. Bingham, who so unexpectedly passed away in July 2022. John was a dedicated, brilliant, and fearless advocate for migrant and refugee rights, and will be remembered by countless friends and colleagues across the globe. It has been an honour for us his friends, Eva Sandis, from the NGO Committee on Migration, and Sophie van Haasen, Coordinator of the GFMD Mayors Mechanism, to work with his notes and weave our personal assessment into these reflections. For those wishing to join us in honouring John, please visit his memorial site here).
After months of strenuous preparation by UN member states, the UN system, civil society, local governments, and other stakeholders, the first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) took place from 17-20 May 2022. Much anticipation preceded this event, since it was the first time the international community would come together, after two years of the Covid-19 epidemic, to assess progress on the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). Held under the auspices of the UN General Assembly, it resulted in a Progress Declaration of the International Migration Review Forum, negotiated and adopted by all participating member states. What follows are our reflections about its results, impact, and most importantly, the way forward.
Member states clearly see the GCM as the frame of reference to govern international migration, as evidenced by the large number of governments, including heads of state, who travelled to New York and from the many expressions of support for the GCM, such as statements issued jointly by Portugal, Finland, and Ireland embracing the Compact and underlining the importance of respect for the human rights of migrants, and by the then 32 Champion Countries reflecting on the group’s Rabat Declaration of 25 March 2022,in which they reiterated their full support of the GCM and called for more effort to accelerate both its implementation and the attainment of the SDGs. This is particularly striking when considering that the GCM is a non-binding document.
Also indicative of the GCM being viewed as a frame of reference was the use by some member states of the negotiations—as well as their closing statements upon the adoption of the Progress Declaration—to express the limits of their accountability towards the commitments in the Declaration. For example, taking the floor immediately after the adoption of the Progress Declaration, the United States (which never adopted the GCM as it pulled out of the negotiation process in 2017 but which now clearly supports its “vision”) emphasised that neither the GCM text itself nor the Progress Declaration create or change rights or obligations under international law —a position shared by several member states.
The UN system
The UN Network on Migration Secretariat was the central force shaping this IMRF, in close collaboration with the Office of the President of the General Assembly as well as with the Network’s Executive Committee, the latter driving substantial decisions, such as composition and focus of the thematic discussions and policy debates.
UN agencies were well represented and engaged at the IMRF, including in organising and as panellists of the four round tables on GCM objectives, co-organisers, and participants of in-person and virtual side events— on topics including labour (ILO), health (WHO, UNICEF), and climate displacement (UNHCR), to name just a few—and bringing a UN System Pledge. That said, IOM was decidedly the “go-to ”organisation in virtually every respect.
Multiple non-state stakeholders were engaged throughout the process:
- Civil society was united and advocated forcefully on behalf of its global agenda for the IMRF, as spelled out in the Civil Society Action Committee’s paper entitled “12 Key Ways for States to get back on Track,” with a heavy emphasis on enhanced regular pathways and regularisation of migrants as key ways to reduce their vulnerabilities in migration.
- Local governments strongly reiterated their 2018 call in Marrakech to implement the GCM and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) “in unison” and brought 70 formal actions and pledges on GCM and GCR implementation to the IMRF. Despite their lack of formal access to the IMRF, 18 cities and 12 mayors joined on the sidelines and called for access, mandates, and resources.
- Youth, through the Migration Youth and Children Platform (MYCP), engaged over half a million young people across the globe in regional discussions prior to the IMRF. Despite limited funding for youth representatives to join the Forum in big numbers, youth representatives were active and vocal throughout the discussions.
As part of these non-state delegations, and specifically within the civil society delegation, migrants, diaspora, and refugees were represented and actively engaged. For example, a significant group of the civil society delegation was comprised of migrants and refugees.
Nevertheless, the IMRF struggled to be inclusive and participatory and relied heavily on statements and less on interaction between member states and others. Also, the IMRF multistakeholder hearing, held immediately before the opening of the IMRF, failed to attract states, which turned it into a space for non-state stakeholders to talk amongst themselves rather than creating much-needed face time with states. This flouts the whole-of-society and whole-of-government guiding principles of the GCM.
Many stakeholders, including some states, expressed their concerns and provided concrete avenues for improvement, such as dedicated spaces for exchange between stakeholders (including migrants and member states), formal mechanisms to engage with stakeholder groups (as is the case in the Global Forum on Migration and Development), and increased access for local governments, who to date cannot access the IMRF unless they are part of national delegations.
“The fact that I am standing here as the singular migrant voice, and that migrant spaces this week have been so limited, is an injustice not just to our community and all those who work tirelessly to ensure all migrants can lead safe and dignified lives, but to all of us here, working together for the successful achievement of the GCM.” – Elana Wong, MYCP
“Instead of moving towards safe, orderly, and regular migration, migration became more turbulent, more irregular, and more dangerous and deadly. We were applauded for being “frontline responders” and “essential workers”, and yet many migrant workers had their labour rights routinely violated […] So we’ve dutifully come here in the hopes of raising our collective voices and proposing better ways forward. And yet even the process of coming here became a monumental task: many of our leaders from the global South could not get visas, […] and local government—key allies in GCM implementation—cannot even be in this room today. Indeed, civic space within these UN walls is shrinking.” – Colin Rajah, Civil Society Action Committee
The IMRF Progress Declaration
The Progress Declaration is the outcome document of the IMRF and was adopted unanimously at the forum’s closing. Given the current political climate, it is in many ways a solid achievement, especially notable for a multilateral agreement on international migration negotiated by almost all member states. Great credit is due to the strong and skilful facilitation by the governments of Bangladesh and Luxembourg, which, with precise listening, connecting, and writing, were instrumental in bringing this process to a successful conclusion. Also indispensable were the support of the UN Network on Migration and the vigorous inputs of civil society and other non-state stakeholders during the negotiation process who provided essential language that made the text stronger, for example on the best interest of the child, anti-discrimination and combatting systemic racism, safe access to services, and migrant participation in policy making.
Nonetheless, the Declaration has rightly been called a somewhat “mixed bag” by many of the IMRF participants in the light of its very positive elements against its clearly disappointing ones, including regressions on some essential GCM commitments and international standards. The following examples are illustrative of the mixed nature of the outcomes.
Progress—or lack of it— in GCM implementation
Much of the Declaration sets out “Progress, challenges and gaps in the implementation of the Global Compact”. Highlights include:
- The Declaration recognises the overwhelming impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the vulnerability of migrants. Indeed, although a number of member states provided access to healthcare, including vaccines, to migrants, and extended their visas to avoid migrants falling into irregular status, the vast majority of migrants have had to cope with huge challenges, including: loss of jobs and income; limited access to basic services, including healthcare; travel restrictions, border closures, and lockdowns; and extended separation from their families. The Declaration calls for greater efforts by member states to develop ambitious national responses for the implementation of the GCM and recognises that actions taken by some member states during the pandemic helped advance the GCM objectives. Indeed, and rather ironically, this may mean that there might not have been much GCM implementation to report had the pandemic not occurred, an assessment that John Bingham also made in his MMC study in 2022. Be that as it may, the Declaration clearly falls short in addressing the urgent need for practices that ensure the social protection of migrants, prevent wage theft, and tackle prolonged separation of families.
- In its review of progress on labour objectives, the Declaration notes that some progress has been achieved on fair recruitment and decent work. However, as the IMRF Round Table discussions on the implementation of the 23 GCM objectives revealed, migrant workers continue having to cope with recruitment fees, wage theft, the high cost of remittances, and the limited portability of social security entitlements.
- Throughout the Declaration, member states reaffirm their concern about the vulnerability of the growing number of migrant children and their commitment to protecting the rights of the child and upholding the best interests of the child. While some member states have taken steps to end child immigration detention, all efforts to include a commitment to end the practice of child detention have been unsuccessful, even though this practice falls below international human rights standards. Also, with some exceptions throughout the negotiations, there has been a failure to recognise the importance of community-based alternatives to immigration detention in the final text.
The Declaration also covers “Recommended actions to accelerate the implementation of the Global Compact and to strengthen international cooperation on international migration”. In this section, states have made over 20 commitments—or more accurately, re-commitments— towards the implementation of the GCM. These recommitments are exceedingly important, since they reaffirm member states’ strong support of the Compact and express their determination to fulfil its objectives and commitments, despite the difficult intervening years of the pandemic and its devastating impact on migrants and migration. Highlights include:
- Member states commit to respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the human rights of all migrants—women, men, and children—regardless of their migration status (§ 55).
- There are numerous commitments to respond to migrants in vulnerable situations, including to protect the lives and human rights of victims of human trafficking (§ 60) as well as of smuggled migrants (§ 61). However, there is no assessment of the effects on the human rights of migrants of the externalisation of borders, or a commitment to end this practice.
- Member states commit to providing all migrants safe access to basic services (again, critically) regardless of their migration status (§ 51).
- Particularly responsive to long efforts on the part of migrants—and civil society on their behalf—is the commitment to promote the participation of migrants in policy development and review all matters that affect them (§§ 51 & 53). Also notable is a recommitment to fostering inclusive societies (§ 53) and a determination to eliminate all forms of discrimination, including xenophobia and systemic racism (§ 54).
- Commitments on labour matters include the promotion of decent work opportunities (§ 66) and the protection from violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, of migrant women workers (§ 63); enhanced cooperation for recovery of earned wages, benefits, and entitlements of returning migrants (§ 66); and redoubled efforts to reduce the cost of migrant remittances (§ 67).
- Perhaps most important as a solution to the many hazards migrants are exposed to, member states commit to enhance the availability of pathways for safe, orderly, regular migration and to strengthen regularisation for migrants in irregular status (a reference which has been highly contested in the 2018 GCM negotiations) (§ 59).
- And finally, the Declaration—surprisingly—includes a new measure: a request to the UN Secretary General to propose to the UN General Assembly a set of indicators to measure GCM implementation (§ 70). This was unexpected because during the GCM negotiations in 2018, the inclusion of any reference to monitoring of progress or reporting was controversial.
What about mixed migration?
A manifest disappointment to anyone engaged in the field of mixed migration is the absence throughout the entire Declaration, despite the commitments to protect migrants in vulnerable situations, of any mention of interaction between the GCM and the GCR. Such interaction is critically important for improving institutional efficiencies and policy coherence, and in providing assistance, protection, and solutions in contexts of human mobility across the board, especially in the context of mixed migration flows where migrants and refugees have common needs that need urgent solutions.
Still, the Declaration includes two new interrelated elements which have the potential to take things forward concretely and with specific relevance to mixed migration:
- A commitment to further develop procedures at borders and in transit that comply with international obligations for search and rescue, assistance, and protection of all migrants, regardless of migration status (§ 65); and
- A request to the president of the UN General Assembly to develop actionable recommendations on strengthening cooperation on missing migrants and providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in distress, with the aim of preventing loss of life in transit (§ 76).
From words to action
An honest assessment of the current treatment of migrants and refugees across the globe, including the rise of pushbacks, migrant deaths at sea and at borders, and the normalisation of extreme violence against people on the move, shows that specific sections of the GCM, such as Objective 8 on “Saving Lives”, have been blatantly breached, and makes one wonder how significant international agreements such as this one really are in providing solutions for the critical protection needs of migrants and refugees.
And although the global outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees showed tremendous solidarity and demonstrated that host countries can accommodate large groups of people on the move, the response has also laid bare the structural racism that supports general ideas of “good” and “bad” migrants.
The question going forward, then, is whether the GCM, the IMRF, and its Declaration can make tangible contributions to changing this reality, and, relatedly, whether the political will exists to hold member states (at least morally) accountable for actions that go directly against the spirit of the GCM.
We see three concrete opportunities going forward:
- The development of a limited set of indicators would encourage more evidence-based reporting on all GCM objectives. These indicators will also be critical to push for more accountability and will help remedy the pick-and-choose approach many member states have taken when reporting on GCM implementation. There exists already a wealth of indicators, and rather than reinventing the wheel, it will be important to connect dots, learn from existing efforts, and build onto what is already available.
- GCM Champion Countries and the Friends of Migration will be critical in setting the tone and bringing the Progress Declaration to life by taking action at national levels and reporting on that action loudly and vocally, e.g., through voluntary national reviews and national action plans. Local governments, civil society, NGOs, and other stakeholders will be critical partners in driving forward innovative solutions as well as in measuring impact at local and regional levels. The UN Network has an opportunity to empower these stakeholders in a meaningful way, learning from the IMRF experience.
- The process to develop procedures at borders and in transit can be an opportunity to work across UN agencies such as IOM and UNHCR as well as to involve other essential stakeholders such as civil society, including migrant-led groups and NGOs, humanitarian organisations such as the International Federation of the Red Cross, and local governments. It will be critical not to make this a UN-only exercise but to develop on-the-ground modalities that save lives. While the biennial timeline of 2024 is quick, the approaching Global Refugee Forum can also be a concrete opportunity to advance this conversation, not least because UNHCR has said it sees the Forum as an opportunity to consider mixed migration and to see how connections with the GCM can be reinforced.
It is our view that the IMRF was an essential step forward in trying to ascertain the extent of GCM implementation over the last four years and its impact on migrants on the ground. It also managed to bring states together to agree on a set of future recommendations—quite an achievement given the challenging multilateral context. While there was some progress in applying solutions on behalf of migrants, including to lessen the heavy, hurtful impact of the pandemic on their lives, what is clear is how much more there remains to be done, and urgently. For impact on the ground, the GCM will have to become a tool for real and multi-stakeholder collaboration and action, offering a credible mechanism for accountability. Its final test will be whether four years from now, in 2026, there will have been substantial, meaningful impact on the lives of migrants and would-be migrants, regardless of status, across the globe.