Global migration: the politics behind the deal.

Marta Foresti
Feb 20, 2018 · 4 min read

Today, states will meet at the UN in New York to begin the political negotiations to agree the ‘Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration’, a non-binding global ‘deal’ to cooperate internationally on migration management. The attention thus far has been on the text of the so called’ zero draft’: however, it is the political action and cooperation over the next six months of negotiations that will deliver results.

The political climate is not easy — the US have withdrawn even before the negotiations started, with Hungary threatening to follow suit. In many countries public perceptions are being driven by the desire of politicians to secure quick wins amongst increasingly sceptical populations. Yet this does not imply that it is game over on this global deal: countries of the world do have very different positions, interests, experiences and priorities when it comes to migration. However, one thing that continues to unite them is a dependence on one another and a need for some degree of cooperation to manage migration across borders. So the stakes in these negotiations are high and the odds still uncertain.

The power dynamics behind these negotiations are also far from settled — and at times not obvious, particularly for observers following the negotiations from the US or Europe where the public debate on migration is dictated by short sighted and highly emotive electoral dynamics. While it could be tempting to look at the negotiations as a fight between origin and destination — or poor and rich — countries, this would be a mistake as the real political battlefield is a lot more complex. In particular, ‘rich destination’ countries in the ‘west’ need the cooperation of some key ‘transit countries’ such as Kenya, Turkey, Jordan, Mexico or Ethiopia to continue hosting large migrant and refugee populations: these countries in turn will need very good reasons and incentives to continue to do so. The fact that these are also fast-growing economies, with rising middle classes placing demands on their government to facilitate trade and human mobility will give them power in the negotiations. For example, visa free travel for Turkish citizens inside the EU/Schengen area was critical to the deal agreed by Turkey and the EU in 2016 in the aftermath of the Syrian refugees ‘crisis’.

Even in Europe things are not as clear cut as they seem. Voters in many countries are certainly concerned about rising (irregular) immigration and specifically about uncontrolled influx of low skilled migrants ‘stealing’ local jobs and putting pressure on basic services such as health and education. Yet in some of these countries — like Italy for example- the demographic trends imply that they very much need migrants to help run these social/basic services and pay much needed taxes to sustain the welfare state. In the UK , the National Health Service (NHS) relies on migrant workers at all levels to function, and with Brexit looming it will be necessary to facilitate migration from a range of different countries to replace European nurses and doctors.

A cornerstone of these negotiations are return and repatriation policies that several ‘destination’ countries want to see strengthened to deter irregular migration and facilitate temporary arrangements, such as time limited work visas. Yet in practice the ability of these countries to monitor and better manage migration- including returns- is undermined by the increasingly restrictive migration policies that voters like but ultimately reduce legal avenues to temporary/circular migration: think for example of students overstaying their visas in the UK in the absence of alternative/temporary pathways.

Choices will need to be made over specific policies. One of them is development cooperation: in some ‘donor’ countries aid is increasingly being justified as an effective way to address the root causes of migration and displacement and as a strategy to deter irregular migration. Yet the evidence shows that this will not work, especially in low income countries, where economic and social development goes had in hand with increased migration rates, as a result of people having the financial means, information and networks to be able to migrate and seek better opportunities away from their home. In practice this means that aid cannot and should not be used as a bargaining chip in these negotiations, much as it will be tempting to allure voters back home.

This all means that who stands to win or lose from these negotiations is still very much uncertain- so the time is right to put forward bets on what deals and bargains it would be good to see emerge.

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Marta Foresti

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Works at @odidev: migration, political economy, development

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