Analysis | To better manage international migration, states need to acknowledge the role of informal actors

Natalia Lopez

(Image: Mika Baumeister on Unsplash)

The U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs reports that nearly 281 million people migrated in 2020, making cross-border movement increasingly relevant to diplomacy. Defined generally as a state’s use of diplomatic tools and policies to manage cross-border population movement, migration diplomacy is a new and growing strand of diplomacy, and its study is a newly evolving field, one that aims to continually define the theoretical frameworks that explain how and why a state engages in it. Most of the established definitions and frameworks of migration diplomacy focus on broader and more formal intergovernmental levels of analysis. However, as with other realms of diplomacy, interstate relations can also be shaped by more informal interactions, most notably with the engagement of non-state and non-governmental actors. To comprehensively manage the rise in global migration, the international community needs new definitions of migration diplomacy that acknowledge the unique perspectives of informal diplomatic actors in the policy-making process.

Scholars define informal diplomacy, or Track 2 diplomacy, as “unofficial dialogues . . . focused on co-operative efforts to explore new ways to resolve differences over, or discuss new approaches to, policy-relevant issues.” In contrast to Track 1 or “formal diplomacy,” Track 2 diplomacy encompasses informal diplomatic interactions between actors that are not actively a part of official diplomatic institutions but do have connections to the actors involved in the formal policy-making process. Informal diplomacy also encompasses Track 1.5 diplomacy, or interactions between both formal and informal diplomatic actors.

This definition centers states as the main actors and their interests as the main drivers of diplomatic relations involving migration. However, several scholars, including Helene Thiollet and Ilan Kelman, have called attention to the involvement of actors outside the state apparatus, including labor firms and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In new research published by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD), I explain how informal diplomacy — or the use of informal diplomatic tools, processes, and procedures by informal actors to further policies managing migration within the state in line with the actors’ own interests — shapes how a state manages migration flows.

Using case studies of migration networks across the United States and Mexico as well as Turkey and Germany, I argue that three main types of actors generally emerge as leaders in the sphere of informal migration diplomacy: non-governmental organizations, think tanks and academic institutions, and labor organizations. These actors offer unique insights into the efficacy of migration policies, including, for example, the realities of their on-the-ground implementation as well as their reception by local stakeholders. It is therefore essential that these actors are acknowledged and included in the formal policy-making process so that states create comprehensive and effective migration policies.

Migration networks across the United States and Mexico, as well as Turkey and Germany, are useful case studies because there is considerable information available about their formal and informal diplomatic processes. These countries also have similar diplomatic approaches to managing migration, as well as similar historical periods of migratory movements, including prominent phases of large labor and refugee migration between the countries.

Think tanks drive the conversation between the United States and Mexico

Between the United States and Mexico, think tanks and academic institutions operate as the main actors in the informal diplomatic arena. They create spaces where informal and formal actors can discuss migration policy and create possible solutions. One such example includes the U.S.-Mexico Binational Council. Established in the early 2000s, this group met several times to discuss relevant policy issues, such as migration, that concern both the United States and Mexico. In an example of track 1.5 diplomacy, both informal and formal diplomatic actors discussed and produced policy recommendations, and then presented them to both countries’ national executives and the U.S.-Mexico Interparliamentary Group.

NGOs from both countries have also formed broad multilateral coalitions that inform formal migration policymaking. For example, Sin Fronteras, one of the leading migration NGOs in Mexico, convened many regional organizations, including those from the United States, to make policy recommendations for the international protection and integration of refugees and asylum seekers. These included recommendations to expand services specifically focused on the integration of migrant children as well as programmatic funding for migrant mental health services. Even though their importance has diminished, labor organizations still advocate for migration policies that protect workers’ rights. For example, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of unions in the United States, has worked with U.S. and Mexican NGOs to publish research about labor migration reform in both countries and organize in-person Congressional lobbying groups.

The importance of diaspora groups in Turkey-Germany migration policy

Migration policies between Turkey and Germany have shifted significantly from their early stages when they focused solely on temporary labor migration from Turkey to Germany. Today, migration policy has pivoted to a focus on skilled labor migration between both countries and integration aid for the Turkish diaspora population abroad. Both think tanks and NGOs actively promote diasporic and integration policies. For example, some Turkish NGOs, such as Refugee Rights Turkey, actively participate in Track 2 diplomacy and collaborate with German NGOs and think tanks to publish research about the Turkish diaspora in Germany. The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), a think tank based in Ankara, has also similarly established several projects that bring together German and non-German academics and professionals to discuss diaspora policies and publish research about these policies.

Meanwhile, labor organizations advocate for policies that facilitate easier labor migration pathways for transnational workers. The Berlin Brandenburg Society of Turkish-German Businessmen advocates for the economic integration of Turkish migrants within Germany. In an example of Track 1.5 diplomacy, this organization represents Turkish interests in many state-sponsored forums and meetings and also participates directly in regional economic bodies, including the Alliance for Economy and Employment in Berlin.

Expanding the role of informal actors

While this study has found that informal actors do have a level of influence on the creation of more effective migration policies, it is entirely contingent on their inclusion within the formal policy-making process. Currently, formal policies related to migration between both sets of countries are highly focused on labor movements as well as policies that aim to maximize secure migration. Effective migration policies in response to current global trends, however, require a more comprehensive focus on human rights, integration programming, and individualized policies for certain migrant communities, including women and children.

Including informal diplomatic actors in the formal policy-making process is essential in bringing the needed research, perspectives, and on-the-ground experiences to create these more comprehensive migration policies. States need to acknowledge and better engage with informal migration diplomacy to create migration policies that are grounded in the evidence produced by all stakeholders in both migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries.

Natalia Lopez is a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she majored in International Politics and conducted research as an ISD Student Fellow. She currently works as a research associate at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration.

Read more from The Diplomatic Pouch on migration in Europe and the Americas:

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

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Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges