Working Together to Address the Migration Policy Crisis: An Update on International Cooperation

June 12, 2017

You wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but the world is working to improve the global migration system. It began last fall at the most important international meeting on migration since the 1950s. That High Level Meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants at the UN General Assembly kicked off the creation of a Global Compact for Migration (GCM) for ratification in 2018. I saw this work up close at the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) preparatory meetings in Geneva earlier this spring.

Here’s where that process stands. There are a few signals that the GCM process could yield concrete, binding recommendations to help countries shape migration in mutually beneficial ways—especially in the face of rising nationalism worldwide.

Three signs of progress:

  1. A roadmap to reform. Before the end of his tenure, the former UN special representative for migration Peter Sutherland (and an all-star team) authored a series of recommendations on improving international migration governance. This “Sutherland report” is the best set of fact-based, tangible recommendations out there—and has been central to the GCM debate. It rests on the reality of the nonlinear relationship between development and migration; it proposes an international forum to negotiate labor migration agreements (as set out by our colleagues Lant Pritchett and Rebekah Smith); and it recommends expanding legal migration pathways under existing law (details on one such program here). Even floating such ideas in an international forum of this kind represents major progress in the migration debate.
  2. An inclusive process. In contrast to the parallel Refugee Compact, which will be largely developed within UNHCR, the GCM process has sought broad input from many relevant actors. These include the newly founded business mechanism of the Global Forum on Migration and Development and a research leaders syndicate (including CGD migration expert Michael Clemens). Though we want to avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen, the openness to such a diverse coalition is a positive sign that the process will be both more evidence-based and reflective of the many different incentives involved (including those of developing countries, often sidelined in such debates).
  3. Speed. Last month, the UN agreed to a ‘modalities agreement’ establishing the roadmap for the entire GCM process, led by the governments of Switzerland and Mexico. A new special representative for migration, Louise Arbour, has been named to build on Peter Sutherland’s foundational work. In addition, the International Organization for Migration has taken on a strong leadership role in the process, perhaps unexpected when it became an official UN affiliate last year.

Three signs of challenges ahead:

  1. A broad mandate. Some states may prefer that the Compact’s mandate of “safe, orderly, and regular migration” come to mean little or no migration—which would completely defeat the entire purpose of the compact. As Lant Pritchett has warned, this outcome would also be “completely exclusive and completely discriminatory based on national origin.”
  2. Potential to reinforce the status quo. The GCM may simply restate existing international migration conventions—neither pushing for progress nor improving compliance (as many perceived in last year’s New York Declaration). The balance between concrete and binding recommendations is hard to strike—yet necessary for the Compact to have any effect.
  3. Kicking the can down the road? The broad acknowledgment that the GCM is just the beginning of migration governance reform over the next 15-20 years could be positive if it encourages persistent improvement. However, an extended timeline is not an excuse for current inaction. A potential Compact should hold states accountable now, while allowing for (and encouraging) continued progress over the years to come.

What’s next:

  1. The Global Forum on Migration and Development (June 2017, Berlin). The GFMD has existed for years but has recently taken on a more prominent role as the sounding board for proposed GCM content. One full roundtable discussion will be dedicated to Michael Clemens’ proposed Global Skills Partnerships—indicating potential willingness to think outside the box. The Canadian government recommended building pilot Global Skills Partnerships into the GCM at a meeting in New York last month.
  2. Stock-taking meeting (December 2017, Guadalajara). Convened to summarize the results of six thematic roundtables and five regional consultations conducted over the course of the year. The evidence and perspectives offered by different stakeholders will be consolidated around the 24 content foci established in the New York Declaration to inform the meat of the Compact.
  3. Draft report released for negotiations (February 2018). Countries will debate Compact content in several intergovernmental meetings in early 2018.
  4. Likely Compact ratification (September 2018, New York). The final GCM will most likely launch at the UN General Assembly in September, though an individual country could potentially host the release at a later date.

Unequal economic development and demographic change across the world guarantee that migration pressures will continue to rise over the next 30 years. There is little guarantee that countries will work together to shape that migration for maximum mutual benefit. But if they choose, the window of opportunity is currently open.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.