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Global Migration, Global Response

GB Geo-Blog

Global Migration, Global Response

One of the great paradoxes of our globalized times is that, while the movement and migration of peoples is hyper-international and transnational, policy responses continue to be largely national. Contrast this with most other transnational issues – trade, human rights, labour, health, environment, intellectual property, security, development – all of which are formally the shared policy concern of national governments and multilateral institutions. These issues are, in other words, the proper province of global governance.

Migration is, as mentioned, very conspicuous in its absence from this list: national jurisdiction reigns, and the resulting international vacuum serves to only exacerbate the emotions and complexities relating to migratory questions for governments, citizens and migrants alike.

In the early 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, there was no established, regular meeting in the calendar where top national officials and ministers could discuss and act on the main issues of the day with colleagues from around the world. Some two decades later, when human mobility has increased dramatically in all corners of the globe, this remains the case. And there is patently no single overarching multilateral institution responsible for directing the policy and political traffic on this issue in a coordinated and coherent manner.

This does not mean that there is necessarily an appetite for a new, big, global institution. However, the status quo is unsustainable, for global forces cannot be addressed by national policies alone. In short, domestic initiatives must be augmented by a commitment to an international approach – one that includes a concerted gearshift of policy and a decidedly reformed mindset among policy leaders.

The key questions in this gearshift are as follows: Are national responses alone a realistic remedy? How and where can governments and agencies enhance their collaboration and cooperation? What are the elements for a 21st century international framework on migration? And what kind of national flexibilities would this framework retain?

There have been numerous reports and commissions over the years that have urged countries to alter course. These include the Willy Brandt Commission in 1980; the Commission on Global Governance in 1993; the New International Regime for Orderly Movement of People (launched in 1997); the Berne Initiative in 2001; the Commission on Human Security in 2001; the Social Dimension of Globalization in 2004, and the Global Commission on International Migration in 2005, for which the writer was a Commissioner. All of these initiatives made a convincing case for a more cooperative and collaborative global policy approach to the management of international migration. Still, the vacuum continues.

One would have thought that the historical forces that have shaped the order of this early new century would have compelled national governments to change their ways: an ever-shrinking, interconnected world; an integrated economic market that puts a premium on labour mobility; a world community where migrants now arrive from, travel to, or transit through, every single nation; and where man-made crises and nature ensure that human movement – both forced and voluntary, within and across national borders – is a constant beat.

As international migration intensifies, citizens the world over will demand that their governments ‘get it right.’ If they are to rise to the occasion, leaders must recognize that they can talk neither about the forces of international trade, nor about the challenges of world hunger, disease and terrorism, nor about the dangers posed by climate change, nor indeed about global migration and development – and then proceed simply to deal with them in an isolated fashion. The imperative to connect the many dots and to adopt a strategic plan has become painfully obvious. The very recent creation of the G20 perhaps best captures the paradigm shift that needs to take place in international political governance.

While national governments jealously guard their sovereignty, realities on the ground ought to be assessed plainly and dispassionately. Establishing an international framework is not principally about governments losing authority. Indeed, in an era of accelerating globalization, employers, smugglers, migrant networks, agents and individual migrants themselves, have already taken things into their own hands, regardless of formal regulations governing admission into countries. While governments may have won a number of battles against unauthorized migration, what of the larger, ongoing ‘war’ for better control of who enters, leaves, transits and remains in their respective territories? After all, how did some 12 million undocumented individuals enter the US in the first place? And despite increasingly conservative measures, why does this movement continue?

Managing migration internationally is manifestly about countries reclaiming sovereignty and control, and exercising it collectively – to the advantage of both states and migrants alike. Building new governance measures is not the challenge or obligation of only certain governments or, for that matter, of only the well-to-do nations. For these measures to succeed, the approach must be hyper-inclusive; that is, all nations ought to sign up. In short, the new face of human mobility provides all countries with a vested interest – indeed, an obligation – to develop a joint international response.

Adopting and implementing a global regime would not only enhance the governance of migration, but would also make for a more constructive brand of domestic migration politics in countless countries. For when national measures fall short in confronting an international force like migration, most citizens feel overwhelmed and, unsurprisingly, react with frustration and anger. In other words, a new national law or regulation is no guarantee that the next boat of ‘illegal’ migrants will be prevented from arriving on one’s shores. In the important game of public expectations – which is central to any political success – policy failures undermine popular confidence in the ‘system.’ This is bad news for local politicians, since the targets of citizens’ anxieties are extremely local in character.

Evidently, there are no global guarantees, either. Yet, in addressing the legitimate public demands for a more effective management of migration pressures, would it not be better for national governments and parliaments to state that they are not fighting and standing alone; that all countries are cooperating with one another; that their responses are part of a coordinated international strategy; and that, as a result, their actions stand a greater chance of success?

Clearly, politicians need to move with the times. There is also an onus to have them govern for the times. The task is not one that should be underestimated. It represents a formidable challenge; one that therefore requires prudent and sustained stewardship. Only incremental, evolving building blocks will pave the path for achieving common ground and global success.

Migration still remains largely an opportunity – both for migrants and for nations. But as a deeply emotional reality, it is also packs fears and contradictory, often irrational perceptions that operate on people of all backgrounds, from all lands. For these reasons, and given these complexities, by working in concert, governments can avoid the manifest shortcomings of going-it-alone.


Sergio Marchi is a Senior Fellow with the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva. He formerly served as Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration; Canadian Ambassador to the UN and WTO in Geneva; and as Commissioner on the UN Global Commission on International Migration.


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