The United Nations (UN) High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (HLD), convened on October 3 and 4 as a special session of the UN General Assembly, marked only the second time in history that the UN has dedicated a major meeting solely to international migration. While hopes were high for the HLD, expectations were low. Until 2006, when the first HLD took place, migration had always been a contentious subject in the UN context — pitting the global North against the global South and receiving countries versus origin countries.
There was reason to fear that the second HLD might revert to earlier patterns, as several controversies arose during preparations and bureaucratic rivalries roiled the program at the last minute. But in the end, participating states expressed a high degree of consensus on a number of issues, such as establishing international standards for recruitment practices and developing procedures for assisting and protecting migrants caught up in natural disasters or armed conflict. In addition, HLD participants adopted a declaration by consensus as the "outcome document" of the gathering — a goal that had eluded its proponents at the first HLD. The joint declaration called for more systematic and responsible action in origin, destination, and transit countries to create a safer and more transparent framework for international migration and mobility that would safeguard migrants' human rights. The real significance of the declaration, however, lay less in what it said than in the fact that states with divergent interests were able to agree on a negotiated text that all could accept.
There were also some signs of evolution in the institutional framework for multilateral cooperation on international migration. Although no binding decisions were made, it nonetheless seemed plausible that the HLD might lead to new kinds of collaboration on international migration.
The UN continues to face major obstacles in establishing itself as relevant to the governance of international migration policy within an international political system driven by individual states' interests. However, the UN does provide a venue for governments to state their priorities and identify others that share them. It is also a good place to articulate principles, such as — in the words of the President of the General Assembly, Ambassador John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda during his HLD opening address — the joint responsibility of both countries of origin and destination to manage migration in an equitable manner; respect for human dignity and the rule of law; and the transformative power of human ingenuity, initiative, and perseverance. Indeed, these notions took on new urgency coming hours after word of a tragic shipwreck off Lampedusa that claimed the lives of hundreds of migrants from Eritrea and Somalia.
Ambassador Ashe's statement set an appropriately lofty framework for the discussion to follow, but the HLD did not stop there. It provided a public platform for assessing the institutional evolution that has occurred in the last ten years, and crystallized some themes for pragmatic international cooperation. These elements of consensus are likely to be put into practice in the next few years.
This article examines the implications and outcomes of the HLD, identifies some of the issues that garnered widespread support, and assesses whether the international community is inching toward greater multilateral engagement on migration.
Breaking with the Past
The 2013 High-Level Dialogue stood apart from previous UN discussions on migration in several ways. First, a spirit of pragmatism prevailed. States used their speaking slots to share their experiences, describe policy approaches they had found to be effective in addressing migration challenges, and to draw attention to issues they felt deserved priority. For example, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström recalled a time in her native Sweden when the government was faced with a serious shortage of medical personnel in the western region of the country. As they contemplated trying to recruit health care personnel from abroad, someone discovered that 978 medically qualified immigrants were working in low-skilled positions in Sweden; most required only about a year of re-training to get back to medical work and help resolve the shortage.
Amid the repetitive platitudes around making migration a choice not a necessity and the oft-repeated calls for respects for migrants' rights and attention to the most vulnerable, several practical issues emerged as ripe for action — such as easier transfer of professional qualifications as suggested by Malmström's story. On other issues as well, groups of states with an interest in the topic declared their intention to work together to produce results. The United States and the Philippines, for example, agreed to lead an initiative to develop a better system for assisting and protecting migrants who get caught up in natural disasters (such as the 2012 floods in Thailand) or man-made crises (such as the civil war in Libya in 2011). Several governments expressed support for the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) work to establish a voluntary set of ground-rules for international recruitment, known as IRIS (the International Recruitment Integrity System). IRIS aims to reduce migrant workers' vulnerability to exploitation and sub-par labor practices by bringing together international recruiters and employers to agree upon basic recruitment and selection standards.
As Sir Peter Sutherland, UN Secretary-General's Special Representative (SRSG) for Migration and Development, wrote shortly before the HLD, it is not necessary to address the grand sweep of migration and development all at once; there is merit in focusing on the issues where consensus is strongest and there is a possibility of accomplishing something. Doing so builds trust among the participants in the endeavor and creates habits of cooperation. This seemed to be the guiding spirit of the 2013 HLD.
Among the issues that attracted interest in practical collaboration were:
Time-tested subjects for cooperation, such as reducing remittance costs and improving anti-trafficking efforts, were also endorsed. However, a strong consensus did not produce a sense of momentum on some of the newer issues. Migration specialists were more in evidence than development specialists among the delegates, so many of the HLD delegates were not well positioned to make decisions on development policies within their own governments.
In another break from past practices, members of civil society were given an unusually large number of opportunities to speak at the HLD. Migrant advocates, diaspora representatives, trade unionists, and private-sector actors voiced their concerns about protection of migrants' rights, recognition of migration in the UN's post-2015 development agenda, the need to address the needs of migrant children, and other priorities.
Finally, signs of a possible evolution in multilateral engagement on migration issues — including wide recognition of a variety of global actors in the governance of international migration policy — were apparent as the second HLD came to a close.
Inching toward More Multilateral Cooperation on Migration?
The first High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, in 2006, can be said to have opened a new chapter in international cooperation on migration issues. Two accomplishments were notable: first, simply that the meeting was held in a constructive atmosphere, marked by the absence of the rancor that characterized previous UN debates on the subject; second, that participating states decided to establish a forum to continue the discussion — but outside the UN system.
Global Forum on Migration and Development
The institutional evolution of multilateral engagement with migration was very much in evidence at the second HLD, focused in four areas.
1) The role of the annual Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in building trust among states was widely acknowledged, from Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's opening speech and the consensus declaration, to the plenary sessions and roundtables (see Text Box). Discordant views were rare, and came mostly from a few civil-society participants who felt that the GFMD was insufficiently focused on normative issues and protection of human rights. Most voices called upon the UN to cooperate with the GFMD and strengthen ties with it.
2) Sir Peter Sutherland received wide recognition for having articulated the case for broadened international cooperation on migration and having pressed governments, international institutions, and civil society into working together constructively. He has also provided connection and continuity among important actors between meetings, and promoted innovative ways of working and new initiatives, from the creation of the GFMD to the "migrants in crisis" initiative, to an informal working group devising migration inputs to the post-2015 development agenda.
3) Despite its position outside the UN system, IOM was broadly acknowledged as the "lead agency for international migration." At least five countries, including major donors, publicly endorsed the idea that IOM should be the permanent co-chair of the Global Migration Group (GMG, an interagency group which brings together IOM and 15 UN agencies that deal with migration in some part of their work). (See "Suddenly, Migration Was Everywhere": The Conception and Future Prospects of the Global Migration Group.) This represents a major shift from 2006, and shows both how IOM has improved its performance and reach (it now has 151 member states and over 450 field offices) and how the GMG as a collective body has disappointed. IOM's position outside the UN creates obstacles to its work, not least being the lack of cooperation, and sometimes active opposition, from some UN bodies. In the context of the HLD, a last-minute decision to change the agenda to reduce IOM's prominence backfired badly, instigating rather a show of support for IOM and marginalizing the organizers of the change. But IOM's relation with the other GMG members and the UN system in general remains an unresolved agenda item for the international community.
4) Civil society, which during the first HLD and the first several years of the GFMD cast itself in opposition to governments, operated in a collaborative mode in the run-up to the second HLD, and was treated as a respected and valued partner. It presented a progressive but pragmatic five-year, eight-point plan for cooperation with governments that was received respectfully by the participating states.
States Recognize Common Migration Challenges — and What the UN Has to Offer to Them
If multilateral governance of international migration is evolving, it is not based on demands from constituents or dictates from international institutions, but from states' realization that they are facing a common set of problems. Prominent among them: combating human trafficking and criminal smuggling (like the practices implicated in the latest migrant drownings off the coast of Lampedusa just as the HLD was getting underway); reducing the exploitation of migrant workers that threatened to wreck their own labor standards; reconciling the need to manage their borders with their humanitarian obligations; and more. None of these issues can be effectively addressed unilaterally.
Some elements of civil society and even some parts of the UN system still dream of a binding legal regime that will compel states to handle migration according to an ambitious definition of international norms. They condemn the pragmatism of the GFMD, the IOM, and the Secretary General's Special Representative for Migration and Development as embodying an instrumental view of migration, in which migrants are merely cogs in the wheels of economic development. Yet, what was particularly striking at the 2013 dialogue was how rarely these views were expressed, and how little resonance they had.
So what can the UN offer to states facing these and other dilemmas? It — especially the General Assembly — is often accused of being no more than a talking shop. But talk matters. And declarations emanating from a UN meeting still carry, for most countries and their publics, a global legitimacy that is hard to match.
However, care must be taken to balance the roles and engagements of the various actors in managing international migration. The UN specialized agencies should continue to include migrants and migration in their programs of actions — the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) attending to the needs of migrants children; the World Health Organization (WHO) working to improve the health of migrants and assess the impact of migration on health care provision; the International Labor Organization (ILO) setting standards for the treatment of migrant workers and defending their rights, and so forth. The World Bank is taking the lead on lowering remittance costs and solidifying the evidence base on the impact of migration on development. IOM, active across a broad range of issues such as linking diaspora populations to development efforts and creating guidelines for international recruitment of migrant workers, is increasingly making the idea of creating a "World Migration Organization" in the UN (or anywhere else) sound redundant.
The GFMD, linked to the UN by the Secretary General's Special Representative on Migration and Development, is the platform that states are using to organize themselves for action on specific issues, and it seems to suit them. The UN should not try to compete with it by holding an HLD on migration too often. But as a vehicle for assessment and course correction every seven years or so, the UN seems to have found in the HLD a new way to be relevant to global migration.