This blog post summarises points from a workshop entitled “How can the Global Compact for Migration be owned and used?” Hosted by the Refugee Law Initiative, the workshop brought together academic researchers and non-governmental actors to unpack ownership and implementation of the GCM. The summary was written by Kathryn Allinson and Katharine T. Weatherhead, Queen Mary University of London, in order to share knowledge and views on issues which will impact the GCM’s future.
Three years ago this month, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The New York Declaration set in motion the development of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). As a unique, non-legally binding framework for the pursuit of safe, orderly and regular migration, there was a guarded hope in the air that the GCM would usher in new opportunities for cooperation across international, regional, national, and local scales. After wide consultation and intergovernmental negotiation, the GCM was adopted by the General Assembly in December 2018. Somewhat suddenly given that the text had been negotiated without major disruption (after the early drop-out of the US), the lead-up to its adoption was marred by a numerically small but politically significant flurry of governmental positions against the GCM.
Still, the GCM’s purview is not confined to national governments. An understated yet meaningful feature of the GCM is that it assigns a range of stakeholders a role in implementation: migrants, the private sector, civil society, academia, local authorities, the media, and more (para 44). Much existing activity of these implementation partners already speaks to the GCM’s 23 objectives. At the same time, not all implementing partners have a stake in every objective. This raises the question of ownership of the GCM, in terms of how existing stakeholder mandates overlap with, and can therefore serve to animate, the objectives as they unfold in practice. In other words, how can the GCM be owned and used by stakeholders identified as implementation partners?
Such was the question driving a knowledge-sharing workshop hosted by the Refugee Law Initiative in London on 13 September 2019. Organised by researchers at Loughborough University, Queen Mary University of London, and the University of Cambridge, the purpose of the workshop was to bring together a range of actors, namely academics and non-governmental organisations in the UK, to unpack ownership and implementation of the GCM. Serving as a workshop report, the following paragraphs summarise points that came out of the discussion. The report is not an expression of shared views among workshop participants. Instead, it expresses what the authors consider to have been the key discussion points, arranged here under the headings of direction, normalisation, and amplification of the GCM. An underlying idea in terms of ownership is that, not only is the GCM the remit of more than national governments, it is more than just its objectives.
In claiming the GCM as an instrument for promoting ‘safe, orderly and regular’ migration, stakeholders inevitably shape its direction of travel. A question accordingly emerges: in which direction are we, individually and collectively, going to take the GCM? The issue of direction is broader than the prioritisation of certain elements of the GCM. It is about holding the GCM together in order to progress it, even when implementation activities are focused on a specific objective or set of objectives. National governments have target areas for the GCM in line with policy interests. For instance, the UK Government draws attention to controlling borders and differentiating between refugees and migrants. Similarly, the EU focuses on distinguishing between categories of regular and irregular migrant, as well as on States reducing irregular migration and facilitating return. These concerns do not necessarily coincide with situations and interests elsewhere, such as in Africa or the Middle East.
Implementation partners identified in paragraph 44 also have their own areas of interest and expertise, as well as challenges regarding capacity. The GCM provides an opportunity for organisations to identify their priorities within its framework and use the GCM to influence governmental action. However, given the GCM’s length and broad scope, it can be hard to get one’s head around it as a single unit. It is consequently helpful to break it down into its 23 objectives and then elevate a handful of priority areas. At the same time, pulling apart the 23 objectives is a somewhat superficial exercise, given that each of the topics slide into the others. The GCM’s list of 10 guiding principles can be a tool to hold the GCM together and shape its direction (para 15), alert to intersectionality and acknowledging that migrants are more than their status. Furthermore, if stakeholders find that the GCM is inattentive to their main concerns and/or if they are reluctant to engage with objectives which touch upon controversial policies and practices, the guiding principles can be a departure point to ease into sensitive areas and generate a basis for conversation.
Delving into the GCM as a ‘cooperative framework’, how can the notion of cooperation be given meaning? Normalisation is about the incorporation of the GCM into everyday work. The GCM is an instrument which can bring together key actors within an umbrella framework and guide strategic planning. Some of the GCM overlaps with activities underway, and benchmarking could be a promising way to map these overlaps. A public baseline study of the UK’s position against the GCM could allow authorities and other implementation partners to monitor progress and maintain accountability. Indicators – also relevant for the Global Compact on Refugees – could gain traction in this context to incorporate the GCM into operational work and track associated shifts in practice. Taking a lower profile, the inclusion of references to the GCM in reports, initiatives, and even court submissions could also normalise the GCM as a cooperative framework, reciprocally strengthening the legitimacy of the GCM and existing work. Normalisation by non-governmental actors and local authorities gains significance in light of the difficulties international and regional bodies might have in supporting the GCM’s advancement since, as in the EU, some national governments oppose it.
But the GCM is not a standalone initiative. Growing from the New York Declaration, which noticeably pays attention to human rights (e.g. para 5), the GCM sits alongside existing mechanisms for the pursuit of migration which is ‘safe, orderly and regular’. Universal Periodic Review and the architecture around the Sustainable Development Goals are some of the international mechanisms available to feed into, besides national and local mechanisms for law and policy evaluation. Since follow-up and review of the GCM’s implementation is said to be State-led (para 48), other stakeholders will have to grapple with possible options for them to report on implementation, within or parallel to the formal review process. Transparency will be important to ensure that migrants and migrant-led organisations are involved in review.
How can momentum be created and maintained to ensure positive impact for migrants in the future using the GCM? Amplification concerns the need to take the GCM into appropriate arenas so that it is within sight of those who can make use of it. Making sure that relevant stakeholders are aware of what the GCM is and how stakeholders can utilise it to fulfil their own objectives, i.e. communicating the ‘added value’ of the GCM as a workable framework and advocacy tool, will be a challenge to address. In light of anti-GCM online activity by right-wing groups, the role of the media is particularly urgent to consider in spreading awareness of the GCM’s content. Academics have a role here in clarifying and critically scrutinising its content, such as with regard to human rights commitments and implications for multilateralism. Examining its relation to a range of migratory scenarios (including Brexit scenarios) would also help to test and expose its relevance. The practicalities of sharing information about work on the GCM across implementation partners should also be considered to maximise the impact of GCM-related activity and build its profile.
The GCM is not only an international framework for cooperation but, in its own terms, something which engages the ‘whole of society’ (para 15(j)). However, such terminology can be misleading. Not all stakeholders will subscribe to the GCM. Its utility will depend on the circumstances. In order for assessments to be made about its importance and utility, though, the GCM needs to be known. Amplification should seize the opportunities the GCM provides to engage a range of stakeholders in issues around migration. Even though the text has been set, the language and objectives in the GCM can be scrutinised further, not taken as the closure of conversation.
The workshop asked questions about ownership so that this central aspect of the GCM, which is nearing its first anniversary, could be unpacked and understood as implementation gets underway. Though it is not without problems, there are different levels of action in the GCM as well as in stakeholder engagement with it. In this respect, it is important to recall that the GCM is more than just its objectives. It is a resource to bring together a mix of intersecting mandates, to support existing work on safe migration, and to debate the future of migration governance.
We are grateful to senior co-organisers (Dr Christina Oeglemöller, Prof Elspeth Guild, and Dr Tugba Basaran) and participants of the workshop for their input to the event. We hope that the report is a useful reference. Funding for the workshop was provided by Loughborough University.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.