As governments seek to address challenges and seize opportunities connected to trans-border mobility, policy debates have identified migration partnerships as integral to achieving progress. The concept has indeed evolved from a mere buzzword to a comprehensive instrument of international migration governance based on widely accepted tenets and numerous concrete tools. The principles are clear: Migration partnerships need to (1) build upon mutual trust and joint objectives, (2) guarantee a fair distribution of rights and obligations and (3) ensure that the costs and benefits are absorbed equally by all parties. Partnership, moreover, must be practised at all levels of migration governance, entailing joint agenda setting, political and technical cooperation and shared operational delivery.
The refugee crisis of 2015 revealed fundamental weaknesses in the European and international protection and migration management systems. It also confirmed that no state or region can go it alone in addressing migration challenges. The migration partnership principle was, consequently, reinforced through multiple existing formats and frameworks and newly developed instruments. Examples include, among others, the Valletta Process, EU Action Plan, EU-Turkey statement, EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward declaration, AU-EU-UN Tripartite Taskforce on the Situation in Libya and the recent Renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood. These arrangements stand out in transcending regional borders, integrating economic and development components and broadly expanding the scope of migration cooperation. The shared experiences, importantly, have also fostered greater mutual understanding concerning the priorities and constraints of different partners, nurtured best practices and seen the migration toolbox enlarged with tried and tested tools (and primed it for even more instruments to come).
The migration agreements, in this way, provide the necessary foundation to further enhance partnerships today. That said, the shape that dialogue will take remains unclear. Partners, namely, may elect to pursue consensus-oriented approaches where participants deliberately shift away from their initial positions with the aim of identifying areas that command unanimous support. But they could alternatively seek to promote compromise-based models that steer partners to find middle ground and make concessions to get there, even if that means one party must sacrifice its immediate interests.
The very notion of migration partnership further presupposes a certain shared understanding about the issues that should be prioritized and the “right” way to confront the central questions raised by international migration and global displacement. But this consensus rarely exists in practice – reality is more nuanced. While most governments, for example, can agree that irregular migration needs to be addressed, they may disagree on the optimal way to do so. Migrants deemed irregular by one country are also, notably, the citizens of another (1) whose governments may insist that their rights and well-being be protected and (2) whose remittances contribute substantially to household incomes and economic development back home. There is, moreover, wide agreement among nearly all countries that refugees deserve guaranteed access to international protection, a principle enshrined in numerous national, regional and global legislative acts. But no real consensus governs who should provide protection and what international mechanisms on solidarity and responsibility should look like. And though many countries have committed to strengthening channels for legal and labour migration, some, facing domestic populations sceptical of migration, have hesitated to put this principle into practice.
There are, principally, two ways to bridge this divide. One option would see consensus emphasised and migration partnerships further formalised through their integration into new and binding institutions at the international level. The Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees, prepared under the auspices of the UN and adopted in 2018, could provide a template for this strategy. Experience, however, has revealed that, despite their non-binding nature, numerous governments deemed the instruments too far-reaching and refrained from embracing them. A second path forward, meanwhile, would centre attention towards compromise, pragmatic cooperation and problem solving and the continued deepening of partnerships through a regional and sectoral policy approach. This second option promises more rapid gains but could also mean that states shy away from answering major questions pertaining to displacement, global inequities and international solidarity in a formally binding way.
These different routes could leave much needed progress on global migration governance dependent on either top-down idealism that comes too early or bottom-up compromise that arrives too little and too late. A third way, though, is a “bottom-up plus” approach that would aim to gradually improve the performance of migration partnership initiatives, enhance mutual trust among participating states and garner broader public acceptance for more ambitious forms of cooperation. The “plus” component, for its part, would provide an additional avenue to transition from functional practical cooperation to more enduring and formal structures. Discussions to this effect would be triggered when certain milestones are reached based on thresholds related to the performance, depth and acceptance of partnership initiatives. Good practices and lessons learned from the implementation of talent and skills partnerships, for instance, could be adopted by national and international labour migration regimes. Similar examples can be found in numerous other migration policy areas, ranging from cooperation on sustainable reintegration to joint control operations to the involvement of the private sector in migration and development initiatives.
Expectations, overall, will need to remain realistic – prospects for formalising global migration governance will be constrained by the different experiences, diverging views and domestic policy pressures in various regions. International cooperation on migration, nonetheless, has reached a mature enough point to discuss taking migration partnerships to the next level, recognizing the fact that additional structures might be needed to optimally put this cooperation in place.