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"Regional and Global Migration Governance" by Lukas Gehrke and Martijn Pluim

17 May 2019

2018 was meant to mark a major achievement and way station towards the creation of a global policy framework for migration. With the adoption at the United Nations level of two Global Compacts - one on Refugees and another one for Migration - a two-year process of intense global negotiations on the respective global frameworks was coming to an end. The agenda for the processes leading to the two Global Compacts was set down in the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Back then, because of an unfolding refugee and migration crisis in the Middle East and in Europe and the apparent inability of individual governments to agree on how to respond to it, the international community was consensual in entrusting the UN with the fulfillment of decades old visions of a global migration regime. Over the course of the subsequent two years, however, something changed.

The ongoing migration crisis in the region started to have its impact on the political discourse, especially in the US and in Europe but also in other regions. Public and political debates became increasingly polarised in a number of countries. Anti-immigrant and anti-migration positions competed with more liberal views on how to best frame global migration. Early signs of fundamental disagreement emerged when the US administration announced its withdrawal from the negotiation process. While there were some signs of a growing polarisation also at the level of the UN General Assembly, negotiations progressed steadily even if not uncontested or unchallenged in some core respects. When the negotiation process was completed in July 2018, only few would have anticipated the public and political reaction in several countries. The growing unease and concerns of certain parts of societies especially in receiving countries and regions, about the ability of leaders to effectively regulate and, to some extent, control international migration were not met with sufficient information about the aims and objectives of the Global Compact. More so, the fact that both Global Compacts would not produce (additional) legal obligations on States to accept more migrants or refugees was neither sufficiently nor proactively communicated to the public. Under these circumstances, the public debate in many countries especially in Europe became fairly uninformed, heated and divisive.

The broad range of political, legal and policy arguments caught the public rather unprepared, clouded the discussions and created pressures for decision makers. Moreover, it obscured and obstructed a more nuanced technical assessment of the negotiation processes, its resulting compromises, and the strengths and weaknesses of the policy proposals with regard to real life challenges. As a global framework for international migration has never been negotiated at the UN level before, a more robust plan for the negotiations and the adoption of the Compacts could have proved more supportive of  a global-level migration governance framework, at least from a European perspective. More specifically the stress levels of concerned societies and communities and the political playing field could have been taken into consideration during the negotiations.

On 19 December 2018, the UN General Assembly endorsed the Global Compact for Migration with a rather significant majority: 152 votes in favour and five against the agreement, 12 abstentions 24 States absent. Still, one out of five UN Member States did not support the first-ever global framework agreement on migration.

At the European level, where one third of the EU Member States did not join the Global Compact for Migration, the situation is more complicated reminding that the division and disagreement over migration policy objectives on the regional level go deeper. Against this background, the contribution of the Global Compact on Migration towards better policy outcomes in the short-run will be difficult to assess. In a longer-term perspective, it will be decisive how the Global Compact  will be able to deliver on its objectives to create ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’ and on how the UN structures will define and arrange their relations with the countries that did not endorse it. This will require continuous engagement and dialogue.

Regional Dialogues

In times like ours, multilateral Dialogues on any topic, and especially on migration which has the potential to create strong tensions not only within a society but also and especially among the States concerned, are a sign of strength.  As long as States find the willingness and the strength to share their ideas, their visions but also their disagreements and seemingly opposing objectives or opinions they can try to find understandings on a way to move forward both at strategic and operational level. As one of the essential tools for improving migration governance, dialogues build networks, insights and trust. These essential ingredients for successful operational cooperation develop as a result of getting to know and listening to each other.

One place where dialogue among all states continues notwithstanding their position regarding the Global Compact is within the various regional fora established to discuss migration at regional and interregional levels. As secretariat, ICMPD supports a number of these migration dialogues, namely the Prague, the Khartoum, the Rabat and the Budapest Processes.  These regional dialogues also played an important role in the preparation for the Global Compact Many of the proposed global actions were already part of political declarations adopted at the regional level. As such, the political declaration were preparing the grounds for a global system that started regionally. 

At the same time, the preparation for and adoption of the Global Compact also affected the regional dialogues. Both the Rabat and Budapest processes prepared and/or held ministerial level meetings in 2018. Whilst all participating States maintained their strong interest in continuing their participation in the dialogues, the Global Compact led to intense debates, or indeed to abstentions regarding the adoption of ministerial declarations.

Together with concrete projects, bilateral initiatives and formal negotiations, structured but informal dialogues have become essential elements of international cooperation on migration, especially between different geographical regions connected by the movement of people. How does the situation look like in these regions? Below, light will be shed on the 2018 developments in both Europe and Africa.

Developments in Europe in 2018

At the European level, in addition to the disagreement on the Global Compact on Migration, the deadlock over central aspects of the migration policy framework was not dissolved, and positions remained entrenched. As a result, the EU and its Member States remain vulnerable to and are most likely still unprepared for another refugee and migration crisis. Collective efforts aimed at reducing irregular migration flows in the neighbourhood have resulted in a reduced numbers of new arrivals. This has led some to conclude that the migration crisis was finally over. Whilst it is important to de-escalate the rhetoric, the consequences of the crisis of 2015-2016 will continue to be felt. Challenges  regarding both integration and return/reintegration remain significant, secondary movements within the EU are on the rise, and the situation on the Greek islands are below acceptable European standards. Moreover, many of the underlying reasons and dynamics that shaped the crisis remain largely unaltered. Forecasts and longer-term scenarios, furthermore, underline the urgency for action on all levels to address effectively the drivers and causes of irregular migration and forced displacement as well as to adopt functioning migration policy frameworks. At the end of 2018, the EU remains ill prepared for the challenges to come.

Even though most migrants arrive in Europe through labour and family related processes, the European migration debate is dominated primarily by irregular migration and asylum. Consequently, indicators relating to these two aspects deserve special examination. In the course of 2018, the situation regarding irregular arrivals and asylum applications has eased up gradually. This has been recognised in the political as well as in the public debate. Reference is often made to a substantial reduction in irregular arrivals to the EU. It reached its lowest level since five years. Although this viewpoint is not incorrect, it requires a closer analysis. A total of 150,000 illegal border crossings were registered in 2018. This number in fact represented a pre-crisis level of 2013 and amounted to only about one twelfth of the figure recorded for 2015 (1.82 million). The main routes shifted last year from the Libya – Italy route in the central Mediterranean (a reduction of 80% compared to 2017) to the Morocco – Spain route in the western Mediterranean (an increase of 100% compared to 2017). However, the figures for asylum applications suggest that the Mediterranean routes may not be the only way of getting to Europe. The number of asylum applications fell again in 2018 but not as sharply as the number of identified irregular border crossings, suggesting not only that other routes still exist, but that individual asylum seekers submit multiple applications and finally, that irregular arrival is not the only channel to enter asylum systems. Some 640.000 asylum requests were registered in EU Member States in 2018. This is about 11% fewer applications than in 2017 (712.000) and about 51% lower than in 2015 (1.3 million). The figure for 2018 would nonetheless be the fifth highest in the past 25 years.

The nations topping the list for most applications in 2018 were Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Albania, Eritrea, Russia, and Somalia. These figures underline that asylum migration is to a considerable extend conflict-induced in the European context. This means, in turn, that developments in global conflicts will fundamentally shape what happens in the asylum sector in the future too.

As in the past, the asylum applications were concentrated in a handful of host countries within the EU. In 2018, about 75% of all asylum applications were submitted in just five EU Member States: Germany (31.2%), France (17.5%), Greece (9.8%), Italy (8.5%) and Spain (7.9%). This clustering with changing countries of destination has been observed time and again in the past as well.

2018 Reforms of EU migration and refugee policy 

The reform of the internal dimension made some - but still too limited - progress in 2018 in several areas, such as the strengthening of the mandate and institutional capacities of Frontex and EASO, the new version of the Eurodac Regulation, the Asylum Procedures Directive, the Qualification Directive and the Reception Conditions Directive. 

In some respect, 2018 also brought clarity on how extensive the reform of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) would be, namely a central element of internal EU refugee and migration policy. The most controversial point in this regard was, and remains the reform of the Dublin II Regulation. It sets down the criteria for determining the responsibility for processing an asylum application. The first-country principle in the Regulation puts more or less the entire burden of all EU asylum procedures on the Member States along the external borders, while in reality, over 50% of the asylum applications are submitted in EU Member States without an external border.

Under the impression of the de-facto collapse of the Dublin-based system in 2015 and under the headings of solidarity and responsibility-sharing, this system was to be reformed to provide a fair and also mandatory distribution, key for asylum applicants. The approach entailing mandatory quotas was never capable of gaining a majority and 2018 gave final proof of that fact. The Bulgarian Presidency still tried a last attempt at rescuing the Dublin Reform by devising a number of compromise proposals that would have softened the obligations regarding a mandatory distribution key. This attempt, ultimately, bore no fruit either. The Dublin Reform came to a standstill and is not expected to gain steam quickly in 2019. 

Implementing other new instruments of EU migration policy prominently discussed in 2018 also proved difficult. The creation of Regional Disembarkation Platforms in North Africa was met with objections by EU neighbouring States. The idea of Controlled Centres within the EU aimed at facilitating the initial examination of applications and distribution within the EU experienced a similar fate. By contrast, there was a clear commitment to increase the capacities and competencies of the European Coast and Border Guard Agency (Frontex), although again, no final decisions were yet taken. 

All these reform proposals – from distribution quotas to asylum procedures outside the EU – basically have one common objective, namely to decouple an applicant’s asylum procedure from access to EU territory or to the territory of a certain Member State. In other words, the objective is to delink the granting a protection status from immigration into a specific country or to the EU at large. This specific link between immigration and protection in the EU is characteristic of the present system and is a determining factor of irregular migration to the EU. Better organising international protection in the EU context, which is defined by freedom of movement between its Member States is a legitimate yet complex endeavour. It will be decisive in reforming the European migration and asylum system into a responsive and rules-based migration governance system.

Developments in Africa

The images the media often produce suggest that African migration is huge. Compared to many other regions in the world, this is however misleading. When looking at persons who have left their home country from a continental perspective, about 9% of Europeans, 6% of Latin Americans but only 3% of Africans and 2.4% of Asians live outside their home country. In total, there are roughly 36 million African emigrants. About 53% of them have migrated to another African country; 26% (or 9.4 million) to Europe, and another 21% to Asia, North America or Australia. 

More than poverty, it is development combined with economic inequality drive migration. Development provides people with the education, skills, financial means and information to go to a place where the situation is better than at home. This is exactly the situation when it comes to African migration. Many African countries show strong economic development and this trend will continue. However, the average GDP per capita in Europe is about 10 times higher than in many African countries, a disparity that is not expected to change for some time. At the same time, demography will remain an important driver for African migration. There are different scenarios which are closely linked to economic development. The “low-economic-development” scenario speaks about 2.5 billion Africans for the year 2050, a doubling of the current population, and a doubling of the annual African emigration rate from 1.4 million to 2.8 million. The “high-economic-development” scenario estimates a lower African population of 1.8 billion for the year 2050, but a tripling of the annual African emigration rate to 3.5 million. Higher development means lower birth rates but also better education and more financial means for people to move abroad. All evidence up to now points towards the “high-development” scenario. Among the ten fastest growing economies in the world, there are no less than seven African countries. Therefore, we can expect a growth in African migration resulting from significant economic development. Most of these migrants will move within Africa and utilise new opportunities on the continent. Of course, an increasing number of Africans will also try to move to Europe, but a mass exodus is not to be expected, rather gradually increasing numbers. 

It is for these and other reasons that African States, Regional Economic Communities and the African Union Commission (AUC) all placed migration high on the agenda since several years. Not only because of the need for cooperation on migration between Africa and the rest of the world, but especially because of the relevance of the topic for the development of the continent as a whole. The importance of promoting freedom of movement and improved mobility was recognised by the adoption of the ‘Freedom of Movement Protocol. In addition, thanks especially to the efforts and initiatives of the African Union, the continent has one of the most comprehensive policy frameworks and action plans.

Based upon a 2016 review of the existing 2006 AU Migration Policy Framework for Africa (MPFA) a new document was adopted in 2018: the “Migration Policy Framework for Africa and Plan of Action (2018 – 2030)”. The document takes into account AU priorities, policies, Agenda 2063, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and international migration management policies and standards. Taking a truly comprehensive approach, it focusses on Migration Governance, Labour Migration and Education, Diaspora Engagement, Border Governance, Irregular Migration, Forced Displacement, Internal Migration and Migration and Trade.

For Africa’s Global and European partners, the developments in Africa create huge opportunities for cooperation. Sharing the positive experiences in establishing the Schengen area or supporting the inclusion of common features in African passports is one area. Another area for cooperation can surely be found in developing skills and opportunities for African entrepreneurs and workers, ensuring that these skills can contribute to both foreign and domestic labour markets.  To make this work a much stronger involvement of the private sector is needed in terms of investment and in terms of know-how on training and professional education. ICMPD is working with a number of private and public sector partners from Europe and Africa to pilot new initiatives.

The need for strong cooperation and mature partnerships

Addressing the challenges of irregular migration will need close international partnerships. It requires a combination of strong regulations and as well as openings for labour migration based on close political cooperation between countries, also with regard to return and reintegration of persons. Intelligent and humane return and reintegration policies and practices are needed which can create triple win situations for sending and receiving States and for migrants who have to return. As an implementing partner, ICMPD supports the Netherlands since June 2018 within the European Return and Reintegration Network to devise such solutions.

Looking ahead, migration governance at global, regional and national level will remain a challenge. The international community of States, organisations and academics actually have many of the insights to manage migration much better. All opportunities for closer and more constructive cooperation should be seized, to work in  a spirit of partnership, of respect and trust. 



The article has been first published in the ICMPD Annual Report 2018.