Q&A: Human rights-based approaches to global migration

Wies Maas, research and advocacy consultant for Oxfam Novib, at the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Berlin, Germany. Photo by: UNAOC

Policymakers and civil society gathered at the Global Forum on Migration and Development this week in Berlin at a time when the link between displacement and development have scarcely been more apparent. Ten years after the annual event was launched, the world faces the largest displacement crisis since World War II — the result of crippling conflicts and poverty.

The U.N.-backed forum began in 2007 as a place to informally discuss migration, best practices and policy innovations. Today its mandate is more urgent. Discussion focused around what should be included in two Global Compacts — one on refugees and another on safe, orderly and regular migration — set to be negotiated at the U.N. General Assembly next year.

IOM inches closer to global migration compact

Formal negotiations for the new migration framework will begin in early 2018, International Organization for Migration Director-General William Swing tells Devex.

The compact aims to lay out principles and commitments that individual governments would use as a guide on cross-border and migration coordination.

“We are in a world in disarray,” William Lacy Swing, director-general of the International Organization for Migration, said at the forum. “We dare not miss this opportunity, the consequences are too great and there's too much at stake,” says Swing.

The setting offered some hope. Berlin was once “the city that was home to one of the most notorious walls ever built,” Wies Maas, research and advocacy consultant for Oxfam Novib, told the audience. Yet over the past several years, Germany has welcomed several hundred thousand asylum seekers and led a push in Europe to accept more refugees.

Maas, who recently chaired the GFMD’s Civil Society Days, sat down with Devex at the forum to discuss the challenge ahead. She spoke about the need to develop solutions that will benefit host and origin communities, and how civil society, government and the public can all be involved in refugee response. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How can we move beyond emergencies and create long-term development solutions that benefit host and origin countries, as well as displaced people?

Part of it is a mindshift. There are lots of structural barriers to taking a development approach. But part of it is accepting, recognizing and acknowledging that displacement very often is protracted and for longer periods of time, so we’d better plan for that.

Secondly, it’s also a mindshift to not see displacement as a problem or a burden. Even though it can be in the beginning, because there’s lots of people with lots of immediate needs. But at the same time, these people who are displaced have talents and skills that we could harness, if you invest in them from day one, instead of having them in a camp for years on end and then realizing they no longer have the skills.

Then, it’s also a matter of getting development actors involved, doing multi-year planning and budgeting, and having spending money available. It’s investing in people and livelihoods.

What would you like to see from political leaders?

We want governments to adopt a human rights based approach. There is a lot of fear in a number of countries and political leaders are exploiting them. And in this case, these fears are really not based on the facts. Migrants are not represented well in the media or in politics, and that is problematic. It’s something to reconcile, because we cannot not engage with people who are agnostic toward migration.

Why is the GFMD forum important and what role does it play?

People have a love-hate relationship with the forum. There has been a lot of skepticism toward it over the years, because it doesn’t produce binding regulations or binding commitments or even implementation plans.

Yet I think the forum has really been needed for trust building between governments and also between civil societies from different parts of the world, as well as between civil society and governments. Now, for the first time, we have this opportunity, as the compacts will be negotiated within the framework of the United Nations. This is a key moment to actually define what a Global Compact is, or should be. We need to have a global framework to manage the movement of people better. What that will look like is up to us. The forum is critical to help shape these Global Compacts.

What do you hope to take away from the discussions?

Personally, what I would like to get out of the forum is to put together the building blocks for the Global Compact. It should develop human rights based approaches for how you manage the global movement of people. We need to discuss what kind of institutions you need for that, and how the U.N. operates.

On the other hand, we want governments to start implementing what they have already agreed to. Some governments are doing this, but there is no need for governments to put children in immigration detention centers, for example. There are topics like this, where civil society wants to say “this needs to go into a Global Compact.” These are the building blocks.

We also need to look at what we as civil society do when we go home. We all work in different communities and countries, and we have different governments. We can’t stop here. That’s also something I think is important about the global forum. It motivates people to go back home and act.

Do you feel optimistic about the Global Compact and discussions today?                

There’s a multitude of complex factors at play. Lots of civil conflicts are going on at the moment. Inequality is rising. The only thing I think we can do is talk and then act. It’s the role of civil society to monitor and then actually hold governments to account.

I want to feel optimistic because the opportunity is there. But, do I feel this Global Compact is going to rapidly change the outlook for migrants who are currently in vulnerable situations, or drowning, or being abused? That’s going to take time. It’s a process, but I’m hopeful.

Update, July 31: This article was amended to clarify that Wies Maas chaired GFMD’s Civil Society Days

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About the author

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    Abby Young-Powell

    Abby Young-Powell is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor based in Berlin. She covers a range of topics for publications including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and Deutsche Welle. Before working freelance, she was deputy editor of Guardian Students, part of the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. She is also a fellow of the International Journalists' Programme, after working at Die Tageszeitung in Germany.