As hundreds of migrants were drowning in the Mediterranean last Thursday morning, the United Nations General Assembly was hours from gathering for only the second time in its history to address international migration. The juxtaposition threw a question into sharp relief: does the world body have any impact on the world’s migrants?
Skepticism would be in order. Last week’s special session (labeled a High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development) marked a rare foray by the UN General Assembly into what is one of the world-shaping trends of the modern era. The reason: Its member states were reluctant to bring into the global arena an issue that can prove so politically toxic at home. The UN itself feared a divisive debate pitting source and destination countries against each other, a dynamic that characterized migration discussions in UN committees. Debates, such as there were, produced little but ill feeling.
The ground started to shift, however, early in the last decade. It became difficult to ignore migration when policymakers realized that the volume of money migrants sent to their families in developing countries (remittances) was two or three times larger than all foreign aid put together — and a lot more stable than earnings from trade or foreign investment. The old division between countries of origin and destination started to break down, with more and more countries like Mexico and Turkey coming to occupy both roles. The number of migrants continues to grow, now accounting for more than 232 million people — and they are going to more places. Today, nearly as many migrants go to developing countries as to developed ones.
States once pitched into opposing camps have realized they are facing a common set of problems: combating human trafficking and criminal smuggling (like that implicated in the latest Lampedusa tragedy), 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 can be effectively addressed unilaterally.
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. The High-Level Dialogue provides a platform for governments to state their priorities and identify others that share them. So, for example, the United States and the Philippines publicly committed themselves hours after the Lampedusa tragedy to lead an initiative to address the situation of migrants caught up in acute crises, such as civil wars, revolutions and natural disasters.
The political blame game that European countries are playing in the aftermath of this latest, but by no means unique, tragedy shows the urgent need for new ideas and actions to help those in crisis. More than 25,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in the past 20 years — and thousands more in the Gulf of Aden, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific. In the face of this toll, most European states were content to leave the problem to the littoral states—particularly Greece, Italy, and Spain. Greece has recently completed a fence across its border with Turkey; Spain has turned its enclaves on the North Africa cost into armed camps and patrols the Straits of Gibraltar like a war zone. These actions have just driven more people into the arms of smugglers who charge migrants thousands of dollars for a dangerous passage. Italy’s Lampedusa island is only 70 miles from the North African coast, and is now — and absent a coherent pan-European response will remain — the front line.
Pope Francis said that only “a decided collaboration among all can help stop these tragedies.” But progress can, in fact, be made by small groups of committed states leading the way, rather than by grand but abstract statements. The UN seems to have found a new way to be relevant to global migration last week. It is not alone: a 7-year-old, state-led platform called the Global Forum on Migration and Development, linked to the UN through the Secretary General’s special representative for migration, Sir Peter Sutherland, is an important vehicle that states are using to organize themselves for action on specific issues.
Other institutions such as the World Bank and the International Organization for Migration are taking the lead on lowering remittance costs, linking diaspora populations to development efforts, and creating guidelines for international recruitment. The UN has been slow to join this collective effort and it may never be the leader, but this most recent High-Level Dialogue may have framed an effort that can have a positive impact on the lives of the world’s migrants and perhaps help stop more tragedies like last week’s lethal shipwreck.
Kathleen Newland is Director of the Migrants, Migration and Development program at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank that analyzes US and international immigration trends and policies. She serves on the Boards of the International Rescue Committee, the Foundation for The Hague Process on Migrants and Refugees, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and USA for UNHCR.