Migration's Unrealized Potential: The Report of the Global Commission on International Migration
In less than 22 months and in less than 90 pages, the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) delivered last month a comprehensive overview of international migration issues, accompanied by a set of six principles for action and 33 recommendations.
GCIM, with a life span of two years that ends in December 2005, is an independent body based in Switzerland and backed by 32 governments and the European Union. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), called for GCIM's formation in December 2003. Its 19 Commissioners, drawn from all parts of the world and many walks of life (see sidebar), came to conclusions that reflect the complexity and difficulty of their subject.
But the overarching conclusion in the report was that "the international community has failed to capitalize on the opportunities and to meet the challenges associated with international migration."
The Commission's report pointed to the need for policy coherence at the national and international levels. It highlighted the competing and often contradictory pressures that shape migration policies — for example, the need in some countries for more immigration to reinforce national competitiveness while these same countries have placed greater restrictions on immigrants for security reasons.
The report drew attention to the lack of capacity for robust migration policymaking in many governments and regional bodies, and it stressed the importance of international cooperation in building stronger capabilities. While recognizing that no single model can work across the globe, it optimistically proposed a universal framework for policymaking.
It is probably too early to expect a definitive statement on international migration. The last 10 years have been a time of great ferment, experimentation, knowledge-building, information-sharing, and creative thinking that have come from many different directions — and these processes continue unabated. Some of the new exploration has simply revealed the depth of our ignorance about migration processes and outcomes.
The Global Commission, perhaps wisely, did not try to pronounce the last word on migration, especially on the very controversial issue of how migration should — or should not — be governed at the global, institutional level. But it did stimulate the debate.
Members of the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM)
Migration and the International Agenda
Secretary-General Annan asked for the creation of this Commission because the United Nations was uncertain about how to come to grips with international migration. He recognized international migration as a transcendent aspect of globalization that the UN system must address in concrete ways if it is to remain relevant.
International migration touches the mandates of virtually every multilateral institution — those dealing with health, trade, humanitarian response, human rights, development, the well-being of children, and on down the list. Some of them have begun to take the issue seriously. The Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, for example, have variously developed programs of action, research, or negotiations that deal with the impact of remittances, brain drain, and the international movement of workers. The International Organization for Migration, which was founded in 1951 and operates outside the UN system, has added member states and programs in recent years.
Global institutions' interest in migration has bubbled up, in most cases belatedly, from local, national, and regional concerns. The GCIM held five hearings — in the Asia-Pacific region, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Americas — to develop an understanding of regional variations of migration patterns. The Commissioners also interacted broadly with civil society groups, commissioned expert papers (including one by this author), and invited migration researchers from all over the world to contribute their findings.
GCIM's Mandates and Their Outcomes
The Commission started with a three-fold mandate. The first one was easy: to put international migration on the global agenda. It was already firmly there by the time the Commission started its work, but its meetings across the globe, the papers on various topics, and the 2005 report have added substantively to the discussion.
The huge and indigestible second part of the mandate tasked the Commission with "analyzing gaps in current policy approaches to migration and examining inter-linkages with other issue areas."
The Commission could have ignored this sweeping instruction — nearly impossible, given the time frame — and focused on a small number of ideas. By dutifully honoring their mandate, the Commissioners said something about almost everything (although oddly little about family reunification, which is the dynamic that brings the most migrants to most industrialized countries) but were forced to remain at a high level of generality.
For example, few would argue with the recommendation that "Greater efforts should be made to create jobs and sustainable livelihoods in developing countries, so that the citizens of such states do not feel compelled to migrate." Yet it is far from clear how policies to bring about that outcome can be successfully implemented in many developing countries.
The report notes that the Commission became "acutely aware of the many regional and sub-regional differences that exist in relation to international migration, as well as the constraints that such differences place on the formulation of international migration policies." That piece of wisdom shows the difficulty of the global approach the Commission was asked to take.
The third part of the Commission's mandate was to present recommendations to the United Nations Secretary-General and other stakeholders for strengthening governance in international migration.
Four of the Commission's six governance recommendations deal with national and regional processes. The fourth recommendation calls for greater dialogue among governments in multilateral settings, and only the sixth and last one is truly addressed to the Secretary-General. It calls on him to convene a group to pave the way for a UN coordinating body to bring greater coherence to the organizations involved in various aspects of international migration.
Criticisms of the GCIM Report
The report was immediately criticized, and undoubtedly will be faulted going forward, for not being more definitive about the institutional architecture for global-level governance of international migration.
One article in the Financial Times of October 6, 2005 criticized it for not calling strongly for a World Migration Organization while another article in the same edition criticized it for spending too much time considering that option.
The Commission saw logic in bringing together the migration-related functions of UN and other multilateral agencies into a single body but acknowledged that no international consensus to create new institutions currently exists. Rather wearily, it expressed the hope that its report will stimulate new debate by states and other actors in the years to come.
What Happens Next?
The track record of UN coordinating bodies is not inspiring. The danger in this instance, however, is not so much lack of cooperation from the agencies but, more seriously, the fact that no agency is doing optimal work on international migration at the present time (although some are farther along than others).
The need continues for more and better experimentation, data gathering, monitoring, and keen observation to develop a sense of what is working in migration policy at any level; what of that is specific to a particular time, place, and set of historical or geographical relationships; and what might be generalized and taken to a larger scale.
The Commission proposes that the UN prepare the way for a Global Migration Facility that would coordinate and harmonize the efforts of international institutions that deal with migration. It points to the benefits of greater efficiency, policy consistency, and sharing of expertise that could result but says little about the form and function of such a facility.
The Global Migration Facility, or some variant of it, will only earn a place at the table where states make migration policies if it can solve problems for them and for the international institutions that participate in making migration policy.
The European Coal and Steel Community of the 1950s evolved into the supranational European Union of the 21st century in precisely that way: by solving problems, developing competence, and earning confidence. Eventually, EU Member States agreed to give the European Union the power to initiate legislation and implement policy.
The UN offers several types of cooperative mechanisms that might be explored for their usefulness in migration: UNAIDS, the UN Fund for Population Activities, or the Global Environment Facility (housed at the World Bank). Participation in all of them is voluntary, and they focus on pragmatic goals.
GCIM has developed a broad framework of principles for migration policy and some specific recommendations for action. It is clear that its report marks the beginning rather than the end of a discussion, and that it is up to the full range of stakeholders to join in devising a strategy to move it forward.
To download a PDF version of the GCIM report, click here.