E.g., 09/25/2023
E.g., 09/25/2023
"Suddenly, Migration Was Everywhere": The Conception and Future Prospects of the Global Migration Group

"Suddenly, Migration Was Everywhere": The Conception and Future Prospects of the Global Migration Group

The fields of international migration policy and governance developed over the course of the 20th century, with accelerated growth since the 1990s in particular. Today, dozens of international organizations have migration-related activities, whereas few did so just a decade or two ago.

A number of migration initiatives have also emerged, both within the United Nations (UN) system and beyond. One such initiative, the Global Migration Group (GMG), has received scant attention from scholars. The GMG is an inter-agency group that sustains international cooperation on a wide range of international migration issues, and that came to existence in 2006. Although the GMG faces numerous challenges in its day-to-day functioning and also with regard to its future, its creation—along with other prominent entities such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD)—is still a strong indication of the extent to which the fields of migration study, policymaking, and governance have entered the international scene in a significant way.

Historical Background

International organizations' interest in migration is not new. Upon the creation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1919, its constitution mentioned the "protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own" as part of its mandates. This early interest, rooted in migrant workers' protection, reflected the recognition of migration as an international phenomenon, and of international organizations as potentially useful in addressing some of the issues raised by the cross-border movements of people. But efforts to better protect migrant workers and to try to harmonize states' practices found little support in the pre-World War II context, characterized by economic crises and strong nationalist/protectionist tendencies.

Selected Migration-Related International Initiatives from 1990s and 2000s
GCIM: Global Commission on International Migration, launched in 2003 by the UN Secretary General and a number of governments to "place international migration on the global agenda.

GFMD: Global Forum for Migration and Development, an informal, non-binding, government-led process that addresses the links between migration and development, first session held in 2007

HLD: High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2006 and to be organized again in 2013

International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994): One of the first international conferences that devoted attention to international migration issues (see chapter 10 of the Program of Action)

Berne Initiative: An initiative launched in 2001 to enhance cooperation between states in the field of migration, which led to the International Agenda for Migration Management

The post-World War II context saw the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the adoption, in 1951, of the Geneva Convention. This created an international regime for refugee protection. An organization was also created for migration-related issues, but outside the UN system. What is now the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was founded as the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe (PICMME) and was designed as a temporary Europe-centered organization to focus on practical transportation functions rather than on protection. These two agencies still coexist with the ILO. This results in a fragmented institutional picture, as there is no single agency in charge of the cross-border movements of people.

"Suddenly, Migration Was Everywhere"

The fields of international migration policy and governance evolved substantially during the 1990s and 2000s. Since the 1994 Cairo conference, they became the object of several ambitious initiatives (see Box). International migration turned into a global issue, not necessarily because migration became more global, but rather in the sense that it was recognized as a topic worthy of increased attention at the international level.

Along with the increasing complexity of human mobility, this created both opportunities and challenges for international organizations. IOM grew substantially, while other organizations had to adapt. UNHCR had to address mixed migration flows (composed of both refugees and migrants), while ILO struggled to maintain its rights-based mandate in a more governance-oriented context. Other agencies that were absent from this field joined in.

As Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute summed up in an article entitled "The Governance of International Migration: Mechanisms, Processes, and Institutions": "Attention to international migration in the 1990s was sporadic and largely fruitless ... No UN agency had migrants or migration processes as priorities ... All of this changed quite suddenly around the turn of the millennium. Suddenly, migration was everywhere one looked in the UN system and beyond." By shedding new light on how the UN system addressed migration, and by raising once again the issue of the distribution of tasks between agencies, this context paved the way for creation of the GMG.

From a World Migration Organization to the GMG

The increasing challenges raised by migration, and the fragmentation in the way they are addressed by international actors, inspired new initiatives to achieve more coherent policies and better cooperation between governments. A few prominent scholars are known for voicing the need for an entirely new institution, particularly Jagdish Bhagwati and his idea for a World Migration Organization (WMO): "The world badly needs enlightened immigration policies and best practices to be spread and codified … Such a project is well worth putting at the center of policymakers' concerns."

Others were skeptical of the idea, including Bimal Ghosh who noted that "Governments seem hardly anxious to start a whole new organization to deal with international migration." Nevertheless, international interest in migration flows—and the flows themselves—continued to increase in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In its 2005 report, the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) addressed the way the UN system should address migration. It called for improved coordination between international organizations to enable them to be more efficient and consistent with each other. The GCIM viewed the creation of a WMO as a long-term objective. It also suggested "a more immediate response" and proposed "the immediate establishment of a high-level inter-institutional group to define the functions and modalities of, and pave the way for, an Inter-Agency Global Migration Facility." This was quite influential in the creation of the GMG.

Members of the Global Migration Group as of 2013
ILO: International Labor Organization

IOM: International Organization for Migration

OHCHR: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

UN Regional Commissions

UNICEF: United Nations Children's Fund

UNCTAD: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

UNDESA: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs

UNDP: United Nations Development Program

UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

UN Women: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women

UNHCR: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UNITAR: United Nations Institute for Training and Research

UNODC: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

UNFPA: United Nations Population Fund

WHO: World Health Organization

World Bank

Origins and Functioning of the GMG

Those who were involved early on decided to build on the structure of an already existing Geneva Migration Group, which had been set up in 2003 by four Geneva-based agencies (UNHCR, IOM, ILO, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR]). These four agencies are, in different ways, all heavily involved in the topic: ILO and OHCHR are in charge of the different international law instruments pertaining to migrant workers, while UNHCR was increasingly attracted toward migration issues because of their relevance for its refugee mandate; IOM, while outside the UN system, still is the only international organization with an exclusively migration-centered mandate. Two other agencies quickly joined the Geneva Migration Group: the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, given its role as secretariat of the Palermo Protocols and in the fight against smuggling and trafficking) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD, for its involvement in related trade and development issue).

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), World Bank, and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) brought the membership to ten organizations at the moment of the formal creation of the Global Migration Group in early 2006. In 2007, four new agencies (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], the United Nations Children's Fund [UNICEF], the United Nations Regional Commissions, and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research [UNITAR]) joined, followed in 2009 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Women. Between 2003 and 2009, what began as the four-member Geneva Migration Group grew to 16 member organizations based in Geneva, New York, Vienna, Paris, Washington, DC, and one additional city depending on the rotating regional commission.

The GMG set up a rotating chairmanship, with a new agency taking over the chairmanship every six months. The executive head of the chairing agency is the formal head of the GMG. The chairing agency is tasked to manage the GMG on a daily basis; this implies convening meetings, circulating information, and overseeing joint initiatives. Chairing agencies also play a role in selecting the issues that will be considered by the GMG, often in close connection with their own mandate. In 2011, a symposium on youth and migration was organized under UNICEF's leadership, while the OHCHR focused its 2010 chairmanship on a joint statement on the protection of the rights of irregular migrants. This is strategic for chairing agencies, as it enables them to showcase their agenda-setting influence. Yet, this also reveals one of GMG's weaknesses, as chairing members tend to use the group to pursue their own mandate, rather than adapting to—and serving—the GMG's own objectives.

The relationships that have developed over time between working-level members (usually two to four staff members from each organization) represent one of the main concrete advantages of the GMG. Regular videoconferences have generally high attendance and provide a platform for exchange that did not exist in the past. Communication takes place almost exclusively among headquarters (and not at the field level). In theory, working-level relationships are complemented by principals' meetings, which bring together the executive heads of GMG agencies. These take place once a year and are supposed to address the strategic issues that require high-level leadership. In practice however, the GMG has found it very difficult to bring migration issues higher up in the hierarchy of its agencies. Principals' meeting attendance has regularly been low.

Activities and Funding

Although the GMG is a group of agencies with no permanent structure, the group has launched a number of activities in which all members participate, and whose outputs are branded as GMG products. The work has been mostly producing normative knowledge on migration-related issues, including two reports on the relations between migration and human rights and development respectively. In addition, GMG annual principals' meetings typically lead to formal statements: these are short documents (one or two pages) adopted by the heads of all GMG agencies, that express joint positions, propose normative views, and outline policy guidance and recommendations. In the same vein, the GMG is often invited to deliver statements at key events, including in particular the GFMD or UN General Assembly meetings.

It is probably fair to argue that GMG products have not attracted much attention. For example, its two reports received much less attention than other reports with similar focus and ambition, like the ones produced by GCIM, the 2009 UNDP Human Development Report on migration, or IOM's World Migration Reports. In addition, these types of activities may seem overly rhetorical.

Yet, until a few years ago, it would have been difficult to organize UN-wide events on migration or to issue statements that reflect the views of all key institutions. GMG agencies have different agendas and sensitivities. Even drafting a joint statement for the opening session of a symposium, or more generally, speaking as one on a politically sensitive issue like migration, are difficult tasks. While not a spectacular success, the production of such normative views is thus an essential step in establishing international organizations' relevance in this area.

The GMG has nevertheless also engaged in more concrete activities, for example through the creation of working groups. These groups involve a smaller number of participants and focus on a specific topic. There are currently two working groups, one on mainstreaming migration into national development strategies (co-chaired by IOM and UNDP) and the other on data and research (co-chaired by IOM and UNDESA). The first working group succeeded in raising funds and launching on-the-ground projects in a few migrant origin countries. The second group is less advanced, but aims at better coordinating the wide range of migration-relevant data that is collected by GMG members.

Finally, there is no GMG budget; costs are born by its individual members. Each agency is to fund its own participation at GMG events. Even when joint activities are planned, they remain funded by the individual agencies that take part in them.

Challenges to Inter-Agency Cooperation

GMG members are a heterogeneous group, with different, and sometimes even conflicting, mandates and strategy. In addition, for some (like IOM or UNHCR), the topic is central and highly strategic. For most others, it is a relatively marginal issue outside their core fields of competence. GMG agencies are also often in competition with each other. This has to do with their overlapping fields of competence, and with their consequent rivalry in securing funding from governments.

A consequence of this situation is that agencies take part in the group's activities with very different resources, expertise, expectations, and interests. This makes it difficult to achieve common positions and projects. Even in the drafting of one- to two-page joint statements, each agency may want its specific focus to be explicitly mentioned and fear that the mandate of other agencies will turn out to be more visible than its own. UNODC will add the words smuggling and trafficking wherever possible; OHCHR will do the same with human rights, UNICEF with children, and so on.

Another recurring problem is the lack of a permanent secretariat, which has been the subject of controversy almost since the creation of the GMG. Some members support the establishment of a small unit within one of the group's agencies to support the successive chairing members. Unlike the current rotating chairing system, this would ensure continuity and create a reliable and efficient group of permanent GMG staff. But this has not materialized because of a number of practical problems. In a context of competition, deciding which agency will host the secretariat is a delicate task. This would also imply a GMG budget that currently does not exist. Also, some agencies believe that they would need explicit political support from UN Member States to move ahead.

An additional organizational problem is the lack of formal rules regarding selection of the GMG chairmanship, and its timing. At times, the group has even found itself without a chair: members cannot be forced to chair and may decline either for lack of resources or for strategic purposes. A recent example is chairing for 2013: given that the second UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development is to take place in fall 2013, selecting which agency will chair (and therefore represent the GMG on that prestigious occasion) was a strategic decision that exacerbated the competition within the GMG. In light of the strategic importance of the issues at stake, only senior officials from the different agencies aiming at this chairing slot had the power to sort this out. But given their lack of involvement, the decision was very slow to be reached and hampered working-level cooperation.

GMG-GFMD Relations

The GMG's interactions with the GFMD are complicated. In principle, the GFMD is run by states and for states, with no input from the United Nations. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and/or a high-level representative from the GMG chair usually deliver statements at the GFMD opening session, but formal UN involvement does not go further than that. In practice however, states find it convenient to rely on agencies for support; for example, they regularly solicit GMG member organizations for background documents and for help in identifying possible speakers. But they rarely work with the GMG as such, only with individual agencies. Some GMG members are in much closer working relations with the GFMD than others, which favors rivalry between agencies.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the GFMD experiences difficulties in ensuring continuity, or even survival. GFMD organization relies on a new government's willingness to take the lead every year. This is problematic for several reasons. It is a costly process and, if the GFMD wants to avoid taking place only in developed destination countries, less-developed states must be supported in one way or another to host the event. It may also be difficult to find candidates, especially as the novelty of the GFMD is disappearing, making it less visible and attractive. In the recent past, some states volunteered to organize the GFMD, but then withdrew their offer, mainly because of economic difficulties. And even if new countries are found every year, the transition from one government to the next is complicated and time-consuming. This is the basis for the argument that the GFMD would benefit from a permanent support structure that would assist the successive organizing governments.

There is therefore an ongoing debate over whether the GMG should act as such a support structure for the GFMD. As a key player in the creation of the GFMD, UN Special Representative for International Migration and Development Peter Sutherland is among the chief proponents of conferring to the GMG a supporting role to ensure long-term GFMD viability. In 2006, Mr. Peter Sutherland was appointed to this position, which involves consulting governments on behalf of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to advance global migration policy debates. His position as special representative is unpaid and directly placed under the Secretary General's authority.

For GMG agencies, this is a dilemma. The GFMD is the main global and multilateral process through which governments engage in discussions and try to reach common positions on aspects of their migration policy. For some, it would make sense for the GMG to work closely with the GFMD and to follow up on its recommendations. But governments explicitly want to keep the United Nations outside the GFMD, which makes it difficult for UN organizations to fully adhere to the GFMD's objectives. Several agencies therefore also believe that the United Nations should rather approach migration in its own way and that the GMG should remain at a distance from the GFMD. GMG members have not reached a consensus regarding a possible supportive role for the GFMD—which has prompted public criticism from Mr. Sutherland.

Future Perspectives

There are two predominant interpretations of the GMG and its role on the international stage. The first is to consider it as a sort of virtual World Migration Organization, which collects bits and pieces relevant to migration from all over the UN system and beyond and bring them together under one roof. Those who view the group as such would rejoice in the willingness of the UN system and the international community to seriously address migration in a concerted and multilateral manner. The GMG would show that international migration is now a full and legitimate issue for international organizations and that it therefore deserves its own inter-agency group. The GMG would constitute a major step forward within a broader process that sees migration issues becoming increasingly international in the way they are thought about and governed.

The second possible view is to regard the group as an attempt to create coherence in a fragmented field. The long-standing division of labor between different international organizations creates an unsatisfactory situation, marked by lack of clarity and rivalries—resulting therefore in inefficiency. Given the absence of a single leading international organization, and the political obstacles to the creation of such an institution, the GMG would be a second-best option, designed to avoid the worst outcomes of the current situation. It would merely coordinate a number of already existing institutions, a situation that—in the most negative interpretation—could lead to an endless and somewhat Kafkaian process: to address a situation characterized by too many actors, one creates yet another actor, before—perhaps—creating another structure to coordinate the GMG with other actors in the same field.

In reality, the GMG probably occupies the gray area between the two views; it serves mainly as an internal coordination mechanism to enable international organizations to work with (or at least know) each other, while also at times aspiring at embodying a genuinely global perspective on migration.

The GMG's greatest challenge looking forward will be the political environment in which it operates. Migration policy remains very closely associated with state sovereignty. The creation of the GMG and, for that matter, the launch of other international initiatives on migration, has not altered this reality. Most states, especially (but not only) at the receiving end of the migration process, are reluctant to see international organizations and the international community interfere with the way they handle migration—and migrants. Discussions are therefore done in an extremely prudent way: this is evident, for example, in the systematic connection between migration and a consensual issue like development—as if migration could not be discussed in its own right, but only in relation to less controversial topics.

One could finally speculate whether international initiatives like the GMG or the GFMD, rather than challenging state sovereignty over migration, would in reality further consolidate it. By claiming ambitious, world-wide objectives, these venues satisfy those nations that wish to discuss migration in this way, but by being much less powerful (or binding) than their titles indicate, they would please those nations that prefer the status quo. From this perspective, the multiplication of actors (within the UN system, and between international organizations and other initiatives) is a strategy to preserve governments' sovereign influence. This context creates unrealistic expectations: organizations and the UN system are asked to improve the way migration is addressed globally, but not given the means and political support to do so. As long these realities persist, the GMG will continue to face major obstacles in establishing itself as an effective international venue for promoting international instruments relating to migration and encouraging fair and coherent approaches to migration.


Bhagwati, Jagdish. 2003. Borders Beyond Control. Foreign Affairs 82 (1): 98-104.

Ghosh, Bimal. 2007. Managing Migration: Towards the Missing Regime? In Migration without Borders. Essays on the Free Movement of People, eds. Antoine Pécoud and Paul de Guchteneire. Oxford: Berghahn: 97–118.

Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM). 2005. Migration in an Interconnected World. New Directions of Action. Geneva: GCIM. Available online.

Global Migration Group. 2008. International Migration and Human Rights. Challenges and Opportunities on the Threshold of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva: GMG. Available online.

Global Migration Group. 2010. Mainstreaming Migration into Development Planning. A Handbook for Policymakers and Practitioners. Geneva: GMG. Available online.

Newland, Kathleen. 2010. The Governance of International Migration: Mechanisms, Processes, and Institutions. Global Governance 16 (3): 331-343.

Rother, Stefan. Q&A with Peter Sutherland: "Bringing the GFMD into UN would kill it". The GFMD, Migration, Development and Human Rights Blog. Available online.

Other Resources

Global Migration Group

Global Forum on Migration and Development