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Why We Need a Supranational Approach at the U.N. Migration Summit

As part of our “The Road to UNGA” series, migrant rights advocate Judith Vonberg writes that the upcoming U.N. summit, already backsliding on promises to resettle refugees, risks missing an opportunity to radically redefine migrancy.

Written by Judith Vonberg Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A group of Nigerians crowd onto a dinghy while being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea, about 17 miles (27km) north of Sabratah, Libya, on August 20. Many of them fall under the “economic migrant” category even when escaping individual conditions that would qualify as persecution. AP/Emilio Morenatti,File

LONDON – “Since earliest times, humanity has been on the move.” These are the opening words of the latest draft of a document published ahead of September’s U.N. summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants.

The tacit acknowledgment that migration is a fundamental aspect of human existence leads us to hope that what follows might dare to challenge the narrative of threat, and the raft of isolationist immigration policies that have defined the global political response to the current “crisis.”

Yet we are quickly disappointed. Instead of a blueprint for a radical, supranational approach to large movements of people, the document merely reaffirms the value of existing treaties and fails to confront the fundamental flaws in how we understand and approach migration.

For many years, academics and activists have argued that “refugee” and “migrant” are not discrete identities, and are better represented by a continuum than by a dichotomy. The current document, which states that refugees and migrants “face many common challenges and have similar vulnerabilities,” suggests that the U.N. may finally be acknowledging that the boundaries between these groups are blurred.

Yet this is too little, too late. Across the world, the words “migrant” and “refugee” are now highly politicized, associated with crisis and signifying threat. Nation-states make it as hard as possible for people to enter, while shunting others back across borders with apparent ease. While refugees were often the subjects of our pity, they are now part of the problem, part of the “crisis” that we in the West have claimed as our own.

It is the domestic politics of countless nation-states that have turned migrants and refugees into a problem. Yet these terms, as they are used within the summit document, are also contingent on the concept of the nation-state. The global number of migrants surpassed 244 million in 2015, according to the statement. Yet this number excludes about 740 million internal migrants. A migrant, according to this U.N. summit, is someone who crosses a border. Similarly, an individual forced to flee war or persecution is described as “forcibly displaced,” until he or she crosses a border and thus becomes a “refugee.”

Borders create migrants and refugees, and then designate them as problems needing solutions. By using these categories rather than talking about people or individuals, the statement implicitly affirms the primacy of the nation-state and the problematic nature of those who cross its borders irregularly.

“We acknowledge a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner,” the document states. “We will do so through international cooperation, while recognizing that there are varying capacities and resources to respond to these movements.”

An earlier commitment to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugee population in developed countries has been removed in this draft. We are left with a vague assertion of principles that leaves individual nation-states to determine their own “capacities and resources” and respond accordingly, most likely with more fences, border guards and claims that this is someone else’s problem.

The movement of human beings around the globe – what we call migration – is a supranational phenomenon that requires supranational responses. National or even international initiatives (the latter still asserting the primacy of the nation-state) will not do. Migration predates the nation-state and will outlive it. It is driven increasingly by supranational factors and phenomena, from North–South inequalities and the demands of global labor markets dominated by transnational corporations, to the internet.

We all migrate, and for a variety of changing and complex reasons. Sometimes these migrations take us from one city to another; sometimes we cross oceans, and at other times borders. We cannot have productive conversations about migration – whether willed, forced or somewhere in between – without placing cross-border migration within this broader context.

The failure of Europe’s response to the so-called refugee crisis is a painful and, in many cases, fatal reminder of what can go wrong if the supranational is rejected in favor of the national or even international. Attempts at comprehensive, international cooperation have not only failed but triggered renewed nationalist fervor in the form of what Professor Heaven Crawley of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations describes as “cascading border closures,” as well as the criminalization of humanitarian acts toward those labelled as “irregular” migrants. Meanwhile, existing supranational successes of the European Union, such as Schengen, are being weakened by renewed border checks and unilateral immigration policies.

The U.N. summit document states that large movements of refugees and migrants are “global phenomena which call for global approaches and global solutions.” Yet there is scant hope that this one-day summit, whose calls for a new global compact on refugees have already been rejected by some nations, will meet this demand.

By failing to confront the politicization of the words “migrant” and “refugee,” and the human beings they describe, by ignoring the role of borders in generating and exacerbating the current situation, and by deferring to nation-states and their governments that continue to mobilize the crisis mood for domestic political gain, this summit is missing a crucial chance to fundamentally redefine our approach to migration. We cannot keep squandering these chances.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

Also in “The Road to Unga” Series:

‘Defining the Problem’ Will Impact Summit Success in New York

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