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U.N. ‘Global Compact’ May Prove Regressive for Africa’s Migrants

In the latest part of our “The Road to UNGA” series, Loren Landau of the Africa Center for Migration and Society warns that a quick-fix strategy focused on Syrian refugees might not bode well for migrants who fall outside the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Written by Loren B Landau Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
African migrants wait aboard a rubber boat to be assisted during an NGO rescue operation on September 11, 18 miles (30km) north of Sabratha, Libya, on the Mediterranean Sea. AP/Santi Palacios

JOHANNESBURG – Crisis is a bad time to make policy. While it may create space for reform, the current quick-fix quest that the United Nations is pursuing in reaction to accelerating migration trends risks creating more long-term hazards than solutions.

The mid-September U.N. Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants is likely to be such a case. The focus on the Syrian refugee crisis, particularly its effects on Europe, will dominate discussions and frame any international compact for protecting refugee and migrant rights worldwide. What might work politically for Europe may well come down on the backs of migrants and refugees across Africa and elsewhere.

Why such pessimism? The first reason is that global efforts to secure the rights of refugees and migrants have not fared all that well. The 1951 Refugee Convention – and ancillary African and Latin American frameworks – remain, but states regularly skirt their obligations with few negative consequences. Australia’s Pacific Solution and Europe’s recent Turkey deal are but two examples.

And what about migrants outside the 1951 convention? We have seen little success in forging a consensus around the rights of internally displaced people, and for the millions of other “ordinary” migrants we have seen few positive steps. Former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan initiated the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM), in part, to consider a global migration framework. Despite the glaringly evident benefits of a more robust regime, the commission’s recommendations have been largely overlooked.

We have had periodic global migration dialogues with limited effects. These settings have become spaces for big states to largely ignore or coopt the interest of migrant-sending countries. International protections for migrant workers have been punted by the International Labor Organization and the International Organization for Migration for decades. These are important initiatives, but almost none of the major receiving states have signed any binding agreements.

Will this “compact” be any different? The answer is yes. Europe and other wealthy states receiving refugees and migrants need an outcome. But their interests lie in reducing demands for resettlement, while ensuring that refugees receive protection elsewhere. This typically means keeping them in countries close to conflict. Moreover, relatively generous politicians like Angela Merkel have staked their political reputations on accepting suitably vetted and “genuine” refugees while excluding less worthy claimants and “ordinary” migrants. Making a deal matters to Merkel and her European counterparts.

So, there will be a deal. But will it be an one that tackles different types of migration?

We are likely to see that some version of refugee protection will be negotiated for refugees fleeing current conflicts by bargaining away other migrants’ interests and welfare. The wealthy countries may agree to resettle more, but on set conditions. As the wealthy states – particularly in Europe – insist on greater control, two things will likely worsen conditions for people trying to cross Africa’s borders, including refugees. First, Europe will – as it has been for the past decade – further externalize its migration controls to prevent people reaching its territory. Second, it will build diplomatic support for a control-based policy.

Together, these measures will support efforts to prevent movement within the continent – particularly movements that might end up in Europe. Combined with broader efforts to counter terrorism along with human and narcotics trafficking, Europe will continue to provide material and technical assistance in strengthening border agencies. But such efforts will do little to prevent cross-border movements.

We have learned this lesson from the U.S.-Mexico border, Frontex and a raft of other initiatives. Instead, greater controls will worsen conditions and organized crime in border zones. Without strong civil society capacity to observe borderline rights abuses and the subsequent exploitation, corrupt public officials and criminal gangs will largely have free rein to seek “rents” from the most desperate migrants. Perhaps more importantly, by selling African states on a “strong borders” model, the most influential actors at the summit will weaken African countries’ ability to advocate for more lenient policies emanating from Europe.

Europe has the capacity to work together in ways that are diplomatically savvy and strategic. Despite the presence of the African Union and other regional Economic cooperation agreements (for example, ECOWAS, SADC and the EAC), Africa is unlikely to stand up to Europe. It is important to acknowledge that Africa does have a common position on migration and development (also called the “African common position”) and a migration policy framework (adopted in 2006). But there have been only frail moves to realize these principles. Moreover, many African countries – notably Kenya and South Africa – share Europe’s deep desire to strengthen borders against unwanted migrants and asylum seekers.

There is no easy way to divert the course of policymaking that the Syrian refugee crisis has set in motion. Stronger civil society voices from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia might help, but migrant rights advocates in these regions are few and far between. Most are largely concerned with domestic or regional policy debates.

International humanitarian organizations that have a secondary role in these negotiations offer some hope, but they, too, are largely occupied with refugee rights. For many, this is their mandate. For others, it is their raison d’etre and the source of their financial survival. This need not mean ignoring the immediate needs of refugees and asylum seekers, but we should not be surprised when policies proffered to assist them during this crisis lead to greater state controls, corruption and human rights abuses in ways that harm those we ostensibly seek to assist.

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:

“The Road to UNGA” explores the most pertinent conversations that ought to happen ahead of the first ever U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants that will take place on September 19–20 in New York.

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