Sisyphus keeps on rolling: Migrant Civil Society and Global Migration Governance after the 1st International Migration Review Forum
Forum on The Partnership Approaches in the UN Global Compacts on Refugees and and Migration
Contribution by Stefan Rother, senior researcher at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute for socio-cultural research, and lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Freiburg
12 May 2023
The first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) held in May 2022 at the United Nations (UN) in New York was an important waypoint for the implementation of the Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration (GCM). However, it still primarily constituted a starting point for the actual work to be done.
The GCM so far: An inconvenient truth
When trying to make a fair assessment of the forum, one could say: overall, it managed to accomplish what could realistically be expected under the circumstances, but the benchmark for future IMRFs will definitely have to be higher.
The most basic achievement of the IMRF was probably that it actually took place. This is not meant as a sarcastic comment – for a long time, there was uncertainty whether the in-person gathering could be held in New York due to the unpredictability of the Covid-19 pandemic. The final date was announced less than four months before the meeting.
The pandemic had an effect on the preparation process for the IMRF:
It highlighted the inconvenient truth, that the GCM is still a long way from being the universally agreed upon framework in global migration policies. Instead of adhering to the ‘360-degree vision’ of the document, most countries took a very narrow perspective on the mobility-related dimension of the pandemic. In particular within the first months, unilateral decisions to close borders leaving migrants stranded were the norm rather than the exception. The GCM – as well as the Global Compact for Refugees (GRF) – could have provided important guidelines, such as access to services (Newland 2020), but not a single instance has been documented where a government actually consulted the Compacts during the pandemic and explicitly formulated its policies accordingly.
On a more positive note, some countries implemented progressive – or at least pragmatic – policies which could be seen as being in accordance with the GCM. For instance, Portugal, already one of the most committed Western countries in the implementation of the GCM, allowed temporary regularization for all migrants in the country, irrespective of status, and worked together with civil society organisations (CSOs) in supporting them during the pandemic. This can be seean as a good practice for implementing the partnership orinciple/whole-of-society approach on the national level.
On the global level, the newly instituted UN Migration Network which was still in the process of establishing its workplan for GCM implementation, found its footing during the pandemic and became an important hub for dissemination of information about the situation on the ground as well as good policy practices (Rother 2022b). This was made possible by the ‘Zoomification’ of deliberations during the pandemic, a format that was also chosen for the regional reviews of the GCM and other preparatory processes. In some instances, the virtual nature of the meetings could be seen as an opportunity for more inclusion, since participants needed to invest much less resources for their participation; in contrast, particularly the hybrid events such as the 2022 ‘Migration week’ leading up to the IMRF were criticized by civil society organizers such as Colin Rajah as spaces of exclusion: ‘While all Member States could attend in person and present their statements in response to the UN Secretary General’s Report, we could only passively watch the proceedings on UN TV.’
In fact, the long-time efforts of the global civil society movement on migration for meaningful participation invite comparisons to Sisyphus’ struggle: When the networks manage to get a seat at the table in one space, another one might be opened with more restrictive access. Hence, while migrant civil society was consulted in an institutionalized manner and had a visible impact in the negotiation process of the GCM (Rother and Steinhilper 2019), the regional review processes felt like starting all over again. In the actual IMRF, migrant representatives and other stakeholder such as Mayors/local government networks struggled for meaningful participation or to get accredited as all. And while global spaces such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) have evolved towards direct interaction between government and civil society representatives, the IMRF tuned out to be a more restrictive space. A comparable multi-stakeholder hearing that was held before the opening of the IMRF had very limited state participation, which led a long-time civil society organizer, the late John K. Bingham, to make the following assessment: ‘[this) turned it into a space for non-state stakeholders to talk amongst themselves rather than creating much-needed face time with states. This flouts the whole-of-society and whole-of-government guiding principles of the GCM.’
This struggle involved not only the formal aspects but also, more fundamentally, the content of the deliberations. When the ‘zero draft’ of the Progress Declaration of the IMRF was issued, it turned out that several major issues had been ‘forgotten’ or addressed only in a vague manner, including access to regular pathways, gender, migrant children, climate change and displacement. This led to heightened civil society criticisms and resulted in significant changes of the document; as an activist put it: ‘We have managed to fix the zero draft’, underlining that civil society can indeed play a meaningful role in global migration governance from below (Rother 2022a).
The progress declaration was one of several parts of the IMRF that did not (yet) form a coherent sum. This is maybe best symbolized by the pledging initiative – a feature also found at the Global Refugee Forum (GRF) of the GCR – which resulted in a mixed bag. As of mid-March 2023, 224 pledges were made by countries, international organisations, civil society and other stakeholders. The pledges ranged from very broad announcements such as the ever-popular ‘Collection and dissemination of migration data’ to quite far-reaching commitments from countries including Germany, Colombia, Mexico and Thailand, to end child immigration detention and promote best practices on this matter. If put into practice, these could make a meaningful difference on the ground and would mark a stark contrast to current moves towards the other direction such as the ‘Illegal migration bill’ proposed by the government of the UK, a country which has approved both compacts.
On the input side, member states were invited to submit voluntary national implementation reports, which unlike the periodical reviews held for binding UN conventions, could come in all formats; there has been concern that the various levels of engagements could be indicators of a North-South divide in implementation.
The two-day General Assembly plenary where primarily member states but also other stakeholders read out their statements reflected these different approaches. There was also significant overlap between the states’ statements. Though unfortunately there was less overlap regarding specific policies – and more regarding the phrases and buzzwords used, which would have made for a rather short Bingo-session. The roundtables held during the two previous days of the IMRF were more lively affairs, as were the numerous side-events, including a hybrid session ‘By Migrants, For Migrants: Advocating for migrants’ meaningful participation in IMRF and the GCM processes‘.
While one might rightfully call for ‘less talk, more action’, the significance of this plethora of meetings – also including panels and receptions by member states governments etc. – should nonetheless not be underestimated, in particular since they took place after a long lockdown for personal interactions. They provided an opportunity for the multiple stakeholders to get back together and back on track towards a more structured and substantial implementation process of the GCM.
In a true Sisyphus manner, migrant civil society has proclaimed its willingness to pick up the rock once more and roll it towards the next IMRF. On this path it has to navigate a plethora of spaces and processes and this multi-level engagement will be crucial in shaping the outcomes of the next IMRF in 2026. These ones could be particularly relevant:
The regional reviews and the GCM talks
The regional reviews are probably the most formalized way of engagement; while national reviews are voluntary, might provide limited space for civil society input or not take place at all, the regional reviews are a fixed component of the GCM process. This does not mean that they are the best, most-accessible or even well-thought-out spaces. In fact, there is significant room for improvement compared to the first round of reviews. The pandemic posed major difficulties in organizing these processes but there is also a structural challenge – The UN Regional Economic Commissions have been mandated to conduct these reviews.
I do not want to diminish the achievements of these UN regional bodies in other areas but it is fair to say that they had so far limited experience in the meaningful inclusion of civil society organisations as well as dealing with the issue of migration itself. In addition, each commission seemed to have taken an individual approach in setting up their review processes. I attended the review by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which also includes North America and some Central Asian countries as well as Israel which certainly stretches the concept of a region. Somewhat tellingly, the most memorable moments of the meeting for me were a substantial multi-stakeholder consultation held beforehand (apparently only scheduled after some interventions) and a shouting match between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the aftermath of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War…
Thus, things can certainly get better and a framework that has been released for the preparation and organization of the regional reviews indicates some changes.
The envisioned schedule is quite tight, though, since the outcome of the reviews should feed into the biennial report of the UN Secretary General which should come out in 2024. As a space for preparation, a new format os will be introduced. The GCM Talks entail series of consultations that will take place until March 2024. In addition, the UN Migration Network will organize one multi-stakeholder consultation for each of the five regions that will feed into the meetings of the respective regional commission and ‘ensure that there is diversity of stakeholders represented’. The UN Network wants GCM talks to focus on two areas: 1) developing actionable recommendations on strengthening cooperation on missing migrants and providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in distress; 2) proposing a limited set of GCM indicators to better gauge progress in implementing the GCM.
The GCM indicators
This leads us to the rather new development that the GCM is about to have a set of indicators. While an outsider to the process might wonder why these were not an integral part of the GCM right from the outset, it can still be seen as an increased commitment or at least the realization that outcomes of the GCM process will need to be more measurabl for the second IMRF.
Following up on the rather convoluted paragraph 70 of the Progress Declaration, the UN Migration Network established a workstream on the ‘Development of a proposed limited set of indicators to review progress related to GCM implementation’. The outcome and timeline of this process were actually the topic of the first GCM Talk held on February 24, 2023. The timeline includes five regional consultations, two global consultations and one global stakeholder consultation. These events will tailor on GCM indicators and the proposal should be ready by the end of the year.
A short questionnaire was sent to all Member States, UN entities, and other relevant stakeholders to gather inputs. The responses reported during the GCM Talk were rather uneven in terms of regions and stakeholders, but this is an ongoing process and it has not yet been decided if they will closely assemble existing indicators in particular from the SDGs or will be more GCM-specific. In any case, this process will be a relevant advocacy opportunity for migrant civil society. Interventions during the GCM Talk also called to include irregular migrants in the set of indicators.
Champion countries, pledges and the multi-partner trust fund
The timeline on the indicators includes an informal hearing exclusively for Champion Countries and opportunity for them to provide additional feedback to the UN. This demonstrates that the champion countries initiative is gaining relevance. What started out as a rather vague initiative is now being developed to get more substance.
At the time of writing, there are 27 champion countries and the attribute ‘mixed bag’ applies once more: While some are very involved in global migration policies and good practices, others can less clearly be identified as champions of migrants, to put it mildly. Yet, other countries that are very involved and make major financial contributions to the GCM such as Germany are for now content to be ‘champions of the hearts’ as one representative told me in a light-hearted manner. Still, the champion countries have an increasing number of meetings among them and the idea of a dedicated smaller group bringing the whole process forward has some appeal.
Furthermore, the status of a champion country could be an advocacy tool for domestic migrant civil society who might take the governments up on their commitments. Similar entry points lie within the abovementioned pledges and the project that are funded by the Migration Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MMPTF). The latter require the inclusion of multiple stakeholders as the name of the Trust Fund implies. The projects are in an early phase – or still in the pipeline – but they provide an opportunity for civil society funding and involvement in the GCM implementation on the ground, thus living up to the partnership principle. This could even be the case for countries who provide limited space for – if not a hostile attitude towards – civil society actors. Evaluation has to make sure that the partnership principle/whole of society approach is not reduced to a mere lip service. In countries where the space for civil society is not only shrinking, the organisations could try to use the global level as leverage, although the nonbinding nature of the Compacts might limit the effectiveness of this approach. CSOs then might have to resort to their established toolkit, i.e. naming and blaming/shaming or framing migrants rights in relation to other, binding conventions (i.e. on women, children, fundamental human rights….)
Things had been rather quiet on the GFMD front since 2021, when the last summit took place virtually in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). What had started out as a joint chairmanship between France and Senegal seems to have become a sole French chairmanship due to political uncertainties on the Senegalese side.
There have been questions about the relevance of the GFMD after the GCM. I have argued that the GFMD has played a role in socializing states and other stakeholders towards more cooperation which in turn has benefited the GCM process (Rother 2019) and I still believe that the GFMD can be relevant as a process complementing the GCM implementation. The GFMD by now has institutionalized participation of relevant stakeholders: civil society, business, mayors and youth all have their own processes and mechanisms. As has become apparent during the IMRF, such an inclusive approach seems to be hard to achieve at the formal UN level.
The informal GFMD therefore has the chance to demonstrate at its 14th summit what it can bring to the table. The topics chosen – the impact of climate change and environmental displacement – are highly relevant and will be the themes of two workshops which, together with a cultural event planned for 27 June 2023, will lead towards the GFMD summit planned for the week of January 22, 2024 which will now not take place in Paris but instead in Geneva.
Civil society is already highly involved in the preparations, held the Abuja Civil society Forum in January/February 2023 and issued the Abuja statement as a ’key advocacy document outlining recommendations on the three GFMD priority areas discussed by the participants of the Abuja Forum: climate change, diaspora engagement and labour migration’. Sisyphus, it appears, is far from being tired yet.
A previous version of this blogpost was presented at the workshop “The present and future of the Global Compacts” at CERC Migration and Integration, Toronto Metropolitan University on June 7, 2022.
Newland, K. (2020), Will International Migration Governance Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic? Washington, D.C: Migration Policy Institute, migrationpolicy.org/research/international-migration-governance-covid-19-pandemic.
Rother, S. (2019), The Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) as a venue of state socialization: A stepping stone for multi-level migration governance? In: Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45 (8), S. 1258–1274. DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2018.1441605.
Rother, S. (2022a), Global Migration Governance from Below. Actors, Spaces, Discourses. Cham: Springer International Publishing, https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-031-06984-0.
Rother, S. (2022b), Global migration governance from below in times of COVID-19 and “Zoomification”: civil society in „invited“ and „invented“ spaces. In: CMS 10 (1). DOI: 10.1186/s40878-021-00275-9.
Rother, S. and E. Steinhilper (2019), Tokens or Stakeholders in Global Migration Governance? The Role of Affected Communities and Civil Society in the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees. In: International Migration 57 (6), S. 243–257. DOI: 10.1111/imig.12646.
 At the time of writing non-public UN Migration Network Framework document, circulated among stakeholders