The Transnational and Global Civil Society Movement on Migration: Building on the Past Decade in the Lead up to the First International Migration Review Forum

Forum on the Partnership Principle in the UN Global Compact on Refugees

Contribution by Colin Rajah and Clara Keller-Skupien, Civil Society Action Committee secretariat (AC) 
11 April 2022

The Civil Society Action Committee (AC) is the largest global civil society platform engaging and advocating on international migration governance and policy.  It was founded in the lead up to the 2016 United Nations High Level Summit on Refugees and Migrants, to organize civil society advocacy and action to ensure a strong and forward-looking New York Declaration.  Following that the AC focused its organizing on the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and more broadly on migration governance and policy.  Its primary objectives are to share information as widely as possibly among civil society, organize collective global advocacy and action, and to promote a broad and diverse a civil society direct engagement as possible. 

The GCM mandates that it organizes an international review every four years, to both assess the progress of its implementation and to envision how the following four years should proceed.  In line with that, the first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) is set to take place this month at the UN Headquarters in New York.  This sets the precedent for how GCM assessment and review will be undertaken, how the next period may look like, and most important for us in civil society, what role we play and how we come into the GCM and IMRF pictures. 

The dawn of the UN High Level Dialogues on Migration and Development (HLD) in 2006, and the Global Forums on Migration and Development (GFMD) in 2007 provided a framework and targeted advocacy goals, which in turn created a good environment that made it possible for a transnational and global civil society movement to grow and develop rapidly, compared to the previous decade. As these processes were put in place, civil society also began to convene at the global level and to organise around them.  Those of us who were engaging from civil society began to: 

  • Collectively advocate for shared policy goals in these spaces. 
  • Demand autonomous self-organising – the possibility to self-organise our own program and self-select our own representatives and spokespeople in an independent manner. 
  • Ask for equal space for civil society as with governments within these critical multilateral dialogues. 
  • Push for an agenda more in line with civil society’s ambitions and vision – striking for real outcomes and real changes on the ground for migrants and other impacted communities. 

The Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) 

The impact of such a global movement rapidly became tangible, particularly in the GFDM. Although the GFMD has always been “states-led” and rightly so, civil society has always insisted that it not be “states-only”.  As such, civil society has been directly engaged in the GFMD from the very beginning, even when it was conceived to be purely for states and there was no stakeholder component at all.  For those of us who were advocating on international governance discourse, strongly insisted on the possibility for civil society engagement with it, and eventually the first GFMD Chair, Belgium, provided one singular and separate Civil Society Day (CSD) along with a CSD chair/rapporteur whom they selected to present a summary report at the opening of that first GFMD. 

Since then, our engagement has increased exponentially to what is now a year-long series of regional and global civil society preparations, a full Civil Society Preparatory Meeting (CSPM) before the GFMD, and then full participation in the entire GFMD for all civil society delegates, while cooperating closely with other stakeholder components such as the Business Mechanism, Mayors Mechanism, and Youth component.  In this process since 2007, civil society has stepped up its role, responsibility, ownership and leadership in the GFMD process significantly, by striving to build a global network of civil society leaders advocating for and contributing to the implementation of GFMD recommendations that improve the life of migrants, their families and the countries to and from which they migrate. Civil society input to the entire GFMD agenda, and dialogue between governments and civil society, is now recognized as a vital part of the GFMD’s activities and success. 

Such level of recognition for civil society is the result of coordinated and continuous transnational and global mobilisation and alliance-building, and constant collective advocacy and engagement by civil society leaders from around the globe.  

This influence can also be seen in the choice of themes by each Chairmanship. This is the case, for example, with human rights, a subject that was labelled by most governments and UN agencies initially as taboo and unmentionable even in the early GFMDs, but which is now not only commonplace in GFMD dialogues, but will be among the central themes of the GFMD’s Franco-Senegalese co-Chairmanship for 2022-2023.  


The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM)  

During the consultation, stock-taking and negotiations of the GCM in 2017-2018, this level of transnational and global civil society movement-building, as well as engagement and partnership with governments built on a long period of trust and cooperation, continued to be enhanced and utilised. Various governments, through the International Organization on Migration (IOM), directly supported independent and self-organized civil society engagement, including seven self-organized regional civil society consultations, a 2-day civil society stock-taking meeting, and even the active attendance of many civil society leaders’ from around the world at all the negotiation rounds of the GCM and at the Marrakech Conference.   

All of these self-organized civil society initiatives for the GCM were widely recognized and promoted by many Member States, IOM and other responsible UN bodies at that time (including the Office of the President of the General Assembly and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General).  For example, seven self-organized regional civil society consultations were directly financially supported by IOM and by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), included as part of the consultation process of the GCM, and the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the UN (SRSG) welcome each of those with a video message.  Many governments in the GCM negotiations, including the co-facilitator teams of Mexico and Switzerland, even went so far as to credit civil society for some of the strongest and best language being directly adopted into the objectives in the final GCM text, especially the language regarding returns in the GCM. 

Again, this was only achieved through transnational and global mobilisation and coordination at all levels, before and during the negotiations. This was recognized as a key element of the “whole-of-society” approach in the GCM and in global migration governance in general, with civil society voices having a direct impact on the GCM itself. A significant culmination of this was during the last session of the last round of GCM negotiations, where non-State stakeholders were given the opportunity to say the last words before the negotiations officially closed, and civil society selected two youth representatives among our delegation to present a coordinated, joint civil society statement that applauded and welcomed the final GCM text and pledged to join governments in partnership to implement it fully while uplifting the human rights and human dignity of migrants.  

Implementation and review of the GCM 

Since the adoption of the GCM, opportunities for such direct engagement and dialogue between civil society and governments at the global level have been considerably reduced, since civil society and stakeholder engagement is now coordinated through the United Nations Network on Migration (UNNM) – which was set up by the GCM as the primary interlocutor and coordination body for the GCM.  

With this additional interlocutor came a shift towards individual participation of stakeholders that are centrally managed by the UNNM, as opposed to the previous years of self-organised stakeholder engagement through various fit-for-purpose stakeholder mechanisms. It became increasingly challenging to make key joint priorities come across, as individual actors were chosen to engage and give inputs in all the various events and activities by various UN bodies. The time and energy dedicated to procedures progressively evicted the space for real dialogue.  

While civil society ideas and practices get recognised and used as examples by the UNNM (including in their recent repository of practices for example), real and challenging issues on the ground can be ignored as a result, such as how migrants continue to die in attempting to reach destinations without legal and regular pathways – the fundamental objective of the GCM. Similarly, a disconnect between the global and national levels in the UN context seem to prevent recent global discussions to have much impact on realities experienced on the ground, as the global bureaucracy focusses on procedures and text, and far less on lived realities. As a result, increasingly more and more civil society organizations working directly “on the ground” and in impacted communities, are disengaging from the GCM. 

At the same time, the local level has emerged as a space where real change and action take place. For instance, local authorities and governments have proven to be far more responsive to migration-related challenges, and in effect implementing critical GCM objectives in far more concrete and impactful ways, becoming an engaging partner for civil society. For instance, many local authorities have enacted firewalls for migrants to access basic public services (healthcare, education etc.) without immigration enforcement procedures.  This already begun widespread adoption even before the pandemic and was even more widely practiced in many municipalities during the pandemic to ensure public healthcare was accessible to everyone, regardless of their immigration status. 

Way forward and avenues for change  

Reflecting on the above, the need to raise voices from the ground that focus on the reality of migrants and their immediate needs is more important than ever. These voices must be central in policy discourse at the regional and global levels, and civil society self-organising and self-representation must be recognised for consistent, real and meaningful civil society engagement.  

Real change – and real GCM implementation – must be measured on the ground, especially at the local and community levels where the impacts are directly felt. And the partnership and engagement of local authorities and civil society will be even more important moving forward, given the political synergies between us, but also the proven track record of what has been accomplished by local authorities already. As such, bringing examples from the ground to the national level, in partnership with local authorities, can help shape supportive national policies, which can then be brought to the regional level via existing as well as new regional bodies, such the Regional Economic Commissions (RECs), the Regional Consultative Processes (RCPs) on Migration, regional United Nations Network on Migration (UNNM) setups, regional IOM offices etc. 

Civil society can and must then replicate that “elevator model”, by building from the foundations and priorities set at the local and community level, to the regional level, and onto the global level.  We must work together at all these levels, building on each other’s work, experience and priorities, to reach collective positions and engage in self-organised joint advocacy to maximize our impact. 

In the lead up to this upcoming IMRF, the Civil Society Action Committee drafted what is commonly known now as the 12 Key Ways paper, as a model of building up a global position paper for IMRF advocacy, starting from civil society communities.  It has been the primary framework for our collective advocacy which was heightened during the negotiations of the IMRF’s Progress Declaration.  But only by finding common ground, building trust and developing working methodologies together, could such a comprehensive paper be agreed upon by such a wide and diverse platform, and endorse by over 100 organizations worldwide.  

On the side of the UN interlocutors, particularly the UNNM secretariat, Executive Committee, and head of the UNNM, better recognition and respect for self-organizing of civil society and all other stakeholders, would go a long way to rebuilding the lost trust among the various stakeholders.  We have consistently advocated for institutionalized mechanisms for stakeholders that are self-organized, rather than the current practice of all individuals managed by the UN itself.  We have resisted that in the past decade when governments attempted to manage and limit our engagement (in the HLDs and GFMDs), and we will continue to do that with the UN with regards the GCM and IMRF. 

If these can be realized, the real experience of working together between civil society and other partners like we are beginning to do with local authorities and other stakeholders, can only help develop an environment of overall trust and cooperation and enhance our bilateral engagement with governments, and to finally rebuild the lost trust and enhance ties where they exist.