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Dodging International Migration at the United Nations


Filipino laborers
Laborers in Mindanao, southern Philippines. The country is a huge exporter of migrants to rich countries. So far, the United Nations has avoided holding an international summit on global migration issues.  JOE PENNEY

Although the United Nations has not shied away from convening global conferences on aging, children, environment, population, trade, human settlements and women in the last decades, it has never held a conference on international migration. This lapse contrasts sharply with the fact that international migration has risen to the top of political agendas at all levels. So what accounts for the absence?

The earliest reference to the possibility of holding a global conference on the subject dates back to a 1993 resolution of the UN General Assembly, adopted nearly a year before the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development. While international migration figured prominently in the innovations that resulted from the population summit, governments decided after arduous debate, mostly between labor-exporting and labor-importing nations, to defer the contentious question of a possible conference on migration and development to a later time.

The next 10-year period was marked by several developments in the UN on the matter. These included: four separate rounds of surveys soliciting governments’ views on the possibility of such a conference; publication of an influential UN report, “Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations?“; launching an annual UN coordination meeting on global migration; preparation of a confidential internal report on the subject for the UN secretary-general; and creation of the Global Commission on International Migration. Also importantly, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families came into force. Despite being ratified since 2003, only 46 countries, none of which are major migrant-receiving countries, are party to the convention; virtually all the countries that ratified it are migrant-sending countries.

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After more than a decade of such initiatives, combined with intense behind-the-scenes intergovernmental negotiations, the General Assembly decided to hold a high-level dialogue in 2006 instead of presenting an international summit. The conclusion stemmed from a compromise largely between labor-importing nations, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United States as well as the European Union, and labor-exporting countries, like Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Jamaica, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan and the Philippines. The goal was to discuss ways of identifying methods to maximize international migration’s development benefits and minimize its negative effects. The sole outcome of the event, as intended, was a summary of the discussions, devoid of binding agreements but palatable to labor-importing countries.

A surprising result of the event, especially for Europe, was Belgium’s invitation to hold a global forum on migration and development the next year. Despite the meager enthusiasm and even some resentment on the part of the mostly labor-importing countries, like Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the US, the forum was held. It set in motion a series of annual forums addressing the topic from many perspectives.

The forum in 2007, for example, focused on human capital development and labor mobility; remittances and other diaspora resources; and improving institutional and policy coherence and promoting partnerships. The second forum, held in the Philippines in 2008, dealt with migration, development and human rights; secure legal migration; and policy and institutional coherence and partnerships. Later meetings were hosted by Greece in 2009, Mexico in 2010, Switzerland in 2011 and Mauritius in 2012, focusing generally on the main themes of migration and development.

The 2014 and 2015 meetings being organized by Sweden and Turkey, respectively, will focus on strengthening the development perspective, energizing involvement of countries and outreach to other parties and promoting more predictable financing.

The General Assembly is holding a second high-level dialogue on international migration and development this year in October, following a one-day informal debate in 2011. (The UN’s Commission on Population and Development, which meets in April, is also focusing on world migration.)

It is clear that governments of the wealthier, more influential labor-importing countries and their allies have consistently resisted convening a global conference on the topic. If such a conference were ever to take place, these governments fear that the more numerous labor-exporting nations might adopt an international program of action, similar to those adopted at the Cairo population conference, the Beijing women’s conference in 1995 and the Rio environment conference in 1992, setting legal norms and passing recommendations incompatible with their own national agendas. For the labor-importing nations, such an outcome would limit their sovereignty over matters relating to international migration. In other words, keep out of our affairs.

Given current political realities and the continuing opposing viewpoints between labor-importing and exporting nations, especially regarding family reunification, migrant rights, undocumented migration and responsibility sharing, it is exceedingly unlikely that the UN will see a worldwide summit soon. Most likely, more informal dialogues in the UN and voluntary, nonbinding global forums outside it will be the primary means for dodging international migration at the UN.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joseph Chamie recently retired as research director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York and as editor of the International Migration Review. He was formerly the director of the United Nations Population Division, having worked at the UN on population and development for more than a quarter century. Chamie has written numerous population studies for the UN and, under his own name, written studies about population growth, fertility, estimates and projections, international migration and population and development policy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Migration Policy Institute. He lives in the New York metro area.

Barry Mirkin works as a consultant on population issues, having retired from the United Nations Population Division in 2009. He served the UN in the field of population and development in New York and overseas for 35 years. Among other duties, he was chief of the population policy section. Besides completing numerous studies for the UN, Mirkin has written studies in such areas as population and development policy, population aging, retirement and international migration. He received his graduate training in population and economics at New York University, the University of Geneva and Princeton University. He lives in Manhattan.

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