En route to the Global Compact on Migration, we must disrupt anti-immigration policymaking

Chaos theorists tell us that a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico can cause a hurricane in China. More prosaically, but with equally far-reaching effects, anti-immigrant sentiment fuelled by right-wing political actors and media are causing hurricanes of harm to millions of migrants and refuges around the world.

Building on recent analysis by research giant Ipsos MORI into the characteristics of voters during the Brexit referendum, the Financial Times identified“the six tribes of Brexit”. Amongst the three tribes of those who voted to leave – ‘British values’, Working-class and Moderate Leavers – negative attitudes toward immigration was a common thread. But uneasiness and antipathy toward immigration aren’t naturally occurring phenomena. A combination of local-level community engagement and courageous, honest leadership from political elites – as a June 2017 paper on public perceptions of migration by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) points out – can help arrest a worrying trend.

Although not everyone with anti-immigration views subscribes to far-right racist and xenophobic ideas, the far-right has been able to set the policy agenda in Britain and beyond.

The consequences threaten to extend far beyond the Brexit train wreck. According to the 2015 United Nations Trends in International Migrant Stock report, the number of international migrants worldwide has continued to grow rapidly over the past 15 years, reaching 244 million in 2015 – up from 222 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000. This represented 3.3 per cent of the world’s population in 2015, up from 2.8 per cent in 2000.

However, international migrants are not spread evenly across the world. The same report notes that (in 2015) two out of three international migrants lived in Europe or Asia. Additionally, “two thirds of all international migrants were living in only 20 countries, starting with the USA, which hosted 19 per cent of all migrants, followed by Germany, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates.”

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of young people have left their homes in Africa to seek greener pastures in Europe, taking enormous risks in the process. Their motivations are complex. In Sierra Leone, for instance, a recent government ban on commercial bike taxi services in the capital’s central business district was enough of a catalyst for some bike riders to sell their bikes and embark on the perilous journey north.

More generally, driving factors behind the new wave of migration include economic hardship, the curtailment of human rights, poor governance and the innately human desire to expand one’s horizons. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between “01 January 2017 and 31 August 2017, 130,400 refugees and migrants arrived by sea and land to Europe”, with an estimated 2,428 dead and missing in the same period.

The human tragedy associated with these flows of people across international borders led the UN General Assembly to host an unprecedented high-level summit in 2016 to address the large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach. The outcome was the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which commits states to agree two global compacts (broadly speaking, an amalgamation of non-binding agreements and commitments): one on safe, regular migration and another on refugees, both to be finalised and signed in 2018.

Civil society groups taking a keen interest in the process, such as the Global Coalition on Migration, are also calling for more, less expensive and better mobility options but they also caution against an emphasis on the return and deportation of migrants, as well as restrictions on their rights. However, it appears as if the irresistible force of migratory and refugee flows from seemingly intractable crises in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar is coming up hard against the immovable obstacle of mounting hostility to immigrants – fomented in Europe by far-right populism and extremism – and refugees, not just in developed countries in Europe, the USA and Australia, but also in major host countries, such as Turkey, Uganda, Kenya and Pakistan.

The UK’s unhelpful agenda

The UK government’s position paper on the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) put out in advance of a consultation with civil society organisations in London this October does not set an encouraging tone. The UK’s imperial past has traditionally made it a magnet for peoples from Asia and Africa with colonial ties to migrate and settle in the country, giving it an important role in international debates about migration. But more recently, since the formation of the Department for International Development (DFID, the UK’s international aid ministry) in 1997, the UK has been an important voice in articulating the potentially beneficial and mutually reinforcing links between migration and development. While the paper rightly mentions that “well-managed migration can benefit source and destination countries and fosters development”, it places emphasis on the GCM addressing causes and consequences of migration but is reticent on opening up new channels for legal migration or regularising the status of those migrants already in the UK without the necessary documentation.

The UK’s position also lays emphasis on its sovereignty and its right to control its borders –issues that have not been called into question as part of the GCM process, which is state-led. The UK also makes a strong push for states to accept the return of their citizens when their avenues for staying legally in another country have been exhausted. In sum, the UK position is not at all upbeat about migration serving as a route to development; its language isn’t enabling. Border control and management, the importance of sovereignty, keeping ‘the problem’ at bay by outsourcing migration challenges to developing countries, in a similar manner to other EU countries, is what the UK position conjures up.

This feels like a retreat. Over the last 20-plus years, a growing consensus has developed within the international community that migration and development can complement each other in helpful ways. This is why migration was incorporated into several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In 2007, the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) was established to foster common understanding and cooperation between states. Under the centrist Labour Party, which created DFID, the UK played an active role in the GFMD, reflecting a positive outlook on the migration and development nexus. Yes, from time-to-time, tensions erupted between DFID and the more powerful Home Office (the UK’s interior ministry), with the latter calling the shots, but in general, the direction of travel was clear and the message constructive, positive and hopeful.

While it might seem unsurprising to find a government led by the Conservative Party less keen on immigration than Labour, it is worth remembering that there has been a remarkable consensus across the British political divide in support for international development. Britain under the Conservatives became the first G7 country to enshrine in law its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on aid every year.

So whose agenda is this?

But as the ODI paper points out, in the UK, like many countries around the world, right-wing actors have framed migrants and refugees as a threat. By stoking fears, these politicians and some sections of the media, have succeeded in unleashing emotions that are much less amenable to myth-busting based on facts. We can see this trend across Europe, from the recent electoral gains for Austria’s far-right parties to renaissance of the Front National in France.

Efforts by otherwise more moderate parties to try to steal the far-right’s thunder by outflanking them on a hardline immigration stance is a slippery slope with potentially disastrous consequences – not just for migrants and refugees but for the economies that benefit from the skills and labour they provide. Already, concerns are mounting at the possibility of staff shortages at hospitals and in other businesses because EU workers are leaving the UK ahead of Brexit.

More alarming is the prospect of far-right agenda-setting now extending to the international arena via the GCM process.

The UK government’s power to set the terms of the global migration debate was evident from its civil society consultation meeting on the GCM held in London recently. By framing issues in a way that limited legitimate discussion about immigration, it reduced the scope of what could be discussed. Extending the same approach to the GCM will rob the international community of an opportunity to devise lasting solutions within a framework of international cooperation.

It is as if governments are internalising this anti-migration stance and churning out policy prescriptions without their lineage being made transparent and clear. This willingness to privilege the concerns of one segment of the population is anti-democratic and can have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences. However, it is important to remember that in the UK – as in and other parts of Europe – views on immigration are polarised rather than uniformly hostile.

Arresting the rot

Citizens with more balanced and progressive views of immigration and the societies within which they settle have to seize the agenda back from the stealthy forces whose divisive views are now a threat, not just to major economies like the UK’s but to the international order. Arguing for technical changes to policy documents as part of international consultative processes won’t cut it. Concerned citizens need to find collective voice and tackle the issues head-on.

The fears and uncertainty that fellow citizens have about immigration can be countered through dialogue and community action. As the ODI suggests, humanising the “other” through ordinary, friendly contact can help to break down barriers, raise empathy and shift the debate. Thus while the burden for shifting the narrative cannot and should not lie with migrants, refugees and diasporas alone, these groups have not only a vested interest in a more enabling political environment, they also have the lived experience to share with others to put a human face on events that seem to be far away and out of control.

Citizens also need to promote and support political leaders willing to be courageous enough to take on the thorny issues and not hide behind bland rhetoric: to engage their citizens and constituents, to listen to their concerns, to explain that migration is part and parcel of what it is to be human. Those leaders unwilling to do so should be punished at the ballot box. A desire to navigate away from the Brexit precipice is energising such citizen activism in Britain.

There may still be time to let political leaders know that they must not miss the opportunity to turn the twin processes of agreeing global compacts on migration and refugees into opportunities to turn back from the abyss we are all peering at.

We can still create a more just, inclusive and empathetic world for us all. However, whatever happens, it is time to end the passive acquiescence to the use of immigration by some as a means to scapegoat and vilify people, and to stoke fears, hatred and hostility among host populations. Europe, especially, knows where this slippery slope can lead. It is unconscionable that we venture back there again.