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18.10.2022

UN Member States Reaffirm the Human Rights of all Migrants

States adopted the International Migration Review Forum’s Progress Declaration by consensus. A major achievement, says Kate Sheill, Human Rights Consultant.


Overshadowed by the Russian war against Ukraine, the first ever International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) took place in New York in May 2022. What were the IMRF’s results? Are they in line with human rights or do they fall short of civil society's hopes and ambitions? On the occasion of the 4th Annual Meeting of the UN Network of Migration we want to reflect on these questions.

As provided for in the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), the IMRF should take place every 4 years, starting in 2022, and include, in addition to the UN Member States, relevant civil-society and non-state stakeholders. Each Forum is to end with a Progress Declaration (PD) that takes stock of the global implementation progress, identifies key challenges and opportunities, and proposes action-oriented recommendations for implementing the GCM.

In the run-up to this Forum, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) initiated a human rights reading of the draft versions of the PD to inform and enable civil society actors and other stakeholders to push for a rights-based PD. Following a multi-stakeholder hearing, the four-day Forum concluded with adopting the final Progress Declaration by consensus. Two weeks later, the General Assembly formally endorsed the PD on June 7th - also by consensus.

The human rights consultant Kate Sheill, in collaboration with the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva and with support from the FES, offers an initial human rights analysis of the adopted Progress Declaration. The analysis highlights certain aspects of the advancement of human rights through the implementation of the GCM.

Consensus – a major achievement

The consensus adoption and endorsement of the PD by the UN Member States is a major achievement in itself – at a time of immense political pressure on both migration and multilateralism. States reaffirmed their collective will to work together to make migration work for all, including through affirming the human rights of all migrants and the need for safe, orderly and regular migration and the relevance of doing so within the remit of the United Nations. The PD does not go as far as needed to realize safe, orderly and regular migration for all migrants, nor as far as QUNO advocated for. It is gratifying to note that several States also voiced this view in their Explanations of Position after the adoption of the PD.

States rallied behind the GCM

Importantly, the PD reaffirms the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (GCM) and its ten guiding principles, ensuring that the measures agreed at the IMRF are supplementary to the existing framework and any elements not specifically addressed in the PD will not be omitted in the work to come. This reaffirmation had been contested by some of the minority of States that did not endorse the GCM, but there could have been no progress if States had not been able to reaffirm the GCM just four years after its adoption.

Main tensions visible

The PD largely reflects some of the current main tensions in migration governance, most noticeably a view (by States of origin and some destination States) of (regular) migration as a beneficial force requiring facilitation, versus an emphasis by some destination States on migration, especially through irregular channels, as a challenge that needs to be limited or prevented. This plays out across the PD as person(migrant)-centric versus State-centric approaches.

A human-rights-based Declaration?

Ensuring that the PD was human-rights-based was a QUNO priority, and this was asserted by some States throughout the negotiations. The resulting PD reaffirms that all migrants are rights-holders and that they should be able to enjoy their human rights regardless of their migration status. It also reaffirms the obligation of States to respect, protect and fulfil their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Furthermore, the PD recognizes and affirms that meaningful migrant participation is central to a rights-based approach and vital to ensure that relevant policies are responsive to their diverse needs. This includes the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in policy discussions, delivery and reviews on issues affecting them. However, the PD also contains elements that are more focused on the development potential of migration for States or on a securitization approach.

Racism, precarity and regularization

Although it could have been more explicit, the PD extends the GCM’s consideration of the relationship between migration governance and racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance by new references to systemic racism. Additionally, the language of the PD reflects years of activism to consider precarity that migrants face (before and during their migration, including in transit) as largely situational rather than inherent to migrants. There is also growing understanding and acceptance by States of the State’s role in creating and exacerbating such situations of vulnerability and their ability to prevent and reduce them. It is also worth mentioning that the PD extends beyond the GCM by referring to regularization to enhance and diversify migration pathways – a term missing from the GCM.

Areas in Need of Progress

Despite the dialogues preceding the IMRF and the push from the Secretary General’s report in that direction, States still struggled to agree on tangible commitments to actions they would take to further implement the GCM. They were also unable to mention key terms in migration governance, specifically firewalls, non-refoulement, disembarkation, and work to end immigration detention.

Disappointingly, there are several instances where the PD employs harmful anti-migrant or anti-rights narratives. Although in the PD States reiterated the need for evidence-based public discourse and the avoidance of misleading narratives, some of them generally linked migration and crime and, with regard to the climate crisis, exploited the scare scenario of large migratory flows. Similarly, while reaffirming the gender responsiveness guiding principle of the GCM, a standalone paragraph on woman migrants is missing. This failure to adequately consider women migrants is particularly striking given that the PD does recognise that they make up half of official counts of migrants. The references to women migrants that do appear in the PD are often harmful to efforts to realize women’s rights and agency, exceptionalizing them, focusing on their role as mothers, or employing violations-based vulnerability rhetoric. However, it is important to note that even though the language on diversity is weak, the PD retained reference to the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Additionally, the PD does not adequately commit States to end lethal disregard for migrants in transit. It places the burden of securing assistance on the migrant rather than affirming the legal obligations of the State.

Regarding the climate crisis, although several States invoked climate change in their statements and pledges, and the IMRF hosted numerous side events on the issue, there was no concerted will to make progress on the diverse linkages between the harmful effects of this crisis and migrants and migrations, such as with language on addressing loss and damage.

Conclusion

The Progress Declaration does not reflect the ambition civil society stakeholders would have wanted to see. They had hoped for a Declaration which would have taken the GCM as a starting point and built on it with lessons learned through four years of implementation, taking also into account the challenges arising from the global pandemic and clear commitments for specific State action to address implementation gaps. The vagueness of many of the recommended actions and lack of timelines make it less clear what States will actually do. However, this also offers an opportunity for civil-society stakeholders to interpret and shape the follow-up to the recommended actions of the new Declaration as well as the ongoing work with the GCM.

The original, longer version of these reflections was published in August 2022 on the Quaker United Nations Office Website.


About the author

Kate Sheill who authored the text for QUNO, is an independent consultant with over 20 years' experience in international human rights work. She is a researcher and advocate with expertise on women’s rights, sexual rights, and migrants' rights, and has worked for the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), Amnesty International (International Secretariat) and Anti-Slavery International, and consulted for NGOs and international organisations including the ILO, UNDP, and OHCHR.

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