“This is really the time for political leaders to rise to the challenge and not wait to be carried by a wave of supportive public opinion,” says United Nations Special Representative on International Migration Louise Arbour, referring to the complex human mobility trends now facing the world.
Ms. Arbour is responsible for coordinating UN member state action on a global compact on “safe, orderly, and regular” migration, which is being pursued in parallel with a global compact on “refugee responsibility sharing.”
Speaking with the Global Observatory Editor James Bowen on the sidelines of an International Peace Institute event, she said that many of the claims around migration being made in the current political climate were at odds with the facts. This includes accusations that workers from the developing world are stealing jobs from those in the developed world.
“…if you look at demographic changes, there is no doubt that the West is going to need, at all skill levels, to import human resources. So we might as well start now putting in place cooperative models that will decrease irregular migration and increase legal pathways for people to come, so that states know who they are, where they are, and what they’re doing in the country,” Ms. Arbour said.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
At the time of last year’s summit, when UN member states agreed to produce these two global compacts, the Mediterranean refugee crisis was commanding international attention. Now we are seeing the mass movement of the Rohingya minority out of Myanmar, which again seems to highlight an international inability to deal with these sorts of crises. Is that a fair assessment, or has there been some progress the casual observer might not have noticed?
Well I think everything is based on your point of view. I think there is no question for the Western world the crisis in the Mediterranean, and prior to that the Balkan routes for Syrian refugees, dominated the agenda. But pretty much at the same time almost a million people crossed from South Sudan to Uganda. There are things happening in different parts of the world. There is lots of very stressful mobility in what’s called the Northern Triangle in Central America.
What I think this has brought to light is that there is a collapse, in a sense, of the solidarity that is needed, under the Refugee Convention, for refugees to receive the kind of asylum and eventual resettlement that they are entitled to. At the same time there’s a huge problem that is triggered by what are called “mixed flows” of migrants, so some are refugees recognized within the convention, they’re fleeing persecution, but others are also moving in circumstances that are not always of their own free choice.
In recent months we’ve also seen a lot of displacement, or we can expect subsequent displacement, from extreme weather such as the hurricanes in the Americas and flooding in South Asia. How is refugee and migration planning keeping pace with the conditions we can expect from climate change in the future?
I hope this global compact on migration will be very forward-looking and will develop mechanisms of international cooperation that will be particularly well-adapted to the very foreseeable likelihood that there will be both sudden disasters such as hurricanes and floods and earthquakes, and also much more insidious, slow onset problems such as desertification and soil erosion, which threaten the capacity of populations to live and grow food. There are already some mechanisms—under the Nansen Initiative, there is cross-border cooperation in times of disaster—but I think we need to look at something that is going to be much more sustainable in anticipation of what we have seen recently.
Part of the response to recent crises has also been a hardening of opinion of the developed world toward the developing world and migration generally, and a rise in xenophobic politics. How much harder does that make the migration challenge and how can you encourage UN member states to take the necessary action?
This is really the time for political leaders to rise to the challenge and not wait to be carried by a wave of supportive public opinion. And this in part is because I think we need to very seriously start changing the narrative. Migration is one of these issues where the reality is much better than perception. There are a lot of negative stereotypes that are completely at odds with reality. The idea that the so-called economic migrants, as opposed to refugees, come into Western countries to steal jobs or abuse the welfare system—this is completely at odds with the facts.
I think the media has a role to play and I think this global compact is a platform by which we can start addressing these issues. But there is no question that if we are to trust politicians to make policies based on evidence and facts and reality they are going to have to step up to the plate on this one and lead the conversation. Again, if you look at demographic changes, there is no doubt that the West is going to need, at all skill levels, to import human resources. So we might as well start now putting in place cooperative models that will decrease irregular migration and increase legal pathways for people to come, so that states know who they are, where they are, and what they’re doing in the country. It’s in everybody’s interest, I think, to move in that direction.
Can you tell us what progress has been made so far on developing the global compacts on migration and refugees?
The two compacts were launched at exactly this time last year through the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and they’re separate processes. The UN compact for refugees is led by UNHCR and it is progressing with a series of events and it will all come together at the end of 2018. My responsibility is mainly with the global compact for migration, and this is actually led by member states. There are two co-facilitators of the General Assembly—the ambassadors of Switzerland and Mexico—and my role is to articulate policy directions and mobilize UN agencies to support that process.
It’s very advanced actually. There have been five of the six big thematic member state consultations; we’ve started regional consultations; and the co-facilitators will produce in January next year what is called the “zero draft” for negotiations. The negotiations will spread from January to July, so this time next year we should be ready to have a conference in which this global compact on migration is adopted.
The needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are often overlooked in these big conversations around refugees and migrants. Will the global compacts address that shortcoming?
It is, I think, pretty explicit that member states did not want internal displacement to feature in this particular compact on migration. This is specifically about international migration. In a sense, you’re right—most human mobility takes place internally, inside borders, including both forced mobility, what we call IDPs, and, of course, labor mobility, so people moving inside their own countries. But the dynamics are very different if we’re talking about international cooperation—I think now the focus is very much on cross-border migration.