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Refugees and Migration: Why this isn’t just Europe’s challenge

Refugees and Migration: Why this isn’t just Europe’s challenge

The gap in global migration governance 

On April 20th more than 400 people drowned in the Mediterranean. The news was shocking: not just the number of deaths and the harrowing stories of survivors, but also because this is a long-standing repeating pattern with no effective response. In 2002 – 2003 I lived in Piazza Armerina, a small town in central Sicily, and recall the news of African migrants drowning off Lampedusa. At that time the numbers of deaths did not constitute the European ‘crisis’ they do today. In the past two years with the war in Syria the numbers crossing the Mediterranean have increased dramatically, and so too have the drownings. European leaders have been deeply divided over whether to accept refugees and migrants, or whether they should erect walls and use tear gas to drive them back. All eyes are on European leaders to find a solution, but what’s missing in the debates is the global dimension of this problem.

Today there are almost 60 million displaced people globally, more than any time since WWII. Not all of these are ‘refugees’ but neither are they ‘economic migrants’ – many are fleeing for their survival from natural disasters or the collapse of states like Libya. Furthermore, we know that there are many more refugees and displaced peoples living in developing countries than in developed. According to the UNHCR, in Jordan there are close to a 1 million; in Lebanon over 1.3 million; and in Turkey almost 3 million refugees. Meanwhile, Germany, the EU country which has taken in the most, had less than 500,000 new asylum-seekers last year. Also, overlooked is the vast number of ‘protracted refugee situations’ – cases where refugees have been living for decades in camps. In Dadaab, a refugee camp complex in northern Kenya there are over a 300,000 refugees, many of whom fled civil war in Somalia and have lived much of their lives there. Dadaab sits in the remote border land near Somalia, a full day’s drive north of Nairobi. Out of sight and out of mind.

The central problem is that most states are reluctant to house refugees and migrants. There is a perception that migrants will take local jobs, and a migrant influx may drive people to vote for xenophobic parties – such as the recent success of Germany’s Alternative Fur Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany”) and the first round win to a far-right presidential candidate in Austria.

We need a global institution advocating for migrants’ rights and working with states to find solutions that reach across the globe. International organisations bring states together, set incentives for them to cooperate, establish international norms and monitor states’ adherence to agreed standards. We have seen great progress in other arenas in the last few decades: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was established twenty-five years ago and states, after tortuous negotiations, finally reached a substantive agreement in Paris to limit carbon emissions to 2 degrees centigrade, an unthinkable goal even ten years ago.

Currently we have a patchwork of institutions responsible for assisting migrants and protecting refugees, but none lobby states to provide access or assistance to vulnerable migrants. We have the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which ensures states do not return refugees to the dangers they fled from (the principle of non-refoulement). However, UNHCR targets only refugees and has no mandate to protect other international migrants’ rights. We have the 1975 Convention for Migrant Workers’ rights, housed in the International Labour Organization, but only 23 states have signed up to this (and only one G7 country, Italy) so it carries little force. Then there is the UN Special Representative on the Rights of Migrants, Peter Sutherland, a strong advocate for the free flow of labour. He worked with Kofi Anan to establish an annual meeting: the United Nations Global Forum on Migration and Development. But Sutherland is only one individual, and unlikely to shift states’ positions on migration on his own.

We also have the International Organisation for Migration, established in 1950 to move migrants from Europe to the Americas and Australia. Although it has been outspoken on the number of deaths in the Mediterranean  it has no legal protection mandate equivalent to the 1951 Refugee Convention for migrants. Furthermore, its hands are often tied due to its governance structure (it is outside the UN system and almost always led by an American) and financing (it has very little discretionary budget). IOM cannot push states to open up their borders.

The promising news is that states in September will hold a special meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss how migration is managed in the UN. There is talk of the International Organisation for Migration being bought into UN system, which could facilitate better coordination. Even if this does occur, it’s unlikely they will give IOM greater power to advocate for migrants’ rights and access. In many areas the UN acts as our global conscience – the 1947 charter for human rights, or the 2015 sustainable development goals.   We need a strong global institution which has the power to advocate for the benefits of migration and the rights of migrants. As Obama declared in Hannover, Germany: “All of us have to step up, all of us have to share the responsibility.”


Nina Hall is a post-doctoral fellow at Hertie School of Governance. She recently published, Displacement, Development, and Climate Change, International organizations moving beyond their mandates Routledge, 2016. In September 2015 she completed a swim from Turkey to Greece in protest at European refugee policy. 

Photo credit: Espen Rasmussen

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