By Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, and Kate Hooper
The global context for cooperation on migration has shifted in unanticipated ways in the three years after the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) and in the midst of a historic pandemic. A ripple of new or intensified migration crises—from the exodus from Venezuela, to renewed intense pressure on U.S. and EU borders, to the swinging doors of border closures caused by COVID-19—has revealed the limitations of unilateral border controls and strengthened the case for coordinated action. At the same time, it has also exposed the shortcomings of existing global frameworks to govern mobility in times of systemic stress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that many migration issues are beyond the ability of an individual state to solve on its own. As nations consider how to safely reopen borders and legal migration channels that were closed en masse in Spring 2020 (and whose cautious reopening was subsequently imperiled by new viral variants), cooperation is key to building the migration management and public-health infrastructure necessary to restart mobility while safeguarding public health. Yet the scale of this transnational challenge has triggered restrictionist impulses, leading countries to turn inward rather than work together to meet the challenge. To date, much of the cooperation on migration has been at the bilateral level and within certain regional or sectoral clusters, typically involving the movement of certain essential workers. Without broader multilateral cooperation, the goals of developing common standards for reopening borders and health-proofing mobility may be out of reach, including helping countries with less-robust capacity for health screening at borders handle this new normal.
Against this backdrop, it is worth reflecting on the trajectory and implementation of the GCM, the biggest experiment to date in developing a comprehensive global framework on migration. As with any complex international instrument (even a nonbinding one), the GCM has not been without controversy. It faced swift, and some argue unanticipated, backlash among some states in the lead-up to its adoption and uneven implementation in the three years since. Yet it has managed to lay the groundwork for more meaningful international cooperation in three ways:
► Creating a common language. The GCM has articulated a comprehensive framework for migration that, for the first time, establishes a common reference point for states with disparate interests, resources, and priorities.
► Creating common infrastructure. The GCM gave rise not just to a process but to concrete mechanisms embedded within the UN system to facilitate (and periodically evaluate) implementation, including a centralized coordinating body that can provide technical assistance and a financial mechanism to support projects.
► Creating a more level playing field. Having 23 goals enshrined in a common document offers at least the promise of facilitating negotiations between countries of origin and destination and holding countries to common standards, even if this has been slower to materialize in practice.
But questions remain as to whether the process that has been catalyzed can meet the needs of ever-more complex migration challenges. The pandemic has provided such a test. While the GCM has guided certain concrete achievements (notably Objective 15, helping countries make the case to ensure access to health care for migrants during the pandemic, regardless of legal status), cooperation on thornier migration issues has been slower to materialize—particularly when it comes to providing guidance for managing cross-border crises or pandemic-related border closures. The GCM provides guidance on specific themes but less on an overall path forward in crisis. With some exceptions, governments that adopted the GCM have largely opted for a “pick-and-choose” model (implementing the lower-hanging fruit, including things they would have done anyway) or the “quiet implementation” model, choosing to align themselves with GCM objectives without naming it as such for fear of backlash.
This offers a cautionary tale that collective action on migration cannot be taken for granted, even when it seems most necessary. At a time when countries are facing great uncertainty over the near-to-midterm future, the international community could be in danger of repeating the mistakes of 2018. The objections raised by the few countries that opted out of the GCM (concerns that the agreement may blur or even erase the lines of sovereign control and that it ignores the social and cultural costs of migration, to name but a few) have not dissipated. While the pandemic has in some ways crystallized the importance of making individual sacrifices for the common good, negotiations on highly contested issues will continue to face steep battles, and some countries may prioritize having the freedom to chart their own course.
Making the case for international cooperation in the current climate requires persuading national publics of the long-term benefits of well-managed migration and multilateralism. To this end, the Transatlantic Council on Migration recommends three principles:
► Put national priorities front and center when making the case for new policies or investments. Policy actors may need to go back to basics and make the broader case to their constituents for why and how cooperation can actually advance national priorities—rather than undermine them—particularly in the context of a historic economic upheaval and pandemic. This involves pointing to easy wins, setting realistic expectations for what collective action can achieve and on what timeframe, and carefully identifying, measuring, and articulating the costs of unilateralism.
► Prioritize efforts to rebuild public trust rather than pursue quick fixes. Governments need to make the political and public policy case for investing in cooperation for the long term in order to get the public on board. This requires establishing a compelling narrative about cooperation, and presenting it in a disciplined and consistent matter. Without this trust, they will not have the political latitude to test and get buy-in for creative immigration and integration ideas and to take calculated and deliberate risks to guide their communities in the long recovery ahead.
► Acknowledge that there is no perfect or quick solution. Multilateralism demands continuous engagement and compromise. It is almost always slower, less precise, and imposes many imperfect tradeoffs. Instead of trying to persuade people that, ipso facto, migration will have benefits to all people, leaders should be transparent about the challenges and potential tradeoffs and outline the measures they intend to take to address them. In doing so, they should strive to build confidence that systems are operating fairly, according to clear rules, and consistent with a society’s values.
Champions of cooperation will thus need to rewrite not just the rules of the game but also the narrative around it to show that working together can solve common problems and achieve mutual goals.