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Global Compact for Migrations : A classical realist interpretation of the fragmented global migration governance

Par Aymeric Faure, Research Fellow "Migrations" Open Diplomacy

· Migrations,Refugees,Realism

The world is facing increasing global migratory challenges. From 1970 to 2017, the number of international migrants increase by almost 200%, from 82 million to 244 million. This represents 3% of the global population.

The global migration governance seems to be highly fragmented. Thanks to Hans Morgenthau’s International Politics Analysis, I will argue that the migration global governance is highly impeded by the nation-state-centred structure of the international system. Morgenthau makes a phenomenology of power, aiming at detecting political phenomena rather than edicting eternal and universal laws (Guilhot, 2011).

After presenting a brief and indicative history of the global governance on migration issues, I will use Morgenthau’s theory of international politics to explain why the governance reached its actual status and how the Global Compact of Migration that is taking place on the 11th and 12th December 2018 is engraved in the history of global governance. To conclude I will evoke a possible way forward by emphasizing the benefits of fragmented governance.

A fragmented Regime

There is currently no overarching system of implicit or explicit rules involving the entire international community on the issue of international migration. If climate change or trade are more advanced toward the status of global regime, the migration regime is still highly fragmented except in the case of refugees (Sachs, 2016). Indeed, there is a very low demand for a global governance system about non-refugee migration (Hollifield, 2012). Migratory politics are currently mainly driven at the nation-state level with some regional and international initiatives. The global governance architecture addressing migration is thus fragmented.

Focus on Refugees

After the Second World War, the international agenda was mainly focused on refugee movements and protection through the creation of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 1949, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1950, and the signature of the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951. In 1951 was also created the Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrations from Europe (PICMME) that became the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 1989. This international instruments expanded in terms of tasks, budgets and staff during the cold war due to an increasing number of intra- and trans-continental conflict-driven movements. This brought the refugee governance to a multilateral level. Other aspects of migration are not properly addressed such as labour migration, remittances, diaspora support or even return migration (Betts and Kainz, 2016).

North-South divide

From the end of the cold war to the mid 2000s, Northern receiving countries were reluctant to put international migration on the global agenda. Initiatives came from outside the state’s box. The organisation of a global conference addressing international migration was first mentioned in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 48/113 ‘convening of a UN Conference for the comprehensive consideration and review of the refugees, returnees, displaced persons and migrants’. Following the resolution, the organisation of such conference generated long debates between migrants-receiving and migrants-sending states, letting the international agenda stuck in the North-South divide (Chamie and Mirkin, 2013).

Simultaneously, initiatives at the regional level emerged and Regional Consultative Processes have been initiated by participating states or by external entities such as IOM or other states) (Betts, 2011). They aim at sharing best-practices and at developing common standards. From the 1990s, they came out in many regions as exemplified by the Bali Process for Australia and South-East Asian states, the Colombo Process, the Abu Dhabi Process, or even the International Dialogue on Migration in Southern Africa (Hansen, 2010).

Substantial unstructured initiatives

Through the 2000s, the existing normative framework on migration has been strengthened. The publication of the ‘Migration and international legal norms’ and the ‘Multilateral framework on Labour Migration: non binding principles and guidelines for a rights-based approach to labour migration’ respectively in 2004 and 2005 raised the International Migration Law as a standard for international migration regulations. Following the Doyle report (2002), the UN created the Global Commission on International Migration (2003-2005). This independent expert commission held consultations and published ‘Migration in an Interconnected World’ as a final report addressing all the aspects of migration: from the human rights of migrants, remittances, diaspora engagement to smuggling and trafficking. This report appeals for a greater cooperation at the regional and global levels (Betts and Kainz, 2016).

In 2006, migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries compromised on the organisation of the High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development in New York. The agenda focused on the linkage between migration and development. While the impact of the conference is rather weak except the resolution A/61/515 stating the creation of a global forum as a discussion platform on international migration and development, it brought the development community into international discussion on the governance of migration global.

Issue Linkage with Development

Thanks to the linkage between the migration agenda and development matters, international migration proliferated in global discussions. Since 2006, the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), mainly focused on migration, allows civil society and government officials to interact and come up with some recommendations and non-binding norms and regulations.

In parallel, in 2006 the Geneva Migration Group (IOM, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNHCR, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)) became the Global Migration Group (GMG) with the additional membership of the World Bank, the UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). This UN governance body is highly contested from within and from outside. Migration has not the same weight and sense in the member organisations’ mandates, and GFMD states prefer keeping the UN out of their discussions circles.

In his report to the UN General assembly in 2013, François Crépeau, Special rapporteur on the human rights, described the global governance of migrations as “informal, ad-hoc, non-binding, state-led” (Betts and Kainz, 2016:7). While this statement described the state of global governance as fragmented and non-coordinated, the State-led and UN-led initiatives demonstrate the willingness to address migration issues and to find consensus on those questions. The linkages with other notions such as security, labour and development in the migration agenda allowed the international community to move forward. The issue linkage with the human rights agenda have been successful at the 2nd high-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development in 2013 (Hollifield, 2012).

In 2015, IOM, the World Bank, Switzerland, Sweden, Bangladesh and other UN agencies influenced the international community to put migration into general development strategies under the Agenda 2030. If the adoption of the Agenda 2030 can be seen as the victory of multilateralism, it is rather a paradigm shift than a real instrument of global governance. It does not contain a set of rules and regulations but a recognition of the linkage between migration and sustainable development (Betts and Kainz, 2016).

Smaller-scale initiatives

The global migration governance momentum has been completed by multilateral targeted initiatives mobilizing small groups of actors on a specific topic. Launched in 2012 by UNHCR and the governments of Norway and Switzerland, the Nansen Initiative is in charge of overseeing the Nansen process on Climate Change and displacement. Its goal is to set up non binding principles and spread good practices. Such initiatives can be considered as counterproductive as only willing states are engaged and no binding principle comes out. This could reinforce fragmentation. However, small groups of consensual actors negotiate more quickly and more efficiently. According to Biermann et al. (2009), small-scale successful initiatives constitutes a better basis for a global inclusive governance of international migration that failed attempts to bring the entire international community together.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration taking place in December 2018 is to be understood through the prism of the past history of proliferation and persistent fragmentation in the global governance of international migration. The US and Hungary withdrew from the agreement before negotiation stage. Other countries such as Austria, Australia, Switzerland, Poland, Israel or even Dominican Republic have indicated that they will not sign the agreement. It appears that fragmentation is still strong and the Global Compact for Migration will probably not be a decisive step towards global migration governance.

Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border, 25 August 2015, copyright Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed

A political realist explanation: the tragedy of the nation-state

The Geneva Convention of 1950 stipulates clearly that states own the undisputed sovereignty concerning who enters and exits their territory (Holllifield, 2012). The Westphalia treaties shaped the structure of nation-states as exclusive entities based on the concepts of nationality and citizenship (Betts, 2008); Exclusivity has been reinforced by the development of welfare states built upon solidarity and redistribution mechanisms and create a stronger distortion between inside the state and outside (Hatton, 2007).

In Politics among Nations: The struggle for Power and Peace, Hans Morgenthau (1993) presents several key assumptions of realism in international political theory. All of them are relevant to explain the status of the international migration regime.

The state is the central actor on the world stage

Paradigm 1: The state is the central actor on the world stage

Today the states remain sovereign in the definition of their migratory policy. As evidenced by the powerlessness of the UN, the civil society, and any other actor to incentivise states to sign international binding agreements and principles, states remain the strongest entity in the international community. States are signatories of multilateral agreements, they are main contributors to UN agencies targeting migrants, they are participants of the initiatives that emerged such as the Nansen Process. Even if Nation-state is the product of history and the present division of the world might change, today states are the essential actors of the governance of global migration.


Paradigm 2 : The natural state of international politics is that of anarchy


Anarchy is not to be understood as war of all against all but in the sense that there is no overarching entity ruling the states. Even though the Convention on the Status of Refugees, or the principles of the Agenda 2030 for instance are conventions, common understandings and shared best practices on migration issues that have an effect on states’ behaviour, this effect depends essentially of the value and respect placed by the states who observe those initiatives.


Paradigm 3: Interest is the essence of politics and states seek to have the greatest amount of power


Each state is acting in its own interest, trying to maximise its power on the international scene. In the International governance of migrations context, the fragmentation is the result of states’ divergence of interest combined with a balance of power. The deadlock of the negotiations due to the divergence of interest of migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries in the aftermath of the second World War is an example. Migrant-sending countries could have interest to let people go. This can bring positive outcomes to the country such as remittances, know-how, but also relieve the country’s overpopulation and unemployment for instance. Otherwise, migrant-receiving countries could be reluctant to let people enter their territories, societies and economies. In both cases, the validity of the arguments raised by states are questionable. But in terms of power, migrant-receiving countries have greater political, institutional, economic power to shape the agenda in a way that multilateral regulation is excluded from all the discussions.


Paradigm 4: It is the intrinsic nature of the human actors who control the states that shape the states


This assumption highlights the tragic condition the nation-state. Morgenthau indicates that nation-states, and the individuals within the states, are animated by three main sentiments that are interconnected and that shape what he presents metaphorically as the tragic condition of nation states: Ignorance, Fear and Insecurity. Indeed, even though Morgenthau considers the nation-state as the main actor in international politics, he presents individuals as key players. Public opinion matters when political actors shape their migration policy. As the majority of the most powerful actors are democratic states ruled by elected leaders, there is a strong connection between the people and the state level policy. The natural character of those sentiments can be discussed. Those three sentiments are present on the international stage and are particularly significant when migration issues are discussed.


Mexico-US border wall at Tijuana, Mexico, 6 February 2017, copyright Tomas Castelazo

Ignorance : Migration is not a well known phenomenon. Despite the very active and developed academic attention, the consequences of migrations are mixed in sending-countries as well as in receiving countries. Migration are wrongly considered as a one-way problem (Sykes, 2012). There are many modalities to take into consideration on the long term to assess the consequences of migrations. And each model is not replicable as it depends of the demography of the emigrants, the society, economy, the political system and the degree of structure of diaspora in the receiving country.

Fear: Associated with ignorance, fear from migrant inflows is expressed by some populations. Often presented as a model (Geddes, 2012; Hollifield, 2012; Sykes, 2012), the European Union is a good example of how fear from migrant flows generated the fragmentation of the Union on migration issues. The lack of solidarity and the difficulties the EU experienced when it addressed what was framed at the so-called migrant “crisis”. The highly erroneous idea that migrants are taking jobs and beneficiate from the welfare state’s services is often present in the discourses of political parties that have a rising influence in the EU. Another factor of fear is that human mobility is impossible to control.

Insecurity: Linked with fear and ignorance, insecurity is also a sentiment that fuel anti-migration discourses and actions. The immigration policy of Donald Trump is the illustration of the amalgam between migrants and (potential) terrorists. Insecurity can also be considered at a higher level; migrants are seen by some actors as external troubles to internal stability.

The US withdrawal and the reticence from many other countries, even EU member states such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, or even Austria, that currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU and the non participation of Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands, that are going against the EU Commission support of the agreement are evidence that this remains a states’ power game. Without key players such as the US that are a major recipient-country, or even Australia, and other key states of the western world, no global binding agreement will come out from the Global Compact. The main impediment could be that the agenda is too generic. Its goals are to address all aspects of international migration: humanitarian and developmental aspects as well as human rights and others but also to coordinate international migration policies and to present a framework of comprehensive international cooperation on human mobility. This type of agenda is highly likely to generate disagreement on each or another aspects and block the process.

Way forward

From a classical realist standpoint, global governance of migration is ruled by state’s balance of power. The fragmentation of the regime described in the first part is the result of fear, ignorance and insecurity, combined with the Westphalian idea of sovereignty of the nation-state.

To go forward in the construction of a global regime, we need to accept fragmentation and try to reach a state of regime patchwork made of several complementary initiatives that will allow the international community to explore and elaborate new forms of cooperation. Issue-linkages helped and will continue to support migration to become the object of a specific global regime. A topic such complex as migration cannot be tackled alone.

Bilateral and small-scale multilateral initiatives are good approaches (Hollifield, 2012). There will be no global binding agreements without the support of great powers, the asymmetry is too strong. Change must come from less ambitious but realistic initiatives.

Some authors even consider regime fragmentation as necessary and unavoidable (Kellow, 2012). This fragmented status brings some insurance against the risk that one organisation targets one topic with one specific angle rather than another one. This also allows to offer adapted response to migratory issues at the regional scale and avoid opposition from actors that have no interest in the region and could block the process. The entry cost for some state actors as well as NGOs and civil society is lower in small-scale initiatives (Biermann et al, 2009).

The next step for the international community would be to manage fragmentation to make sure that the initiatives are coherent and complementary.


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