Government and governance, International relations, Social policy | Australia, Asia, The World

19 June 2017

In the first of a series of reports, Marianne Dickie writes about the first informal thematic session on the human rights of migrants, as global leaders work towards developing global compacts to ensure the safety of migrants and refugees.

In a funny video by The Guardian, Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame is talking to a group of UK ‘Ministers’. He boldly states that the United Kingdom will not be dictated to by the European Union and asks, “What has the European Convention on Human Rights ever done for us?”

At risk of giving away the punchline, the sketch ends with a ‘Minister’ explaining to Patrick Stewart that the UK was instrumental in the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that it arose from the Second World War and a commitment by world leaders that the abuses of that war would not be repeated.

The video is funny and thought provoking, and was produced just days before Theresa May’s announcement that she is prepared to rip up human rights laws that she says restrict national security. The video starkly highlights exactly what such a policy may throw away.

But the reason the Patrick Stewart video resonated with me was that I had just spent the better part of three days listening to states, non-government organisations, academics, and civil society discuss these very issues in Geneva. The first informal thematic session held in early May 2017, purposefully focused on the ‘human rights of all migrants, social inclusion cohesion and all forms of discrimination, including racism, xenophobia and intolerance’. The subject matter ensured that the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers were in sharp focus despite the separate process established for a Global Compact on Refugees.

More on this: On second thoughts, you can keep your huddled masses

These meetings are part of a process that began in 2016 when world leaders joined together at the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

The Declaration is a powerful statement that declares the will of member states to protect the rights of migrants and refugees. It is the first step towards what will be two Global Compacts intended to be a means of ensuring the safety of migrants and refugees amongst all member states.

Whilst the Global Compact on Refugees will be led by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Global Compact for Safe Orderly and Regular Migration will be a states-led process, with input of the International Organization of Migration. In line with Annex II it will be informed by a series of informal discussions and consultations.

The actual format of the Global Compact has not yet been determined. The discussions themselves will not result in a binding agreement, nor are they a negotiation. They are part of a process that allows stakeholders to participate and provides them with an opportunity to truly exchange views. They aim to increase understanding between states and non-state actors such as non-government organisations, civil society organisations, academics and migrants. They are intended to provide a means of presenting evidence and data about things that work and can assist member states to achieve their ambitious goal.

The United Nations Special Representative for International Migration and Secretary General of the intergovernmental conference, Louise Arbour, began the discussions by calling for states to take the lead in enacting policies that would change the negative views of migration that now predominate across the globe.

In doing so she called for participants to examine policies and present data that would assist in effectively discouraging irregular migration and encouraging regular migration. These included states implementing pathways for family reunion and permanent residency, and ensuring their policies adhere to human rights frameworks under international law.

The discussions are heavily regulated. Each thematic is presented with an issue brief that is intended to guide the discussions. Speakers have up to three minutes to present their point of view. Longer written submissions can be provided separately. This doesn’t leave a lot of time to go into detail; nonetheless, there were many insightful and thoughtful contributions from member states and other participants.

More on this: Photo essay: the forgotten refugees of Indonesia

The first round of discussions provided an insight into the issues that states were not prepared to move on, including some critical issues already detailed in the New York Declaration, as well as new issues arising from participant discussions that some states were clearly uncomfortable with.

A strong focus was on protecting vulnerable migrants and in particular women and children, by ensuring that the best interest of the child is always taken into account.

Canada put forward three clear suggestions for the development of the Global Compact. The first was for the Compact to contain commitments to ensure women and girls’ needs are addressed throughout the migration process; secondly to enshrine free education for all migrant children and access to secondary education regardless of migration status; and finally that the Compact should include an intent to protect those at risk in the migration process including those at borders.

Underpinning the discussions was a thread of desperation. This reflected the understanding that the political reality of such high-level discussions often results in very little change on the ground. Participants stressed that the global compact did not need to involve additional legislation or internationally binding agreements. Instead, member states needed to commit and act upon the current frameworks already in place.

The Columbian representative statement captured this clearly,

“….we cannot merely reiterate the same statements of the importance of human rights…. we need to move from theory to action and from action to practice”.

Let’s hope those words turn into action and practice. If the nations of the world can do that, we really will be boldly going where no one has gone before.


Read more about Marianne Dickie and the Global Compact and the Safe Orderly and Regular Migration process at the ANU College of Law website:

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