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The game of migration and development

Date of news: 24 November 2021

Since 2007 there has been an annual Global Forum on Migration and Development. This is an occasion at which governments, NGOs, activists and migrant movements meet to discuss current affairs around migration as a process and impact.

What is the GFMD? The website of the GFMD provides the following mission statement:

"..the GFMD is a voluntary, informal, non-binding and government-led process open to all States Members and Observers of the United Nations, to advance understanding and cooperation on the mutually reinforcing relationship between migration and development and to foster practical and action-oriented outcomes." (https://gfmd.org/process).

With the Global Forum on Migration and Development event in Berlin just around the corner (28-30 June), I found myself reflecting back again on the last GFMD event I attended, late 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey. At this occasion the Transnational Synergy for Cooperation and Development (www.transcodeprogramme.org) platform, of which I am an academic member, organised a side event during the civil society days, i.e. the Monday and Tuesday. These days preceded the 3 formal days of the event, with the Wednesday providing the occasion for interaction between governments, international supporting agencies and those falling under the label of the 'civil society', academics thereby included.

In our well attended side event we discussed the migration-development nexus in the light of the then freshly conceived Sustainable Development Goals, aligning with the overall objectives of the event. Thus, following an introduction to the theme by Prof. Raul Delgado Wise and myself, followed by insightful narratives by practitioners from the field, we held a lively debate, in which representatives of migrants, NGOs as well as governing agencies and associated consultants not only took the chance to present themselves (migration is certainly also an industry), but also provided some clear perspectives on the following provocative opening statements:

  1. If migration does not contribute to development, should it be stopped? Whose and what development is at stake?
  2. What are the responsibilities of different stakeholders in the receiving and sending countries to support the link between migration and development?

With that discussion, and the many informal ones that followed thereafter, still fresh on my mind, the sudden swing in approach on the mixed crowds Wednesday overwhelmed, or perhaps ultimately underwhelmed, me. Yet, I should have been warned. For one, although we had already registered for the civil society days, held at the very same venue, our badges were no longer deemed suitable, as we were all requested to re-register for that Wednesday, in the lobby of the Istanbul Lütfi Kirdar convention centre. And, as a further hint - whilst for the diplomats who turned up one by one for registration friendly receptionists were on call to quickly provide them their conference packs, the civil society delegation was required to stand in one long, slow row.. One meeting then, at two speeds.

It was still with some expectation however that I came to the plenary event of the mixed crowd day, held in the main hall of the conference venue, truly filled with thousands of delegates from all over the world. Suits and hands-free calls buzzed by whilst outside chauffeurs stood by the hundreds of embassy vehicles glistening their dark paint under the autumn sun. Seated about two-thirds from the back, I could only see the convenor speak on the massive screen projecting his head, as he spoke from somewhere up front. Around me there was a continual buzz, diplomatic aides rushing in and out of the venue, whilst left and right pictures were taken to adorn the Facebook and website pages of the many organisations present.

In this beehive of diplomacy I found myself short of concentration on what was being stated out front by the Minister of Foreign affairs of Turkey, the UN deputy general, the head of the UNHCR and others. It was only when Ignacio Packard, the final speaker before we would break for lunch, spoke on behalf of the civil society, that I was able to truly focus again on the contents of what was said, perhaps because there was more contents to his words than the deliberately vague speeches of some of the prior speakers. Packer thus spoke of the desperate need to integrate human rights in all approaches to migration and yet to also ensure that there would be a continued and strong engagement of civil society with states around the world. However packaged well, in that giant conference hall the words just seemed to lose their momentum, a far cry from when we discussed these at length during the civil society days, as very few seemed to express a care for them. Indeed, many diplomatic representatives were already sending messages to one another to secure time slots for some quick informal discussion over lunch..

Was the summary of Ignacio Packer then ineffective? No, not necessarily. But the idea that they would incite an immediate response, perhaps even have the effect of resulting in statements to build state - civil society partnerships there and then, right on that public platform, in front of a massive audience, was of course naive from my side.. yet this, did not mean that no deals would be made, or that the civil society would be wholly ignored. However the momentum would remain with the states, and they would discern what chances should be explored to work together with the civil society and give an impetus to common agendas.

Thus it became clear to me just how semantics and the discourse of terms was not the monopoly of academics alone, and indeed that at occasions such as this the discerning eye could reveal many levels of interaction. Indeed, to these experienced players at the GFMD the latest buzzword of sustainable development - reflecting the shift from the global millennium development goals to the sustainable development goals, provided them just a little more change to play with, alongside other well used concepts such as migration, poverty, refugee, conflict, circular, return, brain drain etc.

It was perhaps emblematic and appropriate for my state of mind that Bill Swings, the Director General of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN condoned but not mandated organisation, would provide the following statement: "Migration is not an issue to be solved, but a human reality to be managed". As I wrapped my mind around these words, he then added that the IOM, and the international community at large, should be able to return people to their countries, where they would be able to contribute much more, rather than waste their time abroad.. Ah, that was a sudden shift! Yet, in his conclusion he added that migration, on the whole, is positive, as: "Migrants - indeed - belong with us, we have to learn to manage diversity".

At that event in Istanbul, in the autumn of 2015, I learned much about the next level of semantics, about the agency of words, about the power games being played, and how to value the onset of certain dialogues and exchanges, rather than the precise meaning of the words uttered at these meetings. That this was not a one-off response, but a sustained reflection of our times has become quite clear with the current response to migrants from the current leaders of Turkey, the United States and the European Union, who seem to have in common their keenness to limit migrant inflows, at almost any expense. How such an orientation then aligns with the theme of the 2017 Berlin GFMD event: "Towards a Global Social Contract on Migration and Development", and its focus on balancing the interests of migrants, their countries of origin, as well as those of countries of transit and destination, is a little beyond my comprehension.. But perhaps I need to align myself better with the semantics at hand, by making an in-depth inquiry..

Lothar Smith, March 2017