We just lost a great leader in the field of migration. Now we must learn from him

Swedish acting Foreign Minister Jan Karlsson addresses the United Nations General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS, at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 22, 2003.

Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar

Khalid Koser
Executive Director, Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF)
Jeff Crisp
Research Associate, Refugees Studies Centre, University of Oxford
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We had the great privilege and pleasure to work for Jan O Karlsson, the former Swedish minister for Migration and Development, when he chaired the Global Commission on International Migration in 2003-2005.

Karlsson sadly died on Monday, the very same day that world leaders gathered at the UN in New York to attend the secretary-general's High-Level Meeting on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, which committed states to negotiating a ‘Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’, for adoption in 2018.

Many have regretted that the international community has only woken up to the issue of international migration now that it is affecting Europe – never mind the millions of people who are on the move in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. In that respect, it is significant that between them, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who established the Global Commission), Jan Karlsson, and his co-chair Mamphela Ramphele had the foresight to convene a global conversation on migration over a decade ago. It is much easier to have a sensible discussion on migration, or any other policy issue for that matter, when you are not in the throes of a crisis.

The opportunity and challenge confronting the world is certainly different from that 10 years ago. The number of migrants is at a historic high; they are generating more economic growth and development than ever before; but more of them are also dying, living in precarious situations, and suffering abuses of their rights.

Still, there are lessons to learn from the Global Commission which should inform the establishment of the Global Compact.

First, the Commission based its work on extensive consultation, in particular with civil society, in all parts of the world. The 19 commissioners themselves represented diverse perspectives, and they took the time to listen to a wide range of stakeholders. In contrast, the Global Compact did not get off to an illustrious start in this regard: insufficient civil society representatives were allowed to register for the High-Level Meeting last week, many of those who did could not actually enter the room, and those who did listened to a series of pre-prepared statements by governments.

Second, the Commission proposed a principled approach to migration policy that is as relevant today as it was then. These concerned the right to migrate out of choice rather than necessity; the importance of realizing the potential of migrants; a rights-based approach to addressing irregular migration; strengthening social cohesion through integration; the paramountcy of protecting the rights of migrants; and the need for more effective global governance. Measured against these principles, migration policy has regressed not progressed over the past decade. Karlsson must have been disappointed.

Third, the report of the Global Commission was deliberately accessible. It was short, jargon-free, and direct. One of the principle challenges in the migration world today is the growing gap between perceptions and reality, and it will be essential that the Global Compact fills this gap by confronting the myths but also admitting the challenges.

There are equally things the Global Commission got wrong in our view, and the Global Compact would be well advised to heed these mistakes.

First, the Global Commission largely ignored the private sector, both in its process and its output. To do so over the two years that the Global Compact is being negotiated would be to omit a key partner in its formulation and implementation.

A second criticism that was leveled against the Global Commission was its decision not to make concrete recommendations on the global governance of international migration, instead emphasizing the need to build capacity within government, adopt a more coherent approach across government and by consulting other national stakeholders, and ensure coordination across governments. Another decision made at the meeting last Monday was that the International Organization for Migration will now become a UN entity. It will be very important for the Global Compact to make clear recommendations on achieving a coherent approach across the various UN agencies with an interest in migration.

Finally, the Commission did not do enough to promote implementation of its recommendations. It published a good report and then faded away. Far more important than a strong Global Compact will be a strong implementation plan to which all governments and their partners are committed.

We will remember Jan O most for his irreverent sense of humour. His legacy to migration policy and governance should be that we learn the lessons from his flawed but progressive Global Commission.

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