Guest post by Tendayi Bloom, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, The Open University. Tendayi is on Twitter @TendayiB.

The international community is midway through a process of creating two non-binding compacts, one ‘for safe, orderly and regular migration’ and one ‘on refugees’. This provides the opportunity for fundamental and radical rethinking of the purpose of migration policy, including developing a broader understanding of the nature of ‘displacement’.

People have always moved from place to place. Individuals move, settle somewhere new, and become part of their new society. Some people move again, while others choose to stay. The UN Secretary General’s report on the process towards the compact for migration, Making Migration Work for All, launched on 12th January 2018, emphasizes migration’s positive aspects. The report presents migration as overwhelmingly positive, but warns that xenophobia, fear, and other factors can obscure the benefits of migration, cause grave human suffering, and make it more difficult for States to respond to labour shortages and enable orderly human mobility, for example. The report argues that a new approach to migration policy is needed, one that emphasises the positives, rather than merely trying to ‘avoid risks’, and seeks to make migration beneficial to all.

In this piece I suggest that the negotiation of a global compact for migration also provides the opportunity for (1) a more radical rethink of what migration policy is for, (2) a recognition of the ways in which it is policy that displaces people from institutional structures, not mobility, and (3) a collective project to create a new approach to migration policy that focuses on facilitating safe regular and orderly movement where it is sought instead of focusing on impeding movement and constructing barriers.

An Opportunity for Radical Rethinking

The need for safe, orderly and regular migration was identified already as a target within the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, launched in 2015. The world’s leaders met again in 2016 for an extraordinary UN summit on large movements of refugees and migrants, at which the decision to create two global compacts relating to human mobility was taken.

The summit was in large partly driven by the ‘policy-made humanitarian crisis’ at the borders of European countries, with people dying while attempting sea crossings, surviving in unsanitary encampments and struggling to access safety and security. However, developments across the world highlight that the need for rethinking migration is indeed global and the work towards the global compacts are global in focus.

Since November 2017, there have been talks about returning Rohingya from one side of the Naf river, where they are living in overpopulated camps, to the other side from which they fled extreme violence. Camps in Haiti are growing as Dominicans of Haitian descent are pushed over the border. Conflict over the closure of Australia’s immigrant camp in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island has laid bare the extreme maltreatment of noncitizens which is considered acceptable by some of the world’s richest democracies. In Libya, there is evidence of migrants from Southern Africa being auctioned as slaves, while European countries continue to negotiate with Libyan authorities to block onward migration northwards. Lebanon has seen its population rise by 25% with the expected pressure on public and other services and globally xenophobia is rising alarmingly. This is a time when migration is often framed within the discourse of walls and fences and security.

In the Secretary General’s report, mentioned above, we are told that ‘simply put, saving lives must at all times be a non-negotiable priority’.

This is a moment when radical rethinking is both necessary and possible. Making Migration Work for All confirms that the global compact for migration will be non-binding. For some this renders it empty. For others it provides the opportunity to bring together existing commitments from across policy areas.

The non-binding nature also provides an invitation to aspire; to think about how, in an ideal world, the migration policy landscape could look in 20 years’ time. In order to do this, it is necessary to interrogate what the migration policy landscape really looks like today.

The Urgency is not Because of Migration, but Displacement from International Systems

The diverse scattering of situations mentioned above apparently show people being excluded from rights and protections as a result of their migration. However, I do not think that this is quite what is going on. Rather than focusing on the physical movement in these examples, it is useful to look at the displacement from local, national and international structures (of labour, of welfare, of mobility, and so on) - and to interrogate its cause.

I particularly draw upon other rethinking of displacement, e.g. by Jacqueline Bhabha and Kristy Belton, and Phillip Cole's invitation to think radically.

Many people migrate without such displacement. Some moved freely at one time and then, as a result of changing circumstances outside their control, are blocked from movement and displaced from international systems.

Consider Abeve, interviewed in a recent media report on migrants stranded in France. Describing himself as the son of a diplomat, he recalls ‘it’s quite amazing as there was a time when I’ve been able with a diplomat’s passport to cross all the borders. And today I’m in a situation where […] it’s just too hard to pass the border.’ Abeve describes the transition from a time when his papers allowed him to move freely to one in which he lacks the papers to do so. Displaced from the structures supporting regular mobility, he is now blocked from border crossing and stranded in a space of limbo (see interview at 1:55 in this broadcast).

This institutional displacement can also be a cause of migration. At the most extreme, consider the Rohingya, displaced from Myanmar's internal structures through the removal of their citizenship, forced to move physically as violence has increased against them. It is not the physical movement that created their displacement from the institutional structures, but their physical movement was in part driven by the displacement.

It is not necessary to move physically to be displaced by the effects of migration policy. Perhaps the focus on physical movement may be a distraction from the real nature of displacement created for example by migration policies, including creating artificial distinctions between displaced people who have moved and those who have not.

This is seen most clearly in the case of stateless persons. In the New York Declaration, which set the modalities for the global compact for migration, statelessness is considered only in terms of its relationship with forced migration. In Making Migration Work, statelessness is framed in terms of diplomatic disputes over the return of irregular migrants. In the zero drafts of the global compacts, a more nuanced approach is taken. While the compact on refugees (as of 31st January 2018) continues to focus on statelessness as a cause and consequence of forced movement, the compact for migration (as of 5th February 2018) acknowledges a broader reality of statelessness. However, there is still work to be done (this is discussed in more detail herehere and here). 

Stateless persons often lack travel documents, the legal right to work, access to education or certification of educational achievement. Their categorisation sometimes as ‘irregular immigrants’, irrespective of whether or not they have moved is a clear example of how policy, itself can cause displacement. This can lead to incoherent implications. For example, consider administrative detention intended to facilitate deportation. Around the world, stateless persons, lacking identification documents, are routinely subject to such detention. However, unable to establish a connection with any country, they usually cannot be deported and so may either spend long periods in detention or be frequently arrested and released in a way that can be considered arbitrary. Stateless persons may or may not have moved, but experience policy-induced displacement and are subject to migration controls.

Next steps

What is migration policy for? The global compact provides an opportunity to think about migration policy in a new way: as a coordination effort to help to enable safe, orderly and regular migration in today’s world. Where migration policy does not do this, or where it causes displacement from international and local systems, then, it is not fit for purpose.

To create an aspirational global compact for migration, the perspectives of all of those affected by migration policy must be included. This includes those who do not move and those whose displacement is caused by migration policy not by migration. Only then can the implications of policy really be known and space made for aspirational approaches. Migration policy needs radical rethinking. Real change is urgently needed. And the time to do that is now.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Bloom, T. (2018) Migration Policy and Displacement. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/02/migration-policy (Accessed [date]).