Monday, 28 August 2017

Demonised migration brokers can point out where policy is going wrong

In the fight against human trafficking and the rise of modern slavery, a top priority for governments and human rights organisations has been to “break the business model” of migration brokers thought to be the main channel for such exploitation. Those same governments might do well to understand what those brokers do, and why they exist in the first place.

If you want to see brokers in action, then domestic work and construction work are as good a place to start as any. In these sectors people can be exploited thanks to a lack of written contracts, the hidden nature of the work inside private homes (in the case of domestic workers), non-compliance with labour laws.

Migrant workers from poorer countries and communities are heavily represented in both occupations. Often, the only way they can negotiate complex regulations is with the help of migration brokers who have the skills, knowledge and connections needed to move into these different worlds. Brokers are often former migrants or well connected and trusted members of the migrant’s own community.

The other side of the story
Brokers have been demonised as exploiters of migrant labour due to the level of control they can exert over migrants with no other means of support. However, there is another side to this which sheds light on why migrants keep using brokers. Recent research that I have been involved with in Ghana and Bangladesh shows a complex reality where brokers are indeed complicit in perpetuating exploitation and conditions of forced labour, but also help migrants to bargain for better working conditions.

Chapainawabganj in Bangladesh, a high migration district near the border with India, sees large numbers of men from farming families migrate to Qatar for construction work. In the Bangladeshi popular discourse, brokers are called Adam Bepari or “traders in human beings” typifying the view which assumes all the power lies with the broker. Similar ways of describing recruiters are seen in other countries.

The government has attempted to eliminate brokers but with little success. Bangladeshi men continue to use informal brokers for several reasons. Legal migration through the Kafala system, the sponsored visa system in the Gulf, is expensive and difficult because skills may not match available jobs. Migrants also say that they feel more protected by the “moral contract” with the broker, witnessed by family and elders. Many also want “free visas” that don’t tie them to a single employer, so they might have the opportunity to move on to better jobs through social networks in Qatar. This was only possible if brokers guided them down an irregular migration route.

Even when brokers broke promises on wages and contracts, migrants regarded the migration as successful because they had reached Qatar and found work, however exploitative. Migrants factor in hardship and precarity in the short term to achieve long-term goals of improved living standards and prospects for their families. Brokers, however imperfect, are seen as a necessary stepping stone.

Domestic work in Ghana
There are echoes of the same story in west Africa, where there is rural-urban migration for domestic work within Ghana. Here too brokers are widely regarded as unscrupulous traders who exploit vulnerable domestic workers.

However, our interviews with 76 migrants, employers, brokers and officials show the grey area. Brokers do help to maintain the status quo by pressuring workers to accept exploitative terms and behave in subservient ways, but they also help migrants with settling into urban areas, bargaining and job-switching for better working conditions.

Brokers offer a route through which migrants can negotiate with employers, an otherwise thankless task. Unlike formal agencies, informal brokers helped employers with recommendations on character and behaviour, an aspect regarded as very important by women who were recruiting another female to work in their home.

Lessons for policy
These two very different examples show clear similarities. Migrants and employers are reluctant to engage with the formal system and can have a strong preference for informal brokers who they trust. Informal brokers are also cheaper. In Ghana, employers are charged a non-refundable 250 Ghanaian cedis (about US$60) fee and workers 100 cedis in the official system. Informal brokers charge less than half and tailor their fees to each client.

Formal agencies are also not designed to help migrants with the things that they need most. Those seeking work away from home need shepherding through complex procedures, support and financing, and someone who can negotiate on their behalf. Work secured through brokers may pay less than work secured through formal channels, but getting into the labour market at all is a prize for many migrants.

Policy makers in Ghana, Bangladesh and beyond should recognise that brokerage is fuelled by tightening border controls and work permit systems, and by unwelcoming urban areas. Launching an attack on brokerage without easing migration barriers will not work. In fact, the way brokers work should encourage more migrant friendly practices such as cheap loans, flexible repayment and support with integration.

There are strong parallels between the situation we have described in the global South and the experience right now in Europe where governments are trying to eliminate brokers without providing workable alternatives to help migrants manage risk. All migration through brokers is labelled as trafficking. Examples of extreme exploitation are highlighted as governments seek to deter migrants. The role that brokers play in easing the path to economic migration and providing protection through the journey is rarely talked about.
The clear lesson from Ghana and Bangladesh is that a flourishing brokerage industry is a signal that formal channels are failing, or at least fail to meet the nuanced demands of migration and migrants. The demonisation of brokers as exploitative criminals is not entirely unfair, but it falls short if we are to genuinely understand the lives and motivations of migrants while legal and legitimate migration remains a privilege enjoyed by a rich and educated minority.

Acknowledgements: This article was first published in The Conversation.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Understanding migrant life in the market: The Kayayei of Madina

By Emmanuel Quarshie and Gloria Makafui Dovoh

Kayayei work has been in the system for so long a time from our older sisters and mothers who for instance came to the big cities to work and made some money, bought utensils and other items and returned home. Upon seeing these items, other mothers also encouraged their children to go find work in the big cities so they could get money as well. In comparing the living conditions of those in the North with those in Madina, I can say the city life is better even though I still travel back home occasionally. I still believed the young ones could have stayed in school a little longer. I believe kayayei are many in Madina because most of the girls who migrate to Madina are unwilling to help their families, if the situation were different, the kayayei would have been just a few. I also think that there are a lot of children because older kayayei who are nursing mothers bring younger girls to help them cater for their babies and these younger ones end up one way or the other becoming kayayei as well.

Madam Rakiya, the leader of the Mamprusi kayayei.

Kayayei is a Ghanaian term made up of two languages; Hausa and Ga where kaya means load in Hausa and yei means women in Ga. Kayayei (female head load porters) are usually found with head pans in market places. They carry goods for a living and most of them migrate from the three Northern regions of Ghana; Upper West, Upper East, and Northern Regions.  The main ethnic group that kayayei belong to is the Mamprusi, followed by the Mole-Dagbani.

The Municipal Co-ordinating Director of La-Nkwantanang Madina Municipal Assembly, Alhaji Saaka Dramani, said in an interview that as at 2013, there were approximately 9,000 kayayei living in Madina and they stay at seven main areas; Zongo, Nkwantanang, Areas around Redco Flats, Madina Number One Park, Dzifanco, Adenta Powerland and Riss Junction. They often live in slum-like conditions.

From one-on-one interviews and focus group discussions with 50 kayayei in Madina Market, we heard more about the reasons that they migrated, the patterns of their daily lives, and how their conditions could be improved.

Reasons for migration
Some kayayei moved to Madina because they wanted to live in the big city and others migrated to Madina because there are far more kayayei in Kumasi leading to competition for customers. A lot of the kayayei in Madina Market were direct migrants who travelled straight from their towns of origin to Madina without making stops in other towns to work before continuing down south.

According to the Ghana Statistical Service Report, 2015, the poverty incidence in Upper West region of Ghana is 59.0 % representing the highest in the country followed by 51.9% in the Upper East region and 40.9% in the Northern region. In recent times, north-south migration in Ghana among women has become very significant, with more women on the move. The 2010 census conducted by Ghana Statistical Service indicated that almost 50% of all internal migrants were women, which outweighs majority of African countries. Some scholars in the migration field refer to this as the feminization of migration in Ghana.  

Most of these kayayei we spoke to migrated due to the seasonal variations in the weather affecting their crop yields. A survey conducted on kayayei by the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor in 2010 reported that 58% of the girls were engaged in farming prior to their migration from the northern part of Ghana to Accra. Changes in their ability to support the household has meant male heads are no longer the main breadwinners. To assist in financing the household women resort to migration as the most convenient strategy for future economic gain in order to smoothen the household consumption level. This accounts for the recent prevalence of women on the move from the northern part of Ghana to the south which is the capital city.

Back home in Tamprusi, I used to weed groundnut farm virtually from dawn to dusk every day which yielded very little money and also there was no other job available so I told my parents about my desire to come and work in Accra. I came all alone on a bus, even though I was scared and knew nobody in Accra, but I was bent on getting money to learn a trade, help my seven siblings and mother. Upon my arrival, I found out where my colleagues were staying, I joined them and immediately made a couple of friends. From there, I started wandering around the market in search of customers, however, with this kayayei work, I have decided that if it does not help me, I will go back home. Ruth, a 20-year-old kayayei

Long days chasing work
In the week, most kayayei begin their days between 4 am and 6 am to join Islamic prayers since the majority of them are practicing Muslims and then prepare for the market. The younger ones are usually responsible for the house chores of sweeping and cleaning while the older ones take their bath and head for the market. The kayayei of La-Nkwantanang Madina live in housing units based on their ethnic background in order to have that sense of belonging as well as to avoid ethnic clashes. The younger ones consider the older kayayei from their ethnic groups as their older sisters hence they are responsible for the daily house chores while the older ones play the nurturing roles by providing the younger ones with protection and security and also give account to their parents back in the North.

As Abigail puts it:
I usually wake up at 4 am to sweep and take my bath then I head to the market around 5 am. During the day, I eat as and when I get hungry and sometimes based on the amount of money available. Kayayei business is my main source of income so I try to work very hard to make ends meet from this work even though it is difficult because I do not make enough money from it after combing most parts of the Madina Market in the scorching sun.

Most kayayei said that it was difficult to get work and that when they did, their patrons were reluctant to pay the full amount.

Amina narrated that;
On some days, I manage to get customers and on other days, I do not get even one person and even when I found a customer, he or she was unwilling to pay the amount I charge them. At the end of the day, I manage to make about Gh20 to Gh30.

Many kayayei said that they faced challenges in making their rent and earning enough for food, clothing, and water. Abigail explained:
"I pay a rent of Gh5 per week and share a room with about ten other kayayei, both young and old, at Nkwantanang. I also save some money with my friends for future use like purchasing rice or groundnut and retailing in my community when I return."

Fatima told us:
When I do not have money to pay immediately, I tell the landlord about my inability to pay so he gives me a week to pay in addition to the following weeks rent. And for feeding and water, I sometimes borrow money from my close friends to acquire them, with respect to money, there is very little I can do when I face such challenges.

Even though they do not make the kind of money they speculated they would, and people take advantage of their vulnerability, the kayayei we spoke to still perceived migration as the only solution to the challenges that they faced at home.

How can the kayayei be supported?
Over the years rhetoric around migration has tended to be negative, sideling the benefits that migration brings to individual migrants and their households.

To improve development policies, we need an in-depth understanding of the capabilities and strategies of poor people, from their own perspective.

The problem of mass migration of kayayei must be tackled from the source region. Em Ekong, the director of Urban Inclusion, a consultancy which specializes in community-based economic development, rightly posited at the New African Woman Forum that, "the key fact remains that a lot of women and girls are making their way into cities because they are not making enough money and they dont see opportunities for themselves in Ghanas rural north. One of the many ways in which we can work around this is through meaningful financial inclusion.

Women need to be given the chance to develop businesses in sectors such as agriculture. This must go beyond the subsistence farming by providing them with affordable and accessible financial solutions in rural areas to expand their capacity.

Also, the source regions should also see the migration of many young women as a challenge to the region and engage them in non-agricultural activities like vocational education, learning a trade, or encouraging them to stay in school much longer than they do. Since many of them migrate due to limited job opportunities, it would be prudent if either governmental and non-governmental organizations provide start-up capital or credit facilities to these young women in the North to engage in stable employment which could also serve as a qualification for future employment. Attempts to do this will ensure that the future flow of individuals will account for relatively more skilled migrants which possess positively heavier trickle-down effect on the economy.

Dovoh, G. M. (2017). Assessing the livelihood conditions of kayayei in the La-Nkwantanang Madina Municipality, Bachelors Dissertation, Department of Geography and Resource Development, University of Ghana, Legon. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

Is child labour always wrong?

By Dorte Thorsen

Debates about child labour are often emotional and deeply moral. Campaigns use images of small children doing work that looks much too hard, often in dirty rags and sometimes crying. These images speak to the consciousness of northern consumers, not least because they link children’s work in commercial crops, garment factories and mines with their consumption of chocolate, clothing, and various minerals.

Such images also prompt policies to eradicate child labour. Policy-makers have recently called for private companies involved in global supply chains take action to tackle child labour. But what exactly falls under the label ‘child labour’?

Defining child labour
The definition of child labour has evolved over the years; from including all productive activities, to equating child labour with paid employment and as distinctly different from unpaid work within the family. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) current interpretation of child labour is that it is work that deprives children of their childhood, potential and dignity, and is harmful to their physical and mental development.

The ILO also states that not all work done by children should be classified as child labour. If work does not affect the child’s health and personal development negatively and does not interfere with schooling, there is no reason to label it as child labour. In such cases, work is likely to help children and adolescents to build skills and experience for their future. This interpretation is a significant softening of earlier stances on child labour. 

Yet, skills development appears to be perceived mostly as chores around the home and in the family business or as earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays. Clearly, children are not seen as workers but as school children. Moreover, it is inherently difficult, if not impossible, to measure the three areas of deprivation set out in ILO’s definition of child labour.The language and statistics used in international campaigns about child labour are confusing in several other ways. On campaign posters, UNICEF state that 168 million children are forced to work. This choice of language stimulates associations to forced labour and modern slavery, even though being forced to work may also hail from necessity and does not inevitably imply exploitation. ILO tells us that 168 million children are in child labour but says nothing about being forced to work. Instead, ILO notes that 85 million are in hazardous work.

Figures are frequently communicated as facts despite being estimates. One example is the announcement that the number of children in child labour fell by a third between 2000 and 2012, further detailed by the ILO as a fall by 40% among girls and 25% by boys. A key message from both UNICEF and ILO is that actions to eradicate child labour are effective. Indisputably some of them are, but the lower figure might also pertain in part to the changing definition of child labour. The ambiguous use of figures begs questions about which children should be targeted in programmes addressing child labour?

Approaches to tackling child labour
Contrasting approaches to child labour and child protection exist. On the one hand, abolitionists advocate universal labour standards and a complete ban on child labour. Standards concerning the minimum age for admission to employment (ILO Convention No. 138) are central to this standpoint. This is based on the assumption that keeping children out of work up to a certain age will keep them safe and in school. The call on private companies to root out child labour in their supply chains and their subsequent actions usually fall in this category.

On the other hand, a child-centred approach is gaining ground, which looks more at the issues that motivate children’s work and how they perceive their labour force participation. It is based on the assumption that working children are best supported through protecting them against exploitation and hazardous working conditions. Standards concerning the worst forms of child labour (ILO Convention No. 182) are central to this standpoint.

Troubles with the ‘child labour’ label
Despite the drive for universal standards, all countries have not stipulated the same minimum working age nor does it remain fixed. Special provisions for developing countries means that some signatories have set 14 years as the official minimum age, others 15 or 16 years. Burkina Faso, for example, increased the minimum age from 14 to 16 years in 2008 to align with legislation concerning compulsory education, while Guinea allowed 12-year-old children to work provided their parents or guardians gave written consent. Consequently, programming to eradicate child labour addresses children under twelve in some countries and adolescents up to sixteen in others. Clearly, a standardised approach is inappropriate from a child protection point of view. But will the companies sourcing materials in different countries be willing to address such differences?

When children or adolescents are barred from work due to their age, the reason why they are working and what they gain from this work is not taken into account. They may indeed need to work due to poverty and family circumstances, but they may also choose to work because they receive valuable economic and social rewards for their work. Regardless of the underlying reasons, they may be immensely proud of their ability to earn.

Allowing children’s and adolescents’ views on their work to be heard and seeing it in context is a recognition of them as social actors, and of their rights according to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child to participate in decisions concerning them. It does not condone the exploitation of working children, nor does it say children always make good decisions. The child-centred approach challenges the idea that the solution to child labour is a ban. Evidence shows that when children and adolescents under the minimum age for entry into paid employment are barred from work, they are often driven into more hazardous and exploitative work. Moreover, if protection is tied to age and not working conditions, adolescents over the minimum age may be subject exploitation and harm.

Worst forms of child labour
ILO Convention No. 182 concerning the worst forms of child labour is a useful instrument. It prohibits employing children up to the age of 18 years to do work considered hazardous to their physical, mental and moral health and development, work that is severely exploitative, or involving children in illicit activities, pornography, and sex work. However, like the minimum age standards, standards concerning occupation and working conditions can also be problematic if applied in broad brushstrokes to classify an entire sector as a worst form of child labour.

This is the case for domestic service in Rwanda, for example. Yet, young children and older children rarely do the same chores. In many situations, the boys and girls employed as domestic workers do chores that are in accordance with local perceptions of what is age-appropriate. Young domestic workers are mostly engaged to do childcare, clean and collect water, while older domestic workers are deemed sufficiently knowledgeable and mature to be tasked with cooking. Unsurprisingly the ways in which domestic workers below 18 years are treated can be placed on a continuum from very good to very bad, suggesting that a case-by-case use of the Convention No. 182 to protect working children would be more adequate.

Working children’s potential
The assumption that children drop out of school to do paid work is a persistent idea among abolitionists. Evidence focusing on adolescent migrants from rural areas who have come to the city to work shows that this is rarely the case. Most of the adolescents drop out of school due to school malfunctioning or their parents’ inability to pay school-related expenses. This is particularly prevalent at senior secondary level when schooling becomes notably more expensive. Adolescents counter the lack of opportunity in rural areas by leaving for the city.

Many of them migrate with the objective of continuing education while working or back home when they have saved up money for fees. Distant relatives who employ an adolescent to work for them, frequently promise to pay fees for vocational training instead of a wage. Migration is thus a means to continue education in one way or other. Even for those who do not pursue education in the formal sense, the migratory and occupational trajectory is often structured by an element of learning. Through work they acquire skills that allow them to ask for jobs that command higher wages and shift from unskilled work to lowly skilled, urban work.

These children and adolescents may not engage in the production of goods serving global commodity chains, but the issues their work project regarding educational prospects, risks, and vulnerability are important to bear in mind. Companies sourcing globally may help working children by recognising that not all are involved in child labour. They can also insist on standards concerning occupation and working conditions being used sensibly by producers, sub-contractors and law-enforcing authorities in order to protect working children and help them attain skills and education.

BOURDILLON, M., LEVINSON, D., MYERS, W. & WHITE, B. 2010. Rights and wrongs of children's work, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London, Rutgers University Press.

HASHIM, I. M. & THORSEN, D. 2011. Child migrants in Africa, London, Zed Books.

ILO 2013. Marking progress against child labour - Global estimates and trends 2000-2012. International Labour Office, International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), Geneva.

THORSEN, D. 2013. Weaving in and out of employment and self-employment: young rural migrants in the informal economy of Ouagadougou. International Development Planning Review, 35, 203-218.

THORSEN, D. 2014. Jeans, bicycles and mobile phones. Adolescent migrants' material consumption in Burkina Faso. In: VEALE, A. & DONÀ, G. (eds.) Child and youth migration. Mobility-in-migration in an era of globalization Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Monday, 7 August 2017

A hand-to-mouth life: The story of migrant shoe-makers in Accra

By Emmanuel Quarshie and Chris Zigah,

Migration has always played an important role in socio-economic development, especially in the developing world and Ghana is not an exception. Irrespective of the tremendous contribution of the informal sector to socio-economic development of Ghana, certain jobs have not been adequately studied by researchers. For example, cobblers within the urban informal sector - people who mend and polish shoes. Since Ghana’s early independence, the shoemaker's trade has been gradually increasing. People have traveled to neighboring countries in West Africa like Burkina Faso, Togo, Nigeria, Benin to engage in this informal sector activity. 

Various types of Cobblers
While in many settings women outnumber men in the informal sector cobbling is a mainly a male dominated field with little or no female contributions. Cobblers in Accra can be grouped into three main types:

Type 1 the professional cobbler – they are fewer in numbers, however they make the most in terms of income. They engage in the manufacturing of locally made footwear popularly called the “Kumasi sandals” found on the Ghanaian market. The professional cobbler unlike the other types of urban cobblers can be said to be a more stable profession.

Type 2 the stationed cobbler - they provide services like mending and polishing of footwear, belts, leather bags and other products. The stationed cobbler is located at a particular area where their customers come to them with their footwear for servicing.

Type 3 the “mobile cobbler” -  the commonest of the three types found in Accra. Just like their name suggest, they move from one area to  another with their small wooden box in search of customers. Comparatively, the mobile cobbler makes the least income of the three. They also provide similar services as the stationed cobbler, however they move to their customers rather than their customers coming to them.

Despite their significant roles in the informal sector, cobblers are confronted with numerous problems in addition to their low income and living conditions in Accra. Key among them is the poor housing and accommodation conditions due to the expensive rents coupled with higher initial deposits requested by landlords aside the overwhelming utility bills. Also, most of these cobblers are not able to access quality health care as a result of their low income levels since majority of them do not enrol on the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) even though they are aware of it. As a result, they reside in the informal settlements which comes with challenges due to poor sanitation and congestion. Despite all of the difficulties that they face, an overwhelming number of cobblers are of the view that migrating to the city was not a wrong choice since they believe that it has led to improvements in their living standards. 

The Unseen South-South Movement
With the search for employment and better living conditions being some of the most prominent reasons for migration especially amongst rural folks in Ghana, rural-urban migration is perceived as a key strategy for survival by most young adults. Most migration studies focus on those who move from the North to the South of Ghana. It is noteworthy that chunk of these cobblers migrate from rural areas in southern Ghana to Accra in search of employment. This is as a result of pockets of poverty found within rural areas within the southern part of Ghana where farming is becoming less lucrative. Low skills and insufficient start-up capital, coupled with the poor job availability, mean that many find work in the informal sector. The urban informal sector has remained the major cushion for a majority of unemployed individuals by providing them with employment opportunities.

One cobbler, Mawuli, said:

“I migrated from Ho to Accra mainly in search of employment, as I saw many of my colleagues migrate to the city to improve upon their living conditions and that of their families back home. Before migrating into the capital city, I engaged in crop farming but could not make enough income from produce to support my family. This was as a result of the high cost of fertilizers, limited access to land and our localized system of farming which did not enable me to engage in large scale farming activities.  After a long but unfruitful search for employment in Accra and the quest to survive, I learnt the job of mending and polishing footwear. Even though this isn’t my preferred choice of work, in order to survive here I hang on this hand-to-mouth life as a cobbler till I get a relatively better paying job.”

Just like Mawuli, most young male adults migrate to Accra with the hope of finding their dream occupations. When all efforts to search for employment seemed futile, some find other means of survival, of which becoming a cobbler is one. Being a cobbler requires less skills and capital than others. 

The way forward
Other informal sector workers have associations, however cobblers, irrespective of the type, do not. There is the need for a special cobblers’ association to be formed to see to the specific needs, welfare and development of cobblers. With regards to health, it is also important that Ghana Health Sector encourage them to enroll on the National Health Insurance Scheme to be secure in that regard. Acknowledging the fact that Type 1 cobblers are able to manufacture hand-made shoes, it would be expedient on the part of government to enhance their skills to intensify the quality of leather wear.

Zigah, C (2017). “Rural- Urban Migration and its Consequences on Socio­­-Economic Livelihoods:  A Case Study of Cobblers in La-Nkwatanang-Madina Municipal Assembly”, Bachelor’s Dissertation, Department of Geography and Resource Development, University of Ghana, Legon.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Semantics in migration policy making and why they (should) matter

By Kuda Vanyoro,

This year’s 10th anniversary of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) hosted in Berlin was themed Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration Now: Mechanics of a Compact Worth Agreeing to. Implicit in this theme was the idea that some consensus among civil society and with states on what the Compact should look like had to be made. According to the organisers, the Berlin GFMD registered the highest number of civil society delegates since 2011. 

On the opening ceremony of Civil Society Day 1, there was a myriad of progressive symbolisms; including two female co-chairs, one of whom Spoke Spanish, and two other women on the panel. One of the speakers stated: “safe, orderly and regular migration is a common interest”. Within this atmosphere of hope, many civil society delegates unequivocally felt that the GFMD was perhaps at its most “momentous phase” since its inception in 2007. In the famous words of the Common Space Grand Rapporteur Gibril Faal, the only problem the GFMD had to reconcile now was how it was “over-principled but under-performing”.

Emerging directly from the Bangladesh GFMD’s call for a Global Compact, the Forum appeared to be preoccupied with a focus on just that: designing a social contract on “safe, orderly and regulated migration” that would prioritise the implementation of its principles. The GFMD has certainly put in a lot of time, energy and resources to get to the point of negotiating the multilateral governance of migration issues, by having both sending and receiving states on the same table; among themselves and with civil society. Recurrent leitmotifs included “reintergration”, “return”, “detention”, “deportation”, “xenophobia”, “recruitment”. This time around and unlike in previous years, the GFMD took a slightly different format, with the Common Space running in between the first and second civil society days (which were termed “Recommendations Day” and “Commitments Day” respectively).

What does a Global Compact (not) mean? A battle of semantics

But despite this air of commitment, there were many dilemmas. One striking feature in many civil society delegates’ reactions to the very idea of a Compact was, what did it even mean, what would it have to achieve? Even the event coordinators and discussion starters did not demonstrate adequate knowledge of what it was, but only what they thought it would look like. For many, it was just “something”. For example, one panellist stated that “there is no one out there who knows what a global compact is”, while another defined the Compact as a global commitment to work towards the governance of safe, orderly, regular migration, driven by measurable outcomes.

Yet, more than anything, there was a valid preoccupation with what the Compact was not; signifying a semantic battle of interpretation. There was first a lack of consensus on whether or not this Compact should/would be binding on states. Some felt that, after all, civil society had come so far, therefore it was also its prerogative to remain as ambitious as possible by demanding that states take the Compact as a binding agreement. This, they thought, was civil society’s role after all; to hold states to ransom by making full-on progressive demands from them. After all, states have the resources to implement these mandates.

Others felt that there was no need for the Compact to be a binding agreement; or lay such a demand in the first place. This school of thought held that the negotiating process was, to begin with, a fragile one, and moreover, having taken so many years to get this far, they felt that demands for a binding contract would jeopardise the process by pitting different states against each other on the issue of ratification. A binding agreement would certainly impose certain expectations, which would create obligations on states with different interests in the global economy. Therefore, these delegates preferred to pursue the route of soft law. After all, they added, the process had been informal and voluntary until now, and migration’s inclusion on the global policy agenda had come from not putting obligations on states.

Second, like some colleagues, I was personally concerned with the possibility of the words in the GFMD theme and Compact being left open to interpretation by statesman and politicians (I had Trump and Zuma particularly in mind here). What would the terms “orderly” and “regulated migration” mean in the Compact to state actors? Some felt that “regulation” to states could mean controlling migrants by providing fixed short-term labour permits/contracts that would allow for states to throw them out at will, after benefiting from the developmental attributes of migrants; thereby undermining their rights to settle. “Orderly” was also a disconcerting term: but most civil society delegates knew what they meant by it: promoting regular migration while minimising the risks of those who move (illicitly or not). But there was one semantic pitfall, won’t states sign on to the Compact and then “hijack” the “orderly” agenda by deploying it to further securitise the borders by saying “well, your migration better be orderly, otherwise!”; which would entail deportations of the so called “unorderly”. As Mary Douglas reminds us, it is only by categorising matter in place (“order”) that we come to also define what “matter out of place” means. Overall, the bigger question was also, where do irregular migrants stand in this whole discourse and should civil society therefore prescribe minimum standards for deportation of “unorderly” irregular migrants since they do not fit neatly in this narrative?

And as an aside, the question of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) role was also raised. Where would the IOM take its stand, and what demands or commitments could civil society make of it? For instance, should they ask for a “protection mandate”? These were the difficult questions that were, in my view, not adequately addressed.

What can we expect now?

I look forward to seeing how these issues will be tackled in the Compact, but whatever it will look like, it will undoubtedly constitute a milestone in the global governance of migration (at least symbolically). Ironically, there appears to be more political will at an international level than the local, which is dominated by nationalist rhetoric. Therefore, the GFMD is indeed an illustrious platform. Civil society has now been tasked with the role of taking the compact to local and national level. It remains to be seen whether it will be engaged on by local and national actors, particularly policy makers, with the seriousness it deserves.

The author Kuda Vanyoro attended the 2017 GFMD in Berlin (29 June – 1 July) and moderated a parallel working session on Theme 2 of the GFMD: ‘Safe, orderly and regular mechanisms to create welcoming societies for Migrants in the face of growing Xenophobia’. This blog was first published on the Migration and Health Project website.