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

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 underperforming”.

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 benefitting 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 commitements could civil socity 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, particulalrly 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’.

About Kuda Vanyoro

Kudakwashe Vanyoro is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa interested in migration, temporality, borders, humanitarianism and governance in Africa. His doctoral research explored how temporal disruptions at international borders shape (im) mobile bodies’ experiences and modes of waiting by focusing on irregular Zimbabwean migrant men at the Zimbabwe-South Africa border who have arrived in South Africa but are restricted in moving further into the interior. Through this inquiry, his work reveals how waiting is a component of both governing Zimbabwean migrants as well as seeking agency through the relationship between time, space, and humanitarianism in the Zimbabwe-South Africa border regime. He has also been conducting research uptake work for ACMS since 2014. As part of this role, Kudakwashe is responsible for stakeholder engagement in South Africa and is regularly called upon to brief decision-makers in government and civil society, including the creation of synthesis documents and other communication products to make evidence more accessible and applicable.