It is remarkable that in 2017, the international community of nation states has managed to make binding legal agreements on everything from the exploration of outer space to waterfowl habitat – but not migration.
Unfortunately, the losers in this approach are generally the poorest and most vulnerable, who ironically find themselves exposed to further abuse and despair in the efforts to improve their physical security, economic prospects or even to reunite with family. This includes the many, largely unknown migrants who seek to migrate through irregular channels either to improve their economic prospects or to seek asylum - but instead fall victim to some of the most unthinkable extremes of abuse, including modern slavery.
Just last week, CNN confirmed that the rumors circulating of slave-markets operating inside Libya are true. CNN captured haunting footage of a Nigerian man being auctioned as part of a group of “big strong farm boys”, eventually sold under the hammer for the equivalent of about $800 USD. Is it a coincidence that the revelations of fully fledged slave markets trading in Nigerians follows three months of declining arrivals by sea, as the Italian Government uses “diplomacy and incentives” to influence the warlords who control the coast line of Libya?
As James Cockayne and Julie Opperman have noted, organized crime is not distinct from politics in Libya – it is politics. Far from being a side-effect of conflict, armed actors in Libya draw taxes, revenue and political legitimacy from their trade in people. With smuggling routes to Italy effectively cut off, we cannot be surprised when organized criminals and armed gangs look for other means to realize the profits from their human cargo.
Of course, failed migration policies do not just create the conditions that enable slavery to persist – they create a myriad of other forms of harm and despair. Following a surge in arrivals and the tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants attempting to reach Australia by sea, the then Rudd (labour) Government instituted a policy of offshore detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. While intended as a short-term solution to break the business model of people smuggling, the result has descended into chaos, violence and abuse – with videos of the detainees remaining on Papua New Guinea being beaten with sticks by local police as they refuse to move to alternative accommodation. The current Turnbull (conservative) Government is disavowing responsibility, on the basis that any reversal of policy would re-start the deadly trade by sea, and the current abuses are occurring in another sovereign country – Papua New Guinea.
There are many reasons why governments have to date avoided or failed to agree on global migration governance. In some regards, the economic issues are the simplest. Sending countries want access to labour markets for their nationals – a valuable source of remittances and economic development – and they want their nationals to be safe. Receiving countries want to limit labour migration to only the small proportion of prospective migrants that are highly-skilled – an approach that potentially exacerbates rather than addresses existing systemic inequalities, including gender. However, wealthy countries also want to reduce their expenditure on foreign development, a task made more realistic by facilitating remittances. More complex is reconciling the needs of developing countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kenya, who generously host the bulk of the world’s refugees without the GDP to match, while wealthier countries increase border controls and security checks at increasing expense.
Beyond the existing human rights system, the most the international community has been able agree on in the migration space is a patchwork of obligations covering specific sub-issues: the international protection system for refugees and asylum seekers, and the regimes that criminalize human trafficking and people smuggling. In the absence of any comprehensive agreement, migration is regulated unilaterally or at best bilaterally – with nation states deciding on what serves their own national interest.
In 2016, Governments of the world agreed to work together to develop two Global Compacts – one on refugees, one on migration – with an ambitious goal to be finalized by September 2018. Critically, the Global Compact on Migration is intended to create the governance framework that will facilitate safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people. It is envisaged that the Compact will recognize migration as a reality rather than an aberration, and the importance of remittances as a source of capital and driver of development. Equally, it is envisaged that the Compact will involve States committing to protect the human rights of all migrants, irrespective of their migration status – an approach deeply connected to the goals of combatting human trafficking, migrant smuggling and modern slavery.
As the Libya slave markets and the Manus Island tragedy illustrates, the issues are too complex and too critical to allow the opportunities offered by the development of the Global Compact on Migration to go past. Just as no single country can control global warming or pollution, no single country can effectively control an issue as complex and necessarily global as migration.