As mentioned above, 2020 promised to be an intense year for deliberations on global migration governance. During the GFMD in Quito, Ecuador, the incoming chair of the forum, the UAE announced an ambitious work plan. This included six regional consultations leading up to the 13th summit of the forum in Dubai in early 2021. Delegates were also surprised to learn about a new approach to this summit: rather than having separate Government Meetings and Civil Society Days, connected by a “common space” dedicated to mutual exchange, all five days of the summit were to be opened up to all stakeholders. While civil society had managed to expand its presence in the invited spaces of the GFMD process over the past years, this new approach could still be considered a major step towards civil society inclusion. At the same time, the regional review processes for the GCM were scheduled for 2020, with Jonathan Prentice, Head of Secretariat of the United Nations Network on Migration, admitting in a civil society meeting in Quito that there was confusion regarding “as to how these might take place and to what purpose” (Rother, 2020: 16).
The migration network itself was still in the process of establishing its structures and defining its role. Besides bringing together 38 entities in the UN system and supporting states in addressing their migration priorities, the mandate of the network is to “prioritize the rights and wellbeing of migrants and their communities of destination, origin, and transit”.Footnote 3 To this regard, the network also engages with external partners and at the end of 2019, a seasoned migrant’s rights activist, Monami Maulik, was hired as Civil Society Liaison Officer.
The original work plan for 2020 focused on ground level implementation of the GCM. Several working groups had been set up: three core working groups on issues such as knowledge exchange and implementation and six thematic working groups on issues ranging from Bilateral Labour Migration Agreements to Returns and Reintegration. Their input was expected to lead to pilot projects.
When the pandemic became a global issue, though, the workplan had to stop since all the involved agencies, stakeholders and civil society organisations went into crises mode. This led to a period of reflection and strategizing within the network and Maulik pitched the idea of introducing listening sessions as a new format strengthening the input dimension of civil society in global migration governance: “When there is a crises moment, we should first hear from the people on the ground, the frontline of the crises. Because in such a time of crises, you do not have time to gain appropriate data and information, everything is happening as it is happening, and you have to listen to the people who are at the border, who are in the camp” (Interview Monami Maulik (MM), October 16, 2020).
This approach of creating new “invited spaces” was taken up by the network and a first session was held on April 1, 2020, titled “Listening Session about the ground-level impacts of COVID-19 on migrant communities”.Footnote 4 In the invitation email the session was introduced as “a platform to exchange stories and anecdotal evidence, emerging trends and important response efforts underway from stakeholders and governments”. It was stated that the purpose of the sessions would reach beyond listening and learning—“these platforms for open exchange will help us collectively focus on the key issues facing migrants across country contexts and inform where the Network’s priorities should be. The Network seeks to add critical value in ensuring that migrants are included in immediate response and long-term measures impacting their health, economic and social well-being and human rights. Importantly, we also seek to highlight the critical contributions of migrants as frontline workers providing care, transport, health, food production and other services.” (Email March 30, 2020).
This statement is quite remarkable in that it ascribes agency to migrants and their organisations on three levels: first, by recognizing their efforts on the ground, second, as experts whose input could influence in which direction the Network would reprioritize its work, and third, as partners in responding to the challenges of COVID-19. It thus promises to include migrant civil society in the input as well as output dimension of global migration governance. The invitation had been preceded by a similarly inclusive statement of the Network, issued on March 20: “COVID-19 Does Not Discriminate; Nor Should Our Response”.Footnote 5 Here, the Network “urges that all—including migrants regardless of migratory status—are included in efforts to mitigate and roll back this illness’s impact”. Several specific policy recommendations are made, including access to health services regardless of status, rights to adequate living standards, fighting xenophobia, upholding human rights and the right to seek asylum in times of tightened borders, labour rights for migrant workers and, carefully worded, a call for alternatives to immigrant detention centres.
The GCM is not explicitly mentioned in the document—somewhat surprisingly, considering that this statement touches upon several objectives of the compact, that are as essential as they were controversial in the negotiation process of the GCM. While for some states these issues were seen as an obstacle in getting behind the compact unless they were toned down, migrants rights organisations had hoped for stronger wording such as an explicit call for “firewalls” to be erected between access to public services and immigration enforcement authorities (Crépeau & Hastie, 2015). From a migrant’s right perspective, this is also a notable step forward from the language that dominated discourses in the early days of global migration governance; it took some time until rights were explicitly mentioned in the GFMD process and the rhetoric of IOM, which still considers itself to be a “non-normative organisation”, had so far rather called for “protection” and promoted “well-managed migration policies”. The shift towards a stronger rights-based language and clearer acknowledgement of migrants as subjects of migration governance could thus be seen as the result of “socialization” through years of engagement and deliberations (Rother, 2019b).
The two listening sessions provided space for a wide range of inputs that highlighted the truly global nature of the pandemic. To list just a small selection of pressing issues that came up; harassment and limited to no access to health services for refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, Pakistan and at the US-Mexico border; no safety nets for migrant street vendors in New York; ongoing deportations in Kuwait; no payment and food scarcity for migrant workers in Malaysia; widespread attacks against migrants of Chinese descendance; criminalization and scapegoating of migrant sex workers.
However, these sessions were not only about grievances– good practices were shared as well: the Bulgarian Red Cross providing food packages, cash assistance and hygiene items to undocumented migrants; the Spanish Ombudsman issuing a recommendation to release migrants from detention centres and finding them a safe place to stay, doing so in coordination with different administrations, since no repatriation operations were taking place; Portugal granting undocumented migrants and asylum seekers residence rights in order to mitigate their COVID exposure. This can also be seen as a framing strategy—states might more easily respond to specific policy measures already taken by other states than to more principled interventions by non-state actors.
Since the sessions were considered an important tool in times of heightened uncertainty, and the information gathered was deemed to be highly relevant, the network decided to follow those up with several more sessions with a thematic focus. Furthermore, a “Voices from the Ground” platform was launched on the Network’s COVID-19 web page that brought together statements, snapshots, blogpost and call for actions by non-state stakeholders.Footnote 6 The selection of the topics of the follow-up listening sessions was to be ”demand-driven” and thus reflects the issues considered particularly pressing during the pandemic: “Safe and Inclusive Access to Services” (May 7), “Alternatives to Detention” (May 20), “Regular Pathways” (June 9), “Gender-specific Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Migrants” (June 11), “Addressing the vulnerabilities of migrant workers in agriculture during and after the COVID-19 pandemic” (July 2) and “COVID-19 and Trafficking in Persons” (July 9).
Besides civil society, representatives of various UN agencies, member states and several other stakeholders participated. Monami Maulik stressed that these sessions were not just held for the sake of listening but would “actually shape how the UN system and the UN network is going to re-strategize, its direction on the GCM and implementation”. Specifically, the input would “feed directly into the working groups creating policy briefs on each of these topics for the member states” and thus contribute to the first stage of the output dimension. Migrant civil society could use this “invited space” to shape the input for a more restricted space, one primarily established for member states.
The roadmap was to conduct the listening sessions, take up examples and recommendations from hundreds of actors attending, develop policy briefs by the working groups and launch these with webinars so the member states could hear the policy recommendations. One such policy brief was published on June 11 under the title “Enhancing Access to Services for Migrants in the Context of COVID-19 Preparedness, Prevention, and Response and Beyond”.Footnote 7 It was developed by the thematic Working Group on Access to Services under the co-leadership of WHO and UN-Habitat with support and contributions from various member institutions of the network as civil society organisations such as the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), a network with 167 member organisations, and the global trade union Public Services International (PSI).
The document calls for a “migrant-inclusive approach”, states that by including migrants, gaps in health and other inequities will be diminished and concludes that “The engagement of migrants themselves as key stakeholders in the community, will be a vital element for the sustainability of national plans.” This is followed by twelve “special considerations”, including non-discrimination and equitable access to health services and medical supplies including vaccines, gender-equality, age-sensitivity and equal treatment at the workplace. At the heart of the policy brief is a very comprehensive list of “recommended actions”—ten in total, with numerous subitems. These include very specific policy measures, many of them mirroring issues that had been brought up during the listening sessions—it can thus be said that they have shaped the output directed towards wider political spaces, including those which are more state-centric and thus less open for civil society participation. These policy measures include: “Identify hospitals to receive COVID-19 patients regardless of their migration status and prepare to mobilize surge acute and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) capacity”(3.1.b); “Put safeguards in place to ensure non-discriminatory, non-stigmatized border health screening at points of entry” (3.1.f); “dispel fears and misperceptions among local populations regarding migrants and COVID-19 outbreaks” (3.3.a); “Provide inclusive remote learning strategies for migrant children and their parents/caregivers” (3.5.a); “Develop capacities to map vulnerable migrants and their access to nutritious food” 3.8.d); “Ensure remittance services are labelled as essential services and that fees are reduced” 3.9.d) and “Protect workers in the workplace, irrespective of migration status, by strengthening occupational safety and health measures” (3.10.b).