Do Political Dialogues on Migration Work?

By T. Craig Murphy

The short answer to this question is “yes” and “no”.  It is important to strive for positive outcomes of political dialogues that achieve better coordinated direct assistance to migrants and refugees, as well as cross-border mechanisms for effective migration management. 

As an international organization with global expertise in supporting political dialogues on migration, the International Organization for Migration is in a unique position to bring together the relevant actors in such dialogues, such as government officials of affected countries, migrants, refugees, partners and donors. When managed correctly, all actors stand to benefit from political dialogues. 

Criticism of such high-level dialogues is not unfounded: high costs for organizing and maintaining, overlap with similar initiatives,  ulterior political agendas, well-crafted declarations but difficulty in implementation, and the perennial challenge of lack of state resources to  achieve recommendations. 

On the other end of the spectrum, successes resulting from political dialogues abound: lives are saved, migrants opt for safer migration alternatives, refugees are assisted, rescue at sea and voluntary repatriation is better coordinated, and international laws and obligations are known and followed.

What is a Political Dialogue on Migration? 

There is a wide range of forms for political dialogues on migration. At the most basic level, it is when government officials from states affected by migration come together to discuss cross-border issues, assess challenges and successes, and agree on endorsed recommendations for improving responses to migration.

Often dialogues are organized in what is known as a Regional Consultative Process on Migration (RCP), defined by IOM as ‘a restricted information-sharing and discussion forum for states with an interest in promoting cooperation in the field of migration’. 

There are a multitude of active RCPs around the globe at various stages of development. One of the largest RCPs is the Bali Process for Asia in which 44 countries actively participate. The Almaty Process covers Central Asia and beyond. 

The Rabat Process focuses on North Africa and Southern Europe, while IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) hosts the RCP for the Horn of Africa, and the Migration Dialogue for Southern Africa (MIDSA) is a consultative process for Southern African Development Countries (SADC). 

The Puebla Process focuses on the Americas and the Caribbean. Following the high number of fatalities in the Mediterranean at the end of 2013, the European Union and the African Union came together and launched the Khartoum Process in 2014 (see related IOM web blog here).  

Another political dialogue covering the Horn of Africa and Yemen is the Regional Committee on Mixed Migration (RCMM), which has met on an annual basis since 2010 to specifically address the challenges of mixed migration between the Horn of Africa and Yemen along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden routes. The RCMM is a government-led committee composed of members from Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Federal Government of Somalia, Puntland, Somaliland, Sudan, and Yemen.  

Given the political and security complexities in the region covered by the RCMM, simply having government officials from these countries meet and hold high-level diplomatic discussions is a significant achievement.

The members of the committee are able to put aside their political differences and recognize the magnitude of the challenges affecting all countries by the large numbers of migrants and refugees on the move. The onset of the Yemen Crisis in late March of 2015, has further underscored the need and relevance of the RCMM political dialogue.  

The 5th Meeting of the Regional Committee on Mixed Migration will be hosted by the Government of Djibouti in Djibouti-ville from 15-17 September 2015, and will focus on Migration and Development, Solutions for Detained Migrants, and Child Protection in Migration Management.

A challenge for such regional dialogues is the free movement of persons, which between many African countries, for example, is lacking. Citizens within the East African Community and similar blocks are able to move freely, but for movement between other regions, restrictive visa regimes are often in place. This should be an area of focus for political dialogues, particularly with increased calls for European countries to open their borders to migrants and refugees from other parts of the world.

By assessing the successes and shortcomings of various political dialogues on migration around the world, several key lessons emerge:

  1. Highlight the benefits the countries stand to gain through mutual cooperation as opposed to “going it alone.”
  2. Ensure long-term resources to allow for at least annual multi-lateral meetings (ideally with follow-up bi-lateral meetings) over a number of years for sustainability.
  3. Though often supported technically by IOM and funded by donors, it is key that the meeting is led by the government officials. Government ownership in the process is mandatory.
  4. Emphasize that the recommendations are non-binding and are intended to serve as a framework to guide and inspire policy at the national and regional levels.
  5. Topics of discussion in working groups must be relevant and match the current realties that the member states face.
  6. Recognize when it is time to close the process. When the political process no longer serves the interests of states or when those interests are addressed by other regional bodies it is appropriate to scale down and transfer or close the political dialogue on migration.

In the Horn of Africa and Yemen, among members of the Regional Committee on Mixed Migration, nuanced terms like ‘trafficking’ and ‘smuggling’ are better understood and often used in the correct context.

The pre-requisite of protection screening is factored into managing complex flows of migrants and refugees. In some locations cross-border migration committees exist, as well as various government agreements on repatriation and voluntary return of stranded migrants. 

These are but some of the gains that have come about, intentionally and unintentionally, over the five years that the RCMM has been in existence. Of course, challenges persist. The meetings are time and resource intensive to hold every year, sometimes recommendations set are unfeasible to accomplish, and delegates to the committee are frequently shifted to other departments within governments without hand-over or continuity. 

However, it is clear that political dialogues on migration can and should work. They hold great potential, and IOM, as an international organization composed of Member States, is obligated to maximize gains for migrants, refugees, and governments derived from political dialogues on migration.