Processing the Bali Process

Four years ago, I had no idea what the Bali Process was. If you’d asked me to guess, I’d have said it sounded like an album of trance-ethno-lounge music, rather than a forum for discussion on people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crime.

But that was four years ago, before I started to work for IOM, and when the war in Syria was still a  serious of ominous skirmishes, before houses were burnt in the north of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, before it was on the lips of all migrant advocates that the trade in human beings was more profitable than drugs and guns.

Last week I found myself in Bali, for the sixth Ministerial Conference of the eponymous process, which brings together 45 members states (source, destination and transit), three international organizations, and several observers.

In truth, I’d wanted to see this beast close up for quite some time, ever since our former regional director, Andy Bruce, asked me to write a one-page explainer of the Process. I did a fair bit of research and determined that merely explaining the acronyms, the order of meetings, and the attendees, would take the guts of a full page. Nonetheless, mindful of how I once subbed the Lord’s Prayer down to 13 words, I pressed on, and presented my boss with said one-pager, much of which can be found here

So, it’s a jolly for delegates to lovely Bali, isn’t it? Well, no. Yes, Bali is lovely, but it meets there for several good reasons. Indonesia and Australia are the co-chairs, and Bali is very accessible for both, not to mention the UN and IOM participants, and many other Asian nations. The price? Well, not cheap I imagine, but a lot more reasonable than Switzerland. Indonesia is also home to thousands of migrants stuck in limbo, unable to complete the (irregular) journeys they set out on to (mainly) Australia from desperate situations of poverty and peril in countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan and more.

And, there can be no denying that migration is the theme du jour. “A megatrend of the 21st century”, as our Director General, Ambassador William Lacy Swing, has been saying for years, and is increasingly being heard and quoted.

Day one was spent going through the draft of the first ever Bali Process Declaration, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes word by agonizing word. There were moments of humour, such as when the UK delegation offered advice on use of English, and the co-chairing was skilful and democratic.

The Declaration’s wording thus agreed, focus shifted to the imminent arrival of the Ministers, they who would adopt the declaration. Nervous energy levels raised on a par with the quality of suits, as the bosses joined the proceedings. The second day was a day of statements of support, gentle diplomatic nudging, and glacial progress, but progress nonetheless.

So, is the Bali Process important? Of course it is, otherwise I wouldn’t be in my ninth paragraph, setting up a payoff. Why then is it important? The casual observer (if a casual observer could get past the security checks) would enter an air-conditioned room full of (mostly) middle-aged men in dark suits. Refreshingly, however, it must be stressed that the co-chairs of the Ministerial session were both women, and both foreign ministers of their countries.  Our supposed casual observer might conclude that a lot of platitudes were being uttered, a lot of canapes being eaten, and a lot of hot CO2 being produced, not only by the amount of air miles expended to get the 200+ delegates to Bali.

Director General Swing interviewed by Al Jazeera on the margins of the Bali Process meeting. © IOM/Paul Dillon 2016

But consider what was being discussed: the movement of people from state to state, from territory to territory. Sensitive stuff. This in a world that is being riven by terrorism, by war in the name of religion and culture. Bali bears the mental scars of terrorist attack just as Jakarta and Brussels bear the recent physical scars. This is a world full of cynicism and suspicion; a world full of crime, smuggling of drugs and guns – and most profitably of all – trafficking and smuggling of human beings. “A stain on human history” as Kofi Annan called it.

For obvious reasons, I can’t paint a full picture of the elephants that were in the room in Bali. But there were several of them, metaphorically riding up and down the coast of the Bay of Bengal in smugglers boats, lying raped and abused in the back rooms of bars, chained to sewing machines, starved and sweltering on building sites.  I don’t work for a street corner NGO that can pronounce in black and white what is wrong with the world, scream it shrilly to a waiting media and walk off, job half done. I work for an intergovernmental organization, which recognizes that legislators make laws and that they are more open to peer pressure than they are to embarrassment.

The Bali Process, it occurred to me, brings together an arguably more disparate group of countries in a more concentrated space than even the United Nations General Assembly. There is no power of veto, no space for alliances, grand or murky.  Delegations cannot hide from one another in cavernous halls, behind the filter of translators. They come from the Middle East, Vietnam, Myanmar, the USA, Switzerland, Bhutan, New Zealand, Iran … they come to cooperate because migration is such a burning issue. Their countries either accept migrants, need more, need less, rely on remittances, or a combination of all the above.

And they are talking. Maybe not  always in plenary, but on the margins, at the coffee breaks, over lunches and dinners, in the “bilateral rooms”, quietly talking, face to face. This week they produced their first ever Declaration, after 14 years of meetings. It’s non-binding, has no legal weight, and can, if the Ministers wish, simply be ignored. But it may just have the moral weight needed to galvanize countries into action when the next migrant crisis occurs. And for the thousands that look to the sea and see opportunity, escape, a future; this development could prove to be mightily significant.