MEIG Highlights, Latest News 9 janvier 2023

Highlight 2/2023 – Multilateralism and regionalism: What is the way forward for migration governance?

John Mendy, 9 January 2023

Undoubtedly, there is a growing consensus in the international community to lift border controls for the flow of capital, information, and services and, more broadly, to further globalization particularly in the 21st century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and other geopolitical developments such as the war in the Balkans, Middle-Eastern region and the economic crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, governments were facing a ‘global migration crisis’. This prompted largely unilateral efforts to strengthen border control – turning migration governance into a high-politics security issue.

Years later, in 2018, some 160 states adopted the United Nations (UN)-sponsored Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular  Migration, whose tone is quite different: affirming that ‘migration has been part of the human experience throughout history’ and is ‘a source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development in our globalized world’, it argues that no State can address migration on its own due to the inherently transnational nature of the phenomenon’ and calls for ‘international, regional and bilateral cooperation and dialogue’ in the governance of migration.

Yet, it is difficult to see what would compel states to create a supranational authority to actually govern international migration in the foreseeable future. The small number of states that have been willing to ratify international legal instruments on migration speaks a lot to the lack of consensus on a normative level. The substantial political obstacles to supra-national governance of migration are significant. The commodification and instrumentalization of migrants by states and belligerent attitude to migrants particularly from extremists’ groups makes the promotion of the rights of “foreigners” unpopular. International governance from the bottom-up stitches together the common threads of governmental responsibilities for problem-solving purposes, often on the basis of intensive interactions among government officials with similar functional portfolios. The European Union (EU) experience illustrates the power of government policy networks to expand the area of consensus over time through a functional approach to migration policy and international trade.

International trade and migration are two important facets of an increasingly interconnected world. So far research has addressed the interplay of trade and migration flows – but not the links between trade and migration policies. Rather unnoticed from heated political migration debates, states have progressively used preferential trade agreements (PTAs) to govern different aspects of international migration, including facilitating mobility of business people, cooperation for migration control and the safeguarding of migrant rights. Gallya Lahav and Sandra Lavenex observed that Western countries’ opposition to the establishment of a comprehensive international migration regime following the liberal internationalist model of postwar multilateralism, a multitude of international norms and cooperation arrangements have proliferated. This regime complex consists of a multilayered system of governance arrangements that combines fragmented multilateral elements with a growing web of (trans-)regional and bilateral cooperation frameworks. Today, around 80 % of all newly concluded PTAs containing migration clauses are driven by economic interests and internationalized industries. They occur most frequently between wealthy countries and regions as well. PTAs serve as a leverage for migration control vis-à-vis neighboring countries. However, success in actual cooperation depends on other factors. The impact of PTAs on migration laws depends on the context. On the EU level, migration harmonization is facilitated by trade obligations and discourse. In Switzerland, PTAs provide important exceptions to a restrictive immigration system. In Singapore, migration law is already geared towards short-term and business migrants; accordingly, PTAs are less imperative.

However, « migration diplomacy » has become increasingly important  and strategically used as a means to obtain other aims or goals related to migration flow  particularly at the bilateral level. Since the 1990s and 2000s Bilateral readmission agreements and bilateral deals committing countries to hold back migrants or cooperate on migration control and or host refugees has proliferated respectively. For example, the informal EU-Turkey deal of 2016, the EU-compacts with Jordan and Lebanon, EU’s cooperation with Libya, as instruments under the EU’s externalization of migrant policy are cases where diplomatic deals were sought in migration control.

Despite the numerous challenges confronting multilateral and regional migration governance, there is often consensus where interests converge, particularly at intra-regional mobility level such as the EU and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There are also more bilateral labor agreements which are often non-legally binding memorandums of understanding, including bilateral legally binding commitments on high skilled business mobility in the case of PTAs mainly among The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. However, where interests diverge, regional consultation processes on « extra-regional » immigration and bilateral informal « deals » takes place, in which wealthy economies leverage their market power to incentivize poorer countries of origin and transit, for cooperation on migration control.  Hence, conflict of interest remains a stumbling block to effective multilateral migration governance. Despite progress registered at regional level, multilateral migration governance is imperative as migration continues to take internal, regional and intercontinental dimension. Thus, migration governance needs to be approached from both regional and multilateral levels.

John Mendy, Highlight 2/2023 – Multilateralism and regionalism: What is the way forward for migration governance?, 9 January 2023, available at

The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the authors and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.


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