“Space for migrant civil society is shrinking at the UN”: Interview with Colin Rajah on the upcoming IMRF


It is less than two months until the first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) will take place at the UN headquarter in New York. While preparations and consultations are ongoing, several migrant civil society networks have sent an open letter to the President of the General Assembly, to express their concerns on the shrinking space for civil society in the UN in general and calling for meaningful participation in the upcoming IMRF. I have talked to Colin Rajah, Coordinator of the Civil Society Action Committee about the background of the letter, the main demands of migrant civil society, the “zero draft” of the IMRF progress report and plans for ”invented”, i.e. independently organized spaces for civil society during the IMRF.

  1. The Civil Society Action Committee, along with other networks,  have submitted an Open Letter on the shrinking space for civil society to the President of the General Assembly. (see link at the end of the text) What led you to making this statement…

Actually this is something that has repeatedly come up at various times since the adoption of the GCM.  We’ve found in many instances, that opportunities to engage directly — and as equally important stakeholders — have become more and more limited.  At the same time, our civil society representation (especially speaking roles in key global events) have increasingly been taken out of our hands, eroding our long-held principles of self-organizing, self-representation, agency etc.  This of course runs concurrently with many other UN-related processes where the experience of the “shrinking space for civil society” has become commonplace.  So those of us who engaged in other non-migration related issues, or have civil society partners from other movements who engage in migration issues, have repeatedly been voicing out our growing concerns to each other and finding a lot of troubling trends and similarities.  And as such, at various times, we have said to ourselves that as civil society, we need to say something about it…

And then the proverbial breaking point in relation to the GCM and IMRF came about in the past few weeks.  Firstly, after much anticipation and preparation, we were informed that no stakeholders would be allowed to attend — let along actively participate — in the Secretary-General’s Report briefing event during Migration Week in New York.  While all Member States could attend in person and present their statements in response to the SG’s Report, we could only passively watch the proceedings on UN TV.  As we contributed a lot of inputs into the SG’s Report and hold it as a key document in the GCM process, we would have liked to articulate our thoughts both collectively as civil society, and individually as respective organizations with expertise in many key areas, just as the bloc of Member States, as well as individual States’ Missions did.

This was then followed by notification that we would then not be allowed to attend the upcoming consultations and negotiations for the IMRF’s Progress Declaration.  For most Member States and non-State stakeholders, the PD is considered the key document of the IMRF — it is supposed to be a reflection of the GCM’s progress since it’s adoption, and a view of the next 4 years.  Undoubtedly we have a lot to say about it.  But not being allowed to even hear Member States’ reflections, and having to rely on mere third party summaries or readouts is unacceptable and goes completely against the principles of transparency and accountability.  All the talk about a whole-of-society approach, and the importance of all the stakeholders mentioned in the GCM and the modalities resolution etc., all seem like lip-service to us now — lots of pretty words with no substance nor authenticity.

That compelled us to urgently come together to publicly and strongly articulate our collective alarm at this situation, and to offer what we believe are very reasonable and workable recommendations.

  • …and what are your main demands?

For this first IMRF, we have simply asked for:

  • Access to the room (as well as live streaming) during the PD’s negotiations.  This was the practice during the GCM negotiations which was widely hailed by the co-facilitators then as being very helpful.  Unfortunately, as negotiations kick off this week, this seems unlikely to be met which is a terrible disappointment.
  • Meetings with the co-facilitators on the PD, during each round of negotiations, rather than just the initial townhall last week, and the one on 20 April when the negotiations are almost completed.  Fortunately, there has been an immediate positive response already to have at least one more townhall this week, to take comments on the zero draft.  We’ll keep pushing for others around each round of negotiations so that we can keep offering inputs on the evolution of the PD’s language.
  • Full participation in the entire IMRF, not just the multi-stakeholder hearing.  This is something we have fought long and hard for since the first UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in 2006, and all through the GFMD in the past 2 decades, as you know.  Relegating us to a day prior to the IMRF proper, and without the opportunity to dialogue actively with Member States within the roundtables and other IMRF spaces, is separate and unequal — a practice we thought we had done away with decades ago.  As of today, with stakeholder registrations opening, there is still no indication of what we are registering for — just attending the MSH or the full IMRF.
  • And accompanying that, we don’t want for Member States and UN bodies to choose stakeholder speakers who can have the “privilege” to attend the roundtables.  Again, we must be allowed to practice our agency and self-organizing to firstly choose our own speaker and rapporteurs, and then for everyone else to have the opportunity to actively participate in the roundtables.
  • To be accorded the same number of registrants per accredited organization, as Member States can have delegates.  This is because the COVID pandemic — specifically the need to limit the size of meetings of any kinds within UNHQ premisses as a result of it — has often been used as the reason for excluding or limiting civil society and other stakeholders.  What we are saying if it’s ok for a Member State to have say, 5 delegates, then a civil society organization or any other stakeholder group should also be allowed to have 5 representatives if they so choose.  This just seems fair to us, whatever health and safety protocols there are in place.  This demand has perhaps been heeded to an extent as they have allowed us to register 3 persons per accredited organization.

In the longer term for future IMRFs, we have also asked for:

  • To be allowed to self-organize our own participation and representation.  As you know, this is something we fought for in the GFMD process for many years until it was recognized by the Swiss GFMD Chair in 2011 onwards.  Likewise, it was also recognized for the 2013 UN HLD (which of course were held under GA procedures) where we had an independent self-organized civil society advisory committee that selected our own speakers and Grand Rapporteur for the stakeholder hearing.
  • The removal of the non-objection clause for special accreditation.  Civil society groups are repressed in many States, and that condition is only getting worse.  We only need to witness the Russian-Ukraine conflict and how civil society opposition to it within Russia is silenced, to understand this clearly.  The fact that any Member State then can veto a legitimate organization’s application for accreditation in this day and age, without so much as giving a reason nor the opportunity for the organization to defend its case, is simply unjust and unethical.
  • Along with that, the removal of the requirement for legal registration in the country where it operates.  Again, in many cases, civil society groups are repressed within States where they operate, and are not accorded their legal and civic rights.  So such requirement seems not only unreasonable, but contrary to the principle of a free and independent civil society movement.
  • Interpretation in all official UN languages for all related IMRF events, and resource support for the participation of grassroots civil society leaders and other stakeholders.  Initially, the UN had given an indication that there might be some support for non-State stakeholders but nothing has seemed to come of it.  This should be a simple fix, as most States recognize that to ensure accessibility and diversity for all stakeholders from around the world, resource investments to remove the language and resource barriers must be part of a primary IMRF plan, not as an ad-hoc afterthought.  Any State which has hosted a multi-stakeholder global event knows and understands this.
  • Over the past decade, participatory spaces seemed to have widened for civil society, including the meaningful involvement in the deliberations on the GCM. How would you explain the apparent backsliding in the IMRF process?

That’s curious that you should say that, because there’s a different way of looking at it.  By widened, you perhaps are referring to those sessions and events, like the UNNM’s Stakeholder Listening Sessions, where anyone can participate, without the need for accreditation, complicated formal registrations etc.  In that case, absolutely yes, we have welcomed those opportunities.  However, that has as much to do with the necessary transformation in the last 2 years to a much more virtual meeting model for all of us in all respects, which allows for wider participation by its nature, as compared to physical in-person meetings where other limitations come into play.  But at the same time, real meaningful engagement in the critical GCM deliberations — such as during the Regional Reviews — have been carefully managed and we again fall back into a very controlled environment.  And similarly when we see the General Assembly procedures being applied — such as for the negotiations of the PD — we see the most conservative interpretation of those procedures when it comes to civil society and other stakeholder participation.  We have noted this trend since after the adoption of the GCM at the end of 2018, and that has just regressed from then until now.

  • In the past 2 years, most of the deliberations and consultations have been held online. How has this affected opportunities for migrant civil society participation ?

This goes back to what I was just saying.  On the one hand, open sessions where anyone can express their inputs are of course great!  But what happens to these open sessions?  Do Member States get a summary of what we said?  Are the strongest criticism getting through to decision-makers?  We don’t have any evidence of that at all.  On the contrary, conditions “on the ground” seem to be overall worse than ever.  As a result, many of our migrant associations, grassroots groups, and those who work directly in communities “on the ground” have begun to withdraw their active and consistent engage.  They just don’t believe it’s worth investing their time and energy because its not resulting in anything they are experiencing in a very direct and urgent way.  With limited time and resources, they have begun to complain to even us working at the global level, that they are being “over-consulted”.  So what we again call for are real, meaningful engagement, not just events where they can show how many people have attended as the only metric to measure successful engagement.

  • What is your assessment of the zero draft of the progress report?

Its early stages yet, but as a group, we are somewhat disappointed.  It’s certainly falls far short of what we were hoping for, lacking ambition in many areas, and in some cases even retracting from the GCM language.  We had hoped that in the first IMRF, we would be able to begin to look at the spirit of the GCM and its guiding principles to be more bold and forward looking.  Instead, we find that we have to offer a reframing of the entire PD as well as in many key thematic areas.  We are currently developing our collective response to this where there will be much more substantial details (hopefully by this Friday in time for the next co-facilitators’ townhall) but suffice to say that we feel there is a lot of work to be done!

  • Besides participating in “invited” spaces, over the years, migrant civil society has “invented” its own independent spaces such as the PGA. Are there any plans to organize similar events around the IMRF?

Yes there are!  It’s still early days and we are just beginning to discuss these with our members and partners, as well as with other non-State stakeholders, but there will be parallel events happening during the IMRF week.  Unfortunately, a lot of this has become necessary because of the limited meaningful engagement space we foresee in the IMRF.  But we will do our best to collectively ensure that our parallel events will have the broadest opportunity for engagement at all levels, and an openness we find will be needed for the GCM to have real meaning in our lives as migrant communities.  Stay tuned for announcements of these events very very soon!

About Dr. Stefan Rother

Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute at the University of Freiburg -- Freelance journalist -- You can find my CV at the links below:
This entry was posted in GFMD in General, global compact, IMRF, Migration and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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