Migration was a key issue discussed at the Commonwealth People’s Forum in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka from 11 to 14 November 2013, thanks to the work of the Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development. The Commission was represented at the Forum by Dr Alan Gamlen, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Migration Studies published by Oxford University Press, and author of the Commission’s First Report, published in 2011.
Dr Gamlen’s presentation, entitled ‘Re-connecting the Commonwealth: Managing Migration for Development’, began by underlining the ongoing importance of the Commonwealth as an enduring migration 'arena'.
Dr Gamlen argued that, at a time when the organization’s relevance and identity are often questioned, migration is a clear issue defining the Commonwealth. He said, “if it is true that Commonwealth countries are not foreign to each other, or that the organization is not only an organization of states but also an organization of peoples, then it is partly because Commonwealth countries are full of each other’s migrants.”
Citing United Nations data, Dr Gamlen pointed out that half of all migration to and from Commonwealth countries is from or to other Commonwealth countries, noting that the Commonwealth contains a fifth of all migrants in the world today, and demonstrating how the legacies of Commonwealth migration remain at the top of the political agenda in many Commonwealth countries.
The presentation also noted that migration is intrinsically linked to human development, although debates about whether the link is positive or negative remain contentious. Many development issues related to migration – such as brain drain, remittances, emigration from small island states, and environmental migration – are particularly acute in many Commonwealth countries.
Dr Gamlen concluded by summarizing the Ramphal Commission’s recommendations on how Commonwealth countries should respond to the challenges and opportunities of migration – by building migration management capacity, streamlining migration policies, helping migrants to share their successes, and enhancing international cooperation over migration.
Questions from the floor covered topics including the possibility of free movement as a solution to Commonwealth development problems, and how to deal with the issue of irregular migration. Dr Gamlen responded that Commission had found a general consensus amongst experts that migration policies need to balance the individual right to move against the right of groups to determine their own members.
He also noted that there was consensus that, so long as there was both demand and supply for it, migration would occur in spite of obstacles and restrictions, and that most experts therefore recommend ensuring adequate legal channels exist to allow migration to happen in an orderly fashion, and cooperating to regulate the international recruitment industry so that migrants are not vulnerable to smuggling and trafficking.
Dr Gamlen was joined by migration experts from the International Organization for Migration and civil society groups from Tonga and the UK-Somalian community. The session was attended by 40-50 leaders of civil society organizations from around the Commonwealth. Migration was mentioned in the final communique of the Forum.
The Commonwealth summit in Colombo was controversial for leaders who stayed away, and for rows about human rights abuse. But much of the work of the Commonwealth is designed to assist the development of its poorer nations, and to reduce poverty among its peoples. This is the special concern of the Ramphal Institute. Looked at in this light the summit saw the Commonwealth make some progress.
Leaders’ most important decision was to constitute an open-ended working group of heads of government to steer progress on the post-2015 development goals. There are several overlapping processes at work here in which many Commonwealth governments are involved – not least the five which belong to the Group of 20. The Ramphal Institute strongly welcomes this decision at Colombo. It should create an agreed focus for Commonwealth advocacy at a time of competing priorities.
Less satisfactory was the statement on green issues, where a Commonwealth expert group chaired by former President Jagdeo of Guyana had recommended more climate finance for developing countries. However the governments of Australia and Canada, where current prime ministers are sceptical about efforts to combat climate change, said they were unwilling to back a green climate fund.
The Ramphal Institute has, for the last eighteen months, been exploring ways to assist those small island states of the Commonwealth at most risk from sea level rise. The head of the government of Kiribati has warned that so much of his atoll state might be submerged that it might not be viable by 2050, and the Institute argues that if Commonwealth solidarity is to mean anything around ten such countries need practical policy and financial support now.
The Institute was delighted that, in paragraph 85 of the communiqué, the Heads decided to take forward its proposals for the Secretary-General to ease visa restrictions between Commonwealth states. The Secretary-General had requested proposals for business travellers, tourists and those moving around the Commonwealth on official business ( see elsewhere on this site for the full report ). Leaders have now set up a working party of officials, which the Institute stands ready to support.
The summit confirmed its backing for a number of international processes, including UN work on migration and development where the Institute’s Ramphal Commission on Migration and Development, 2009-2011, pioneered the Commonwealth perspective. Three reports from that commission, chaired by P.J.Patterson, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, have set out the significance of migration for the Commonwealth. On the one hand highly trained personnel have been emigrating; on the other the resulting diasporas in more developed countries are a major resource for many states. The author of the first of the commission’s reports, Dr Alan Gamlen, presented his findings at a session of the Peoples Forum in Sri Lanka.
Finally the Institute was delighted to see paragraph 48 of the communiqué on tax policy, where Heads noted “the importance of payment of taxes and collection of revenue.” The Institute is currently in discussion with the Commonwealth Association of Tax Administrators about the serious “tax gap” affecting many states where the rich do not pay tax, and huge numbers work in an informal economy. The result is that public services rest on a very narrow funding base, and the Institute believes that better revenue collection would make better services affordable.
Richard Bourne, Secretary