What Will Be the Legacy of Alan Kurdi’s Death?

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  • 2016•09•02


    Photo: Wikimedia / Frank C. Müller; Creative Commons A-SA 4.0

    World leaders gather in New York on 19 September 2016 for a summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. Through this blog series the United Nations University Migration Network (UNU MN) will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of the summit from various critical perspectives: migration governance and policy; forced migration; migration and environment; migration and health; migration and culture; and migration and development. The series will culminate in a single summary post shortly after the summit.


    A joint post by Professor Khalid Koser and Researcher Elaine McGregor

    Today is the first anniversary of the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned with half his family while trying to reach Europe in search of asylum. First and foremost, his death, like that of more than 3,500 other migrants who died crossing the Mediterranean last year, is a human tragedy.

    But Alan Kurdi’s death is also symptomatic of a failing refugee regime. A regime that places legal commitments on destination states to consider every application for asylum, but has no sanctions for the states from which refugees flee. A regime that has run out of solutions, pushing more and more people into the hands of people-smugglers and human traffickers to seek asylum in richer countries. A regime that has failed to realise any form of responsibility-sharing – instead triggering a race to the bottom as more and more states erect physical and metaphorical walls against people fleeing for their lives.

    To make matters worse, the faltering refugee regime is just one part of the wider migration governance landscape, which provides no legal framework for migrants. Inequality between countries is on the rise, and, as the world population continues to grow, and the spectre of climate change looms, increased migratory pressure can be expected. Limited legal opportunities to migrate create a market for smugglers, traffickers and even recruiters and employers, who profit from migrants’ vulnerabilities in a context of restrictive and closed border policies.

    Why share responsibility?

    The UN General Assembly High-Level Meeting to Address Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, 19 September 2016, is a chance for the international community to pay its tributes to Alan Kurdi and the thousands of others who have died along migratory routes across the world. It is an opportunity to address the failings that facilitated their deaths.

    The draft outcome document for the meeting has potential. It reaffirms states’ commitment to the rights of migrants and refugees; it places migrants and refugees at the centre of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; it proposes a global compact on refugees and the negotiation of a global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration; and it seeks to engage new actors, in particular the private sector. It also seems likely that the meeting will confirm the introduction of the International Organization for Migration into the UN system.

    On the negative side of the ledger, however, hopes that the global compact on refugees might be agreed this September have already been dashed, and states have effectively put off any decision until at least 2018. How many tens of thousands of asylum seekers will drown between now and then? There are also significant questions about how IOM will be incorporated into the UN system, and in particular how to reduce the current overlap and promote cooperation between its work and that of relevant UN agencies including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

    We should not give up on the High-Level Meeting. Even agreement on the outcome document represents a step in the right direction. Over the next two years, as states negotiate these outcomes, the United Nation University (UNU) Migration Network emphasises the following five principles for migration governance:

    1. Coherence: Policies involve trade-offs and trade-offs lead to incoherent policies. However, if we can dispel the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality and focus on efforts to create inclusive societies, we stand a better chance of addressing the ‘challenge of migration’.
    2. Inclusivity: The challenges of migration cannot be addressed unilaterally. This has been the argument of commentators proposing a multilateral framework for migration since the early 1990s. Beyond this, however, it requires cooperation between different levels of government and a range of different actors within and between countries including among others the private sector, civil society, academia, international organisations, cities, regional bodies, and trade unions.
    3. A Long-Term Perspective: There is a need to shift our thinking away from development as a means to stop migration. Development leads to migration and migration can contribute to development under the right conditions. However, development-driven migration is much better than forced migration. Making decisions that are not just knee-jerk reactions made in the context of crisis means we may be better prepared when the world faces the next ‘Syria’.
    4. Responsibility: The shift from ‘burden sharing’ to ‘responsibility sharing’ is a welcome one, recognising the contributions that refugees and migrants can make, and it rightly highlights a moral obligation to help those fleeing for their lives.
    5. Implementation-focused: Migrants are already covered by a range of international agreements (CEDAW, CRC, Geneva Convention, etc.). Drawing on these well-ratified international agreements as a blueprint for a global compact on safe, regular and orderly migration can focus attention on better implementation of agreements that already exist – rather than the development of new legal architecture that is unlikely to be met with universal approval.


    Summit Series #1: What Will be the Legacy of Alan Kurdi’s Death?
    Summit Series #2: How to Walk the Talk to End Forced Migration?
    Summit Series #3: Migration and the Power of Culture
    Summit Series #4: Why Migrant Vulnerability Is a Community Health Issue
    Summit Series #5: Migration and Climate Change: Shoring Up Communities and Commitments
    Summit Series #6: Why It’s Time to Get Serious about Migration and Development
    Summit Series #7: The New York Declaration: What Next for Refugees & Migrants?