Mavericks and Team Players on Migration Policy with Reflections on Kofi Annan and John McCain

From Kofi Annan” the team player” to John McCain “the maverick” would seem like quite a jump. And in many ways it is. Calm versus flamboyant temperament. Collaborator versus boat rocker. Global citizen versus national patriot. Progressive (i.e. more to the left) versus conservative (i.e. more to the right). But both were “greater than life” figures who aspired to do more than their self interest.  Each has been eulogized for rather different reasons. In this commentary, however, I reflect on the impact both of them had in one area of commonly shared concern, migration policy. 

Both Kofi Annan and John McCain passed away in August of 2018, one at age 80 and the other at age 81. And both have been the focus of glowing eulogies. I even did one on Kofi Annan a few weeks ago – praising him as a global team player.

Eulogies and Power Games

This leads me to pause here, in order to express some chagrin about the tendency we all have of overdoing the glorification of the person who has just passed away. Or, as well put by one critic, it is often the case that “Those praising the person highlight their own involvement” – citing a personal encounter – and even reproducing a photo of the “praised person, shown together with the one who applauds her or his merits – almost as if these were their own merits”. Ouch! This was right on the mark! In my commentary/eulogy (i.e. available here) on Kofi Annan, I even reproduced a photo of him with one of his UN teams (including me in the photo) and furthermore even implied that his image as a “team player” was indeed a value that I personally embraced – and supposedly that I personally practiced in my own professional career. Well, thank you, Mr. Henning Melber, journalist in “The Conversation” for a bull’s eye! I confess to my self-centeredness.

Mr. Melber goes on to lament that the current circumstances of reactionary populism are creating such a desperate search for alternatives like Kofi Annan or John McCain (both of whom he specifically mentions in his article) that we ignore what he describes as “the contradictions when entering the power games of policy”. (See another interesting article touching on the eulogizing of these two by Alain Frachon here.) Yes, we must agree that we would rather have Kofi Annan or John McCain to praise than accept the absence of integrity and decency in these other demagogic populists – both in the US and here in Europe. Italy has fallen prey, as has Hungary. The recent election in Sweden can only be cheered for the failure of the populists to increase their share of the vote as much as had been feared. Thank goodness that the deadlock there is between center left and center right as a result!

But yes, we do need to assess the legacies of the likes of Kofi Annan and John McCain with some balance between right and wrong – at least to face up to this matter of inherent contradictions. Kofi Annan did not stop the genocide in Rwanda or the Srebrenica debacle, and he did not stop the corruption in the Iraqi Food for Peace program. John McCain might be praised for his “principles and belief in bi-partisanship”, but Mr. Melber does point out that “moments of his personal integrity were at times deeply ambiguous”.  In his most recent re-election campaign, he was as supportive of building walls between Mexico and his state of Arizona as the most ardent anti-immigrationist. What’s more, he was a military hawk and a proud American patriot. Don’t we all wish he had been more than that?

We are taking note of both of these 80 (plus)-year-old, larger-than-life figures because of what they did in their unusually productive lives. The two were very different people with very different accomplishments. Nonetheless, one can also connect them to each other – in particular through their concern about the dangers of anti-immigration sentiments, the very undercurrent of reactionary populism that we are dealing with today. Both took bold steps in search of compromise on this contentious issue, and that does justify praise for both of them.

Kofi Annan and the Global Debate

First, Kofi Annan: It was indeed during his service as Secretary-General of the UN that the first major steps were taken within the UN system to facilitate a global policy framework for migration. It is not all that surprising since Kofi Annan’s career within the UN system actually started with postings In Geneva, primarily in the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. But it wasn’t until his second term as Secretary-General, in 2003, that the S-G launched the Global Commission on International Migration, which reported back to the UN in 2005.  By then, the issue had expanded beyond refugees to encompass migration trends and policies more broadly.  It set the stage for the first High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development at the UN in 2006.

Even then, however, it was not really ripe for UN-wide collaboration on migration policy. Instead, it was the launching of an initiative outside of the UN, the Global Forum on Migration and Development that started addressing the expanding range of migration issues, through an exchange of best practices mostly driven by migrant-receiving countries. This Global Forum operated on a relatively “ad hoc” basis, hosted by a different state every year. Switzerland was in the forefront, as we recall, either hosting or helping to underwrite some of these gatherings, but it was clearly a state-driven exercise. Although the convenors eventually supplemented their exclusively sovereign state deliberations to include carefully orchestrated dialogues with civil society (and separately the private sector), the emphasis has consistently been on the sovereign state-based control over migration policy.

One should note here that the UN has gone on to convene additional summits on migration in 2013 and again in 2016, but the momentum at the global level has been carefully channelled into the drafting of two parallel global “compacts”. The proposed Global Compact on Refugees does little to update the conventions from the early 1950s that were adopted to deal with post-World War II refugee issues, with an updated protocol in 1967, while the proposed Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration has even backtracked on some of the labour rights in ILO conventions. They are, nonetheless, important steps in advancing the underlying principles for global migration policy, and I intend to do a commentary on each one as they are scheduled to be adopted this fall. But it is still the case that the main policy debates – and challenges – are not at this global level.

Kofi Annan and the EU Debate

To return to reflections on the impact of Kofi Annan, he was indeed a team player and a skillful recruiter of remarkable talent, including that of Peter Sutherland as the first S-G’s representative for migration. And he continued to be outspoken in his gentle way about global migration policy even after he retired from the UN at the end of his second term as S-G in 2006.  Subsequently, in his capacity as a member and then Chair of “The Elders”, a group of “eminences grises” founded by Nelson Mandela, he was able to articulate more freely on comprehensive reform proposals but did so with a focus on specific regional issues than on global policy. It is interesting also that his interests remained mostly with refugees and asylum seekers rather than economic migrants. In fact, his criticism was emphatically driven by humanitarian concerns about the millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflagrations and more recently the Rohingya flight out of Burma. And in that light, he condemned the EU agreement with Turkey in 2015 that effectively closed off the refugee flows into Greece and northward through the EU. See his letter here.

This does suggest a European focus to the policy debate for the likes of Kofi Annan, since the challenge in Europe has become a refugee-focused debate. Oddly enough, the refugee numbers into Europe have dropped significantly since 2015-2016, even though there continue to be a record number of refugees globally, over 24.5 million according to the latest statistics from the UN.  Nonetheless, it was that sudden influx from the Middle East in 2015 that continues to haunt the policy debates within the EU. In Europe, to be sure, there are steady immigration flows of significant numbers (managed at the national level), but the leading challenge for the past several years has been that sudden escalation of large refugee inflows rather than migrants per se (whether documented or otherwise) and what to do collaboratively to better control and manage the numbers of refugees within and among the EU member states. It is here that the “updating” of the main refugee conventions is being dramatically addressed. And it is here that Kofi Annan’s quiet call for humanitarian principles was forcefully directed.

John McCain and the US Debate

In contrast, the US is dealing with a significantly different set of circumstances – 11 or 12 million undocumented immigrants and a backlog of asylum applications, both involving those who are crossing the border from Mexico but also those already within the US whose visas have expired.  Yes, the US has historically been the most open to actual refugees requesting resettlement in the US, but this is a very small proportion of the migrant inflows to the US.  At its height, the refugee inflow reached some 120,000 in 2016 (with an annual average since 2000 more like 50,000 per year), while net migrant inflows have been averaging close to 1 million per year.

Thus, in the US context, we do give some credit to Senator John McCain and his admirable efforts to mobilize Republicans to a consensus on immigration reform. The most recent effort, this past spring, may not have been at his instigation, since he was by then at home in Arizona for treatment of his brain cancer. But he did show a history of willingness to engage in bipartisan consensus building, starting as far back as 2005 or thereabouts in a collaboration with Senator Ted Kennedy. That Kennedy-McCain package included a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented people already within the US plus strengthened enforcement at the borders but also internally, a new point system for regular visa applications and a guest worker programme with two-year permits and employer verification requirements. He was associated with a similar effort in 2013 and once again, as part of a reconstituted “Gang of Eight” in 2016.  See a reflection of his “roadmap” for immigration reform in Roll Call here.

The reactionary populism that has invaded US politics in the past two years has aggravated an already divided Congress. The shamefulness of separating children from their families, the reduced quotas for refugees, especially from the Middle East and Africa, and the overall efforts by this Presidency to reduce both refugee and immigration numbers are among the reversals to consensus building that we see today.  One can only search for replacements to the likes of Senator John McCain (and Senator Kennedy but also at the global level Kofi Annan) to reinstate the humanitarian commitment to decency for all, but we also need to search for ways to cope with the contradictions in the power games of politics that are part of the deal.

Absorption and Accommodation

That is to say, the push and pull factors affecting the decisions of people to move from one place to another need to accommodate the effects on people who choose not to move. It isn’t a matter of saying that people should stay at home but that both departures and destinations for the 24.5 million people who are refugees – and the more than 40 million more who are internally displaced – and the 250 million who are migrants should incorporate sensitivity to their impact on everyone else. Obviously, there are conflict situations for most refugees as well as economic or environmental factors for migrants that can’t easily be solved. They do require focussed efforts to ensure basic rights for education, health, jobs and overall well-being, and the two global compacts that are being adopted at the UN in the coming months do reflect some new and constructive thinking for improving these focussed efforts. But a real additional challenge seems to be how to absorb different groups of people whose cultures and languages are distinct.

This is, of course, more of an issue in countries receiving migrants or refugees rather than the countries from which they are leaving. But the issue of absorption is a big issue, especially if the prevailing view is that one must integrate into the culture and language of the receiving country. Different approaches have been taken – most visibly the French approach of “laicité” in contrast to the British approach to diversity or the American approach to “hyphenated” Americans. And then there is the less well analysed but different set of challenges in Germany or Sweden with large numbers of refugees or in Poland or Hungary where there is no recent prior history of either refugees or migrants. And then, of course, one should also look at where the overwhelming majority of migrants and refugees are located – in the developing world.

In Conclusion

The UN global compacts have a lot to cover, with such varying circumstances around the world that make it difficult to do more than put together a long list of issues to consider. It will continue to be worth following how the UN General Assembly adopts the proposed Global Compact for Refugees in the coming months and how the special summit in Marrakech in December 2018 adopts the proposed Global Compact for a Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The current policy debates regarding absorption, however, are happening primarily at the US or EU levels. In both settings, there are lots of different points of view about this matter. While the US, with the largest foreign-born population (but at 15% not the largest proportionately) is being exploited by an inflammatory anti-immigrant populist, there is a commendable effort at consensus building in Europe. The current target is to reach a consensus at the forthcoming EU heads of state summit in October. As for the US, one can certainly hope that the November 2018 elections may bring about a realignment in the policy environment.  Both the emerging EU and previous US reform proposals merit our scrutiny, even where they require trade-offs and even inconsistencies with regard to this absorption issue.

The coming months are timely for us to reflect on the leadership and approaches of the likes of Kofi Annan and John McCain – and Ted Kennedy and Peter Sutherland, for that matter. They certainly did push for bold solutions on migration policy. May they all rest in peace, while we look to new mavericks and team players – keeping in mind the imperfections in all of us and the “contradictions” (thank you, Mr. Melcher) in these “power games of policy.” In closing this commentary, I would also recommend two recent books that have tapped into the philosophical underpinnings of these debates – one by Francis Fukuyama and the other by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Both lament the divisiveness of “identity politics”. While Mr. Appiah encourages us to accept the “messy and muddled” complexity of culture, Mr. Fukuyama proposes an array of practical steps for embracing diversity in support liberal democracy. Both have been widely reviewed, including in the 23 August 2018 issue of The Economist (available here). Here are the titles:

Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (Profile Books, 2018).

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