Could the 2021 High-level Political Forum be the best yet for migrants?

Prior to starting its seventy-first general debate, the General Assembly holds a brief special segment to mark the first anniversary of the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Photo: Cia Park/UN 2016

As the main United Nations platform on sustainable development, the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) has a central role in providing policy guidance and direction on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, less than ten years out from the deadline to meet the 2030 Agenda, and in the midst of an increasingly worrying outlook for achieving the SDGs, recent reviews of the HLPF have highlighted several gaps.

The HLPF’s treatment of migration is a good illustration. Despite migration being widely recognized as a powerful driver of sustainable development for migrants and the communities they travel between, the HLPF has given insufficient attention to the issue, even with many actors seeking to place the topic higher on the political agenda. However, 2021 offers new opportunities to elevate migration in the UN’s development framework and to act on the SDGs, and there are some indications that this year’s HLPF may just deliver when it comes to migration.

In 2016, the General Assembly decided to review the format and organizational aspects of the HLPF after its first four-year cycle. While the outcomes of these discussions were generally positive, several key critiques emerged. These included that the HLPF lacks effective integration with other sustainable development processes (such as those on climate change, financing for development, and biodiversity), and that it provides insufficient political guidance and leadership, including through its Ministerial Declaration.

A view of the General Assembly Hall following the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda by the UN summit convened for that purpose on 25 September 2015. Photo: Cia Pak/UN 2015

While these critiques affect many different aspects of the 2030 Agenda, as a major cross-cutting phenomenon relevant to sustainable development, migration is illustrative of where improvements are needed. For example, despite migration being widely recognized as an essential issue for sustainable development, the HLPF has been slow to reaffirm the migration dimensions of the 2030 Agenda.

Other than making generic references to migrants amongst other groups not to be left behind, for example, or the need for disaggregated data by migratory status, only once — in 2019 — has the HLPF made any specific statement on the issue. Even then, the outcome text included only a brief recognition of the multidimensional reality of migration and was based on pre-existing language outlined in the 2030 Agenda. It did not provide any forward momentum towards improved migration governance or address new and emerging issues.

Even within the HLPF’s programme of work, migration has received little dedicated focus. While the HLPF agenda is naturally a crowded space, with the full breadth and depth of the incredibly ambitious 2030 Agenda requiring attention, the lack of attention to migration remains a weak spot, especially with the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) — itself ‘grounded’ in the 2030 Agenda — having been adopted in 2018.

There have been some positive advances, such as a growing number of governments including migration in their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) as presented to the HLPF. But there too, commentators have suggested that the quality of references varies considerably. Some provide in-depth analysis of migration patterns and the policy actions taken by governments to address its multiple dimensions. Others refer to the issue only in passing, without citing any related policies or actions to enhance the impact of migration on development.

A wide view of the Ministerial Segment of the ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Photo: Manuel Elías/UN 2016

With SDG implementation lagging, and a global pandemic that has further undermined development, the 2021 HLPF is therefore an important opportunity for governments to make a renewed statement on the value of migration to sustainable development. Not only is SDG 10, the ‘central’ SDG related to migration, under review this year, but the HLPF is also taking place in the context of preparations for the first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF), itself the primary intergovernmental platform on GCM implementation. The IMRF is scheduled to meet in 2022, and a series of regional reviews have already taken place. If the HLPF is to address concerns about a lack of integration with other multilateral processes, it would do well to create specific GCM links.

Fortunately, there are signs that more space will be created for migration at the 2021 HLPF, and potentially at future sessions as well. First, the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) participated in a formal HLPF panel on leaving no one behind, focused on new dimensions and challenges to protecting and empowering vulnerable groups in the years ahead.

“I call for the full inclusion of migrants, refugees, Internally Displaced People and people on the move not only in socio-economic recovery efforts, but also in social safety nets and access to healthcare starting with vaccines.” — IOM Director General António Vitorino

This was the first time that IOM had been invited to participate in such a manner. On the margins of the HLPF, the UN Network on Migration and the Group of Friends of Migration will convene the first ever VNR Lab on the topic. These informal platforms are intended for governments to share their experiences and reflections on the VNR process.

Second, the HLPF’s Ministerial Declaration may include robust language on migration, potentially making this year’s outcome the most substantive on migration to date. Amongst many other issues, the final draft text presented by the two governments leading the negotiations — Finland and Iraq — includes language calling upon Member States to include migrants in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts; notes the decision to convene the IMRF in 2022 (which, if translated into the 2022 programme of work, might help address concerns about lack of integration), and recognizes the positive contributions of migrants to inclusive growth and sustainable development. Other than the sheer amount of migration language appearing in the draft, a noteworthy feature is that it includes elements that go beyond that in the 2030 Agenda, particularly by dealing with the migration dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While such a positive outcome is not guaranteed (governments were still discussing the final text in the first few days of the HLPF), if the migration language is retained, governments will have taken a long overdue step to elevate migration at the central UN sustainable development body. It would also offer opportunities to expand the attention to migration at future sessions. As the Permanent Representatives of Finland and Iraq emphasized in their letter presenting the text of the Ministerial Declaration:

“[i]t is … time to show that the United Nations Member States are committed to international cooperation and solidarity to overcome the crisis and realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

SDGs showcased United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Including migration in such a detailed way would help demonstrate that commitment.

This article was written by Chris Richter, Migration Policy Officer of IOM Office to the United Nations.

International Organization for Migration UN Office | Promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all | IOM Global: IOM - UN Migration