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On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, progressives try to push agenda on migration

"Migration is being used as an arm in a political fight."

The Academia panel was one of four simultaneous panels set up at a parallel event tackling immigration during the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2018. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress
The Academia panel was one of four simultaneous panels set up at a parallel event tackling immigration during the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2018. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress

NEW YORK, NEW YORK — While the high-level debates and speeches capture most of the attention surrounding the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, numerous side events provide a unique window into some of the most pressing global issues.

On Friday, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) hosted a discussion on progressive migration issues in the lead-up to the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in December. Conversation focused on the need to see migrants and asylum seekers as humans with rights rather than threats, creating a process to handle their movement, and incentivizing good practices — issues that are all, in the current global political climate, considered extremely thorny.

One of the speakers, Astrid Silva, a Mexican-American political activist, was born in Mexico and raised in the United States. Silva, 30, arrived in Texas with her mother, in an inner-tube, at the age of four.

As a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — a program that was rescinded by President Donald Trump last year — Silva could go to college, drive, and generally not live in constant fear.

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“For six years, I’ve had this incredible sense of freedom… not complete freedom, but it was life-changing,” she told ThinkProgress. But now, like many, she’s in limbo as she had to renew her status and isn’t sure it will be approved.

“I’m hoping it’ll get renewed so I can continue my life past March,” said Silva, who runs Dream Big Nevada, an organization connecting immigrants to services and sources of information.

She wants the international community and the U.N. to focus on what it means for immigrants to be returned to countries of origin if, like her, they have no community or support there. She’s also hoping for a normalization of migration — not just as a means of escaping violence.

Astrid Silva speaks at the FEPS migration event in New York on Sept. 21, 2018. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress
Astrid Silva speaks at the FEPS migration event in New York on Sept. 21, 2018. CREDIT: D. Parvaz/ThinkProgress

“It shouldn’t be that [you migrate because] you have a machine-gun to your head,” she said. Why can’t other people move for work, for instance, like Americans do?

“You get to be expats; we only get to be immigrants,” she said.

The migration compact addresses these issues and others, including providing safe passage for migrants while maintaining border security and creating a mechanism for people to move without dying in deserts, drowning in the Mediterranean, or being detained in Libya’s horrible detention centers.

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The FEPS event was dizzying at times, with panels set up at four corners of the room (political, civil society, academia, and think tanks, including The Center for American Progress, associated with ThinkProgress) and the moderator jumping between them, leaving the attendees spinning around in their seats to keep up.

Most of the panelists were on the same page, at least in spirit, though each promoted their own approach for solving “the problem” of migration. This, they all agreed, is not a “numbers” problem so much a human one, and still they talked about numbers — because, frankly, when it comes to domestic politics, that’s what gets votes. Recent elections in countries such as Sweden, Italy, and Austria attest to the fact that the far-right often uses numbers of asylum seekers — factual or made up — to attract voters to their camp.

The global migration compact was not signed by two countries: the United States and the staunchly anti-immigrant Hungary. 

Silva was stung to hear the U.S. had refused to sign the agreement.

“The country that I believe in, the country that I was raised in is telling me that they won’t even sign a compact that talks about my humanity. It was rough, hearing that,” she said.

What no one wanted to acknowledge, even when asked directly by ThinkProgress, was the role of the European Union — or that of their member states — in paying off Turkey, Libya, and Greece to contain migrants and perspective asylum seekers in an attempt to lower the number that can remain in Europe and to dissuade them from attempting to go there in the first place.

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The closest the discussion came to this was Michel Foucher, a former diplomat and a geopolitician, who worried that authoritarian governments will learn from the E.U. deal with Turkey, for instance, and see that as a means for obtaining funding.

While Europe alone can’t accommodate the millions of migrants and asylum seekers hoping to head west, demographics, a dwindling labor force, and a weakening pension system mean European countries actually need migrants, but they’re shutting them out, largely over fears of being “Muslimized,” said Josep Borrell, Spain’s minister of foreign affairs.

“Migration is being used as an arm in a political fight,” he continued, adding that it’s easy to use migration to whip up panic against outsiders.

So as comprehensive as the compact may be, there is an awareness built into the document that its success “rests on the mutual trust, determination and solidarity of States to fulfill the objectives and commitments contained in this Global Compact.”

Here’s where things get sticky. It’s one thing to agree on the policies. It’s another to implement them in one’s own country. The new Italian government, for instance, which is almost rabidly anti-immigrant, is unlikely to play along.

Eugenio Ambrosi, regional director of the International Organization for Migration in Europe, acknowledged that this is a “paradox” that has to be overcome.

“But in terms of knowing how it will get done, I don’t have a solution at this point,” he said.

As for somehow getting the U.S. to sign on, Ambrosi laughed, “I can’t think of anything it [the U.N.] could do.” The manner in which the U.S. is pulling out of various agreements and councils — from the Paris climate agreement to the U.N. Human Rights Council — suggests a shift in what the U.S. sees as its role and its relationship with the United Nations.

One thing is clear, though. The other member states, especially in Europe, will have to come up with an agreement they can stick to, creating “trust and credibility.”

“Otherwise, when the next crisis happens… it’s be difficult for the E.U. to say, as it has before, that borders should be kept open, when [the E.U itself]  has been practicing containment, control and restraint,” said Ambrosi.