Governments Seek Clarity on Refugee, Migrant Definitions
UN Photo/Mark Garten
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UN bodies currently define refugees as a sub-set of migrants, a definition that UNHCR says could compromise legal protection for refugees.

According to DESA, the High-level Dialogues on Migration and Development could serve as a review mechanism for the migration-related targets under seven SDGs.

11 October 2016: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a report on migration and development, which identifies trends in international migration, legal instruments relating to migration, and migration-related targets in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At a briefing on the report, governments called for clarity on the definitions of “refugee” and “migrant.”

Providing the briefing on 11 October 2016, John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), said DESA’s accepted definition of an international migrant is anyone who changes their country of residence for more than a year. He reported that, while international migrants make up around 3% of world population, they represent around 11% of the population of developed countries, and under 2% of the population of developing countries. Wilmoth said that much international migration is related to labor market activity, and can counter countries’ challenge of population aging.

On the migration-related targets of the SDGs, Wilmoth said seven SDGs contain migration-related targets. He reported that DESA is working with the International Organization on Migration (IOM) to quantify progress towards SDG target 10.7 on facilitating safe, regular and responsible migration. Other related targets are: strengthen and retain the health workforce in developing countries (3.c); increase the number of scholarships for study abroad (4.b); eradicate human trafficking (5.2, 8.7 and 16.2)); protect the labor rights of migrant workers (8.8); reduce transaction costs of remittances (10.c); ensure legal identity through birth registration (16.9); and disaggregate data by migratory status (17.8). Wilmoth noted that the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) will review implementation of SDG 10 (reducing inequality), including target 10.7 on migration, at its 2019 session.

The Secretary-General’s report, which is dated 4 August 2016, also addresses the modalities for the next meeting in the series of High-Level Dialogues on Migration and Development (HLD). The first HLD took place in 2006, followed by the second HLD in 2013.

The next (third) meeting could take place before, during or after the 2018 Conference on International Migration agreed at the UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, on 19 September 2016. Wilmoth said the High-Level Dialogue series can serve as a mechanism to review migration-related commitments, contribute to negotiations around a global compact on safe, regular and orderly migration, and prepare for the 2018 Conference.

In discussion, Italy requested an update on how the varying definitions of “migrant” and “refugee” are being resolved, and Norway called for recognizing the presence of force as a factor defining refugee movements. Wilmoth said that the definition accepted by DESA, IOM and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) includes refugees as a sub-set of migrants, whereas the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is concerned that this definition may compromise legal protections offered to refugees. Wilmoth suggested that Member States could request the UN system to come to an agreed definition.

On the High-level Dialogue, the IOM favored separating the Dialogue’s review function from preparations towards the 2018 conference. Wilmoth noted DESA’s view that the High-Level Dialogues in general should play a review role and contribute to the work of the HLPF. He noted also that Member States previously expressed concern about having too many migration-related meetings, and DESA consequently has sought to merge some functions of meetings. He suggested that the High-Level Dialogue could be organized as a two-day event, with an additional day added for Conference preparation.

In response to questions about the integration of IOM into the UN system, the IOM outlined its priorities, including to: better understand how migration drives population dynamics; recognize migration as a catalyst for economic growth and prosperity; recognize the human crisis that has resulted from migration being treated as a commodity; and responding to the humanitarian and development dimensions of migration. Wilmoth highlighted mutual agreement between IOM and DESA that both organizations should have access to all discussions of substance with regard to the Global Compact and other outcomes, and that they are currently working on a mechanism for cooperation. He added that the UN Secretary-General will eventually appoint a secretary-general for the 2018 Conference, and he welcomed input from Member States as to what they would expect from a conference secretariat. [International Migration and Development: Report of the Secretary-General (A/71/296)] [Briefing Webcast] [IISD RS Story on UN Summit on Refugees, Migrants] [HLD Information]

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