by Richard Bourne, ICWS Senior Research Fellowship
The meeting of Commonwealth Heads in Malta is likely to be dominated by three issues – the election of a Secretary-General to run the Secretariat from 2016, positions for the Commonwealth to take at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris (COP21), and how to handle the strains caused by international migration. The third issue is the most intractable. Malta itself is a destination for migrants and asylum seekers, crossing the Mediterranean in leaky boats from Libya. Commonwealth states have radically different national strategies – from the culture of welcome in an immigrant country like Canada, to the caution of the UK, the worries about Bangladeshis in India (where India has erected a concrete and barbed wire wall), and fences separating Botswana and Zimbabwe, and South Africa from Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Australia, of course, has been running an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers in the tiny Commonwealth state of Nauru.
The most comprehensive study of migration trends in the Commonwealth was conducted by the Ramphal Institute in 2009-2011. Conducted by a commission chaired by P J Patterson, former prime minister of Jamaica, it was assisted by high level academics from Oxford, the University of the West Indies, and Adelaide.
Alan Gamlen, the New Zealander who drafted the first of the commission’s three reports, which took Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand and Bangladesh as case studies, urged the Commonwealth to reconnect with the issue. He argued for the building of capacity to manage migration, streamlined policies to encourage brain circulation and mitigate brain drain, encouragement for migrants to share their success with both origin and destination states, and stronger international cooperation.
Recent events have shown the weakness of international cooperation, especially at a European level, and spotlighted the impact of war, insecurity and human rights abuse in stimulating refugee flows. Humanitarian conventions and the right to asylum have been put aside by some of the richer states, worried that economic migrants who might not gain entry, under the kind of points-based system developed in Australia, pretend to be refugees seeking asylum. There have been hints in the London press that the UK prime minister, David Cameron, may approach Commonwealth African leaders to fund overseas processing centres which might cope with, for example, those fleeing Eritrea; he may also speak to President Buhari of Nigeria about the Nigerians who have been attempting to get to Europe after crossing the Sahara, escaping the mayhem of Boko Haram.
Following the Ramphal Institute report, acknowledged in the Perth summit communique, the Commonwealth Secretariat held a meeting in Jamaica to review the extent to which small states suffering brain drain could facilitate investment from and return by their migrating citizens. It also asked the Institute to investigate how visa rules, affecting movement between Commonwealth states, could be simplified. This was a question that had also been raised by the Eminent Persons Group, which was worried that the Commonwealth seemed so remote from and of little help to its two billion plus citizens.
Partly because of security worries and the diverse national perspectives, this Ramphal exercise – which involved a tour of 15 capitals by Farooq Sobhan, Michael Frendo and James Jonah – did not result in immediate acceptance of the recommendations to the summit at Colombo in 2015. The inquiry had proposed easing travel for legitimate tourists, and a business card similar to the APEC business card, heavily used by Australian and Chinese business people. The Ramphal Institute indicated that, with a number of regional bodies like CARICOM committed to free movement, it would in theory be possible for different regional blocs to exchange visa reduction. But Colombo did have one positive result. A working party on visas, formed of High Commission reps in London and chaired by Gary Dunn from the Secretariat, has been meeting in 2014-5. It is expected to recommend to the Valletta summit that all states should commit to a “Commonwealth advantage” in revising their visa policies, so that for example Commonwealth citizens in transit through London, Johannesburg or Sydney, would not be charged.
Two specifics: first, a declaration to assist the international community, and the countries from which countries are coming; this would bundle together a commitment to development and better life chances, democracy and rights and better security for citizens. Peacemaking in Syria would help. This would need to be followed up by Joseph Muscat, Malta’s energetic prime minister who will shortly chair the European Council, in talks with Brussels and specially affected Commonwealth countries like South Africa, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Australia.
The second would be to arrange a meeting of police chiefs from states particularly affected by people smuggling – such as Malta, Cyprus, South Africa, UK and Australia – to coordinate a crackdown on the smugglers.
Migration and asylum do not need to be no-win topics for the Commonwealth. The association, benefiting from its diversity, can show leadership here.