Migration entered the G20 agenda only at the Antalya summit in 2015. At that time, the presence of several million Syrian refugees in Turkey and their onward migration to Central and Northern Europe were viewed as a threat to political stability in Europe and beyond. When the urgency of the 2015 situation was gone, the language on migration in subsequent G20 Summit Communiqués became weaker and weaker.
Migration stakeholders may regret this trend. However, it is only fair to ask how the G20 should invest its limited resources: What issues in the governance of international migration are globally important, compared with other G20 topics? Furthermore, does the G20 have a comparative advantage in helping to resolve these issues, compared with other international bodies?
The governance of international migration occurs to a large extent at the national and regional (EU, ECOWAS) levels. Global governance mechanisms apply to forced migration and refugee protection. Not only are legal instruments such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and political declarations such as the Global Compact on Refugees global in nature. International organizations such as UNHCR and the World Food Program (winner of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize) also play a key role in protecting refugees and delivering humanitarian assistance, especially in low-and-middle-income countries.
For many years, however, available funding has only covered about half the global protection needs that these international organizations have identified. Right now, refugees in several African countries face the prospect of cuts in their basic income support and food rations. In 2015, similar cuts drove Syrian refugees in the Middle East toward secondary migration to Turkey and further to Central and Northern Europa. Thus, adequate support for refugees and other displaced persons is not only a humanitarian concern; it is also key to preserving political and economic stability that might otherwise be at risk from large irregular migration movements.
While the funding shortfall is large relative to protection needs, it is only about 10 billion US dollars annually in monetary terms. G20 leaders are ideally placed to commit themselves to jointly covering a large portion of this shortfall and encouraging non-G20 governments to also contribute. Since refugee protection is a global public good and financial contributions are voluntary, such coordination is required and there is no other forum in sight where similar commitments could be made with enough credibility. Therefore, covering the global funding shortfall for refugee protection should be the first item on the future G20 migration agenda.
A possible second topic for the G20 is the dissemination of good policy practices in refugee protection and migration, particularly regarding the labor market integration of refugees. Both the 1951 Convention and the Global Compact on Refugees state that, in protracted refugee situations, refugees should be allowed to work and integrate socially in their host country. However, many host countries, including G20 countries, are fearful of negative labor market effects if they allow refugees to work. Policy dialogue and development assistance will be needed for progress. The G20 countries are well-placed to provide both: Several are major host countries for refugees; others are potential destinations for secondary migration; and all are significant development donors.
Third, going beyond formal G20 proceedings but based on G20 discussions on forced migration and refugee protection, G20 leaders could encourage and strengthen diplomatic efforts to resolve some of the conflicts that have led to large-scale forced migration, especially when G20 governments are directly or indirectly involved (Syria; Venezuela; Afghanistan).
This commentary was written for and first published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) on 20 November 2020.