Dreaming in Dhaka: a postscript on GFMD 2016

by Kellynn Wee

The aftermath of three dizzying days at the Global Forum on Migration and Development 2016.

Resplendent in a purple sari, the woman is walking me briskly out to where an Uber is waiting. A scarf, tossed over one shoulder and embroidered with the logo of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, trails obediently behind her. “Oh, yes,” she is saying to me, the epitome of professionalism, “Ubers have gotten very popular in Bangladesh in the past few months.” A young man in a suit scurries to her elbow and she orders him off in Bengali before turning back to me again. “Most families have cars,” she continues, all consummate hostess, before another strained young man bobs up at her side and she swerves to rectify his problem and send him away with a word or two.

“You have a bevy of young men at your bidding,” I tease. The sky dim with evening, the sound of Dhaka in the background: honking. She smiles, a little. Her makeup is impeccable. “It’s a huge event. This conference is the biggest that I’ve ever been a part of.”

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The beautiful Bangabandhu International Convention Center.

And so it has been: three dizzying days at the Global Forum on Migration and Development, two of which were Civil Society Days, and the final one spent at the Common Space, where civil society delegates and government representatives had a chance to connect. Building on an op-end I wrote with Kuda Vanyoro and conversations with sharp, wonderful colleagues, these are my immediate impressions. (My experiences stem from attending two sessions on labour recruitment and global supply chains, another on migrant diasporas and entrepreneurship, and a final session on developing a gender-sensitive approach to the Global Compact.)

We still tend to talk about migrants as workers first, people second. This is a thread that runs powerfully through discussions pre-empting the Global Compact on Migration, and was particularly evident on Common Space Day. We talked about labour markets, push and pull factors, entrepreneurship, skills development and matching, recruitment fee regulations, and how migrants brighten local economies as a justification for their entrance into nation-states, employers, ethical recruitment–all of which are crucial topics–but we talked less about migrants’ changing family dynamics, socio-cultural incorporation and inclusion, intimate relationships, and reproductive rights.

Women aren’t just domestic workers. This tends to be our default mode when we talk about women in migration. Firstly, this reverts to point #1: we see women migrants, first and foremost, as migrant workers. The second problem is that we have fallen into a familiar narrative of adopting domestic workers as the default ‘worker’, which in no way diminishes the urgency of the issues that surround domestic work, but crowds the spaces that we have to discuss women in labour migration. What about, for example, women who engage in embodied and intimate labour, such as migrant sex workers? This is a trickier and more divisive terrain to navigate, but important nonetheless. The third and most pressing problem is that a gender-sensitive approach cannot and should not be restricted to women as workers. Marriage migrants are a significant migration flow: in Singapore, one in five marriages are between a citizen and a foreign spouse. A foreign wife’s legal status is dependent on her husband and a rising number deals with shocking levels of abuse. Or what about ‘study mamas‘, women who accompany children who migrate to study abroad? We also did not discuss transgender women and queer women, and the specific vulnerabilities that they must grapple with. Will these women make an appearance in the upcoming Global Compact, or our future discussions about migration and women?

The host country plays a powerful role in setting the agenda. The candidness of  H.E. Shahidul Haque, the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary and this year’s GFMD Chair, was a breath of fresh air. Playing both provocateur and realist, he was forthcoming, reflexive about the mandate of states, and eager to urge civil society to take a leading role in issues of migration in the years ahead. “How about a free, fair, and responsive approach, rather than safe, regular and orderly?” H.E. said at today’s Common Space speech. “The strength of every movement is the people, not the state. Have you ever seen a state lead a transformation?” he said at the GFMD Civil Society Days opening speech.  (It helps that he’s very quotable.) In comparison to last year, I thought this year’s Common Space had a relaxed openness to it, with civil society representatives and government delegates truly interacting, responding, and mixing, not just in the interstices of the conference, but within the formal spaces of the conferences as well.

Moderation and session structures are critical to the quality of the discussions. Well-moderated discussions had several common elements: good timekeeping, critical in reining overenthusiastic speakers in; reminding delegates to ask pointed, concise questions; an ability to make thematic connections between disparate comments and questions; and, most importantly, the facilitation of interaction, rather than panellists’ monologues. In a room full of experts who have spent years working closely with migrants, it is, I think, less important for panellists to share statistics about rates of migrant abuse–an issue we can safely assume to all be intimately familiar with–and more important for a lively Q&A which will allow panellists and the floor to dynamically shape their responses in relation to each other, and to better explore topics of discussion.

Stories are crucial. And in many ways, this year, they shone. Poet Vanessa Kisuule’s performances were a gift: necessary, honest, funny, piercing; they felt organic, not shoehorned or tacked on, and I appreciated her active participation and reflection in the days following her poetry. The photo exhibition at the foyer–titled ‘The Best Years of My Life‘ and put together by Shahidul Alam–tracked the lives of Bangladeshi migrants to Malaysia, and glowed with open empathy. Nonetheless, however, I echo the comment we made in our reflection on last year’s GFMD. What is the role of research(ers) at the GFMD? There are times where I itched, and tried, to temper abstract principles in empirical stories, data, and information. I think I talked often, for example, about how recruitment fee flows are gendered in Asia: women migrate through debt; men migrate through upfront fees. These have hugely different implications and will need different solutions. The perennial question of how to connect a global process to local contexts remains something that we will need to explore.

I am both optimistic and wary (and weary. Goodbye forever to 6 am wake-up times! I say fervently). It has been an exciting few days, with many ups and downs, coloured with lots of frustrations and Twitter rants and furiously whispered conversations with people at tea tables and in the audience, but also with moments of delight and joy, and a conviction that some conversations are, at last, moving forward and taking flight. Warm, warm congratulations to the Bangladesh team for pulling off a fantastically organised conference on a tremendous scale. Until we meet again.


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