50.50: Opinion

The UN’s high-level social justice events are exclusive and hypocritical

The UN gathers elite speakers in visa-restrictive places to speak on behalf of those actually affected

Yasmina Benslimane.jpg
Yasmina Benslimane
9 June 2022, 8.53am

US secretary of state Antony Blinken addresses the International Migration Review Forum 2022 at the UN

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Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy Stock Photo

What do the International Migration Review Forum, COP26, and Generation Equality Forum have in common?

Sadly, one answer is that they are all exclusive and filled with hypocrisy – despite each aiming to tackle climate change, gender equality and migration, and to hold individuals and nations accountable for positive change in the world.

I saw this firsthand when I attended the first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) at the UN headquarters in New York City last month. We met to review the Global Compact on Migration, the first inter-governmental agreement on common approaches to international migration, brokered by the UN in 2018.

Disappointingly for a forum focused on migration, an issue that disproportionately affects young people, it was very exclusive. I was one of only five youth representatives who could attend – others, particularly those from the Global South, struggled to do so due to funding or visa issues.

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As one of my fellow youth representatives said during her address at the forum: “Many of us in the migrant community… are disappointed this week at the lack of migrant-centricity and facilitated space for us to directly share our on-ground experiences of progress, our needs, and our recommendations with our governments.”

She added: “No decisions on migrants should be made without our meaningful participation.”

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Throughout the week, I felt there was a divide between the ‘important’ people (the diplomats and country representatives) and the ‘less important’ people (such as those representing civil society organisations and NGOs). This was seen even in the seating arrangements, with the former group sat on the main floor, right in front of the podium, an area that we in the latter group were not able to access.

Listening to the scripted speeches of ministers, heads of states and diplomats – most of which lacked passion – I didn’t feel the speakers had any genuine interest in migration issues.

Many mentioned climate migrations and I kept asking myself: what do you do daily to fight climate change? Do you really care? Do you take concrete actions to reduce your carbon footprint, or do you just read off your speech? If you truly care about migration, why aren’t affected communities fairly represented here? Why are you talking on behalf of them?

These problems are not exclusive to the IMRF. They were also seen at two other high-level, global events of the last year: the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), which was held in Paris in July, and COP26, which took place in Glasgow four months later.

It was almost impossible for young people from marginalized communities to attend all three forums, because they were held in expensive cities in the Global North – in countries known for their lengthy and costly visa processes for people from the Global South. This meant it felt like those who are directly impacted by the issues were always missing from the room and from discussions.

We didn’t see enough youth, especially women and girls. Nor did we hear from migrants and refugees themselves or from the climate change-affected communities most at risk of displacement. Indigenous people were barely included in discussions, and almost no one mentioned LGBTQIA+ communities.

Most of our representatives have failed us, their words don’t match their actions

The GEF, which I attended virtually, felt like partial feminism. I didn’t feel represented, and I felt that those occupying space were part of the privileged feminists. They talked about universalism, but weren’t mindful enough about intersectionality. They didn’t include many vulnerable groups such as migrants and refugees, who have specific needs that are different from those of elite globetrotting women.

And as for COP26, a climate summit, more than 115 world and business leaders decided to hop on private jets and burn thousands of tons of CO2.

The world is in turmoil, and we are facing challenges such as climate change, mass forced displacement and gender-based violence. Young people are at the centre of positive change. But they are not able to meaningfully engage in high-level events, decision-making and drafting UN policies.

Most of our representatives have failed us, their words don’t match their actions. It is no surprise that all they really do during such historical events is deliver emotionless speeches, read from scripts.

We must keep on speaking against the system that perpetuates inequalities. We must ensure our voices are represented while embracing intersectionality and multiculturalism. We can and we will bring positive change once we unveil the hypocrisy and exclusivity of these events and include young people – because they are not just the future, they are the now.

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