An Unattainable Quest: Migration Governance, A Reflection from the Americas

Soledad Álvarez Velasco

The tension between human migrations and the border regimes that selectively impede or propel these mobilities is one the most epic and increasingly complex conflicts of our time, placing at the centre of the debate the question of whether migration governance is attainable or if we should better focus on understanding the ungovernable character of migrations. The ongoing dynamics across the Americas are an analytical laboratory in this regard.

The enduring post-pandemic triple crisis – economic, sanitary and of the state’s social protection system – has pressed Latin American, Caribbean, African and Asian migrants residing in first South American countries of reception to multiply their irregularized transits to the US or divert them to Southern Cone destinations. By the end of October 2021, for instance, a total of 1.7 million migrants coming from more than 160 different countries were detained at the US-Mexican border, a number that reached 2.4 million in October 2022. Southwards, the situation has not been different, although lower in numbers. In Chile, the emerging South American destination country, approximately 17,000 migrants crossed its northern border in 2020, a figure that tripled to 56,000, by the end of 2021. Though most of those migrants were Venezuelans, others came from Haiti, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Bolivia and Peru).

Under the infallible justification of containing migrant irregularity and smuggling networks, regional states have taken an anti-migrant turn, manifested in restrictive migratory policies and tightening border controls. For example, in 2021, Mexico reimposed visas to contain Venezuelan, Ecuadorian and Brazilian migrations heading to the US; Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama did the same, while police at borders has redoubled or militarized and deportations have accelerated in Mexico, Chile and Panama (Mixed Migration Centre 2022). This has led to so-called ‘migratory crises’ at borderlands: something that surfaced at the Peru-Chile, Ecuador-Colombia, Honduras-Guatemala borders, in the lethal Darien Gap and at Mexico’s southern and northern borders. Migrant camps, stranded migrants and repression have proliferated (Mixed Migration Centre 2022), as has the risk of death for migrants. According to Missing Migrants Project, an average of around 900 migrants have disappeared or died annually across the borderlands of the Americas since 2014. The complexity of such a scenario calls into question the concept known as migration governance.

The interest in the term governance stems from its use during neoliberal reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to an adoption of managerial market logics and the creation of networks and partnerships to ensure the provision of services otherwise in state’ hands. Governance expresses a belief that states increasingly depend on international organizations, civil society, and the private sector to deliver policies and rule (Bevir 2007). The term governability also came to use in that period. Semantically, Norberto Bobbio (2002) defined it as the capacity to be governable and conceptually as the equilibrium in the exercise of political power derived from governments’ capacity to meet social demands (Kooiman 2008). A crisis of governability arises when governors are incapable of running a legitimate government, meeting social demands or facing pressure from the governed. Governance is offered as an answer to such crises and focuses not on strengthening the monopoly of state decision-making but on its capacity to establishing interdependent networks with other actors. Crises are therefore inherently needed to reinforce both governability and governance (Bobbio 2002; Kooiman 2008).

As systemic contradictions have deepened, producing ceaseless socio-economic, environmental and political crises, and transboundary interconnections as well as dynamics have grown, regional governance has become a prominent rule scheme. Global organizations, like the United Nations (UN), have become a linchpin of this type of governance, which, nonetheless, is part of international geopolitics. This means that the weight of certain states, like the US or supranational bodies like the European Union (EU), perpetuates the historical asymmetry of power and determines how this form of rule operates (Bevir 2007: 372).


The global migration governance quest

Due to the upsurge of migrants, internally displaced people and asylum seekers worldwide, along with ‘crises’ at borders, such as those of the Americas, regional governance has extended to the migration field. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN related organization, has been decisive in the global migration governance quest to ensure the so called ‘orderly and humane management of migration’ (IOM 2022). Though this quest dates back to 1951, when the IOM was established, it recently reached a turning point. In 2016, all 193 UN member states signed the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, an impetus for the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. These compacts are the first inter-governmentally negotiated non-binding agreements that recognize that governability in refuge and migration matters cannot be achieved without international partnership. Hence, member states, civil society, NGOs and private sectors – including MasterCard, IKEA, INDITEX, Uniqlo, SONY, amongst others –, take part as partners . As in any regional governance initiative, such as those coordinated by the IOM, certain states or supra-state bodies have more weight: as of 31 December 2021, the US, the EU and Germany were the IOM’s top donors (IOM 2021). The first two, as we know, have outsourced their borders to third countries to remotely control unwanted mobility, coming from impoverished or conflict-affected countries, turning the migratory corridors leading to these destinations into violent spaces of dispute and death for migrants. Their interests as partners in those compacts, imply that the IOM turns into a subtle operating arm of their remote control (See: Pécoud 2010; Ashutosh and Mountz 2011).

Migration governance across the Americas

Although Latin American UN Member States have joined both Global Compacts, the IOM has a long-standing regional influence. Eduardo Domenech (2018) has followed the tracks of regional migration governance proving that in the IOM’s history, Latin America and particularly South America, was crucial in the implementation of experimental intergovernmental agreements for orderly migrant reception and settlement, as well as training of personnel during the 1950s and 1960s (Damilakou and Venturas 2015 in Domenech 2018: 115). Between the 1980s and early 2000s, the IOM sponsored and developed capacity-building programmes for government officials and the dissemination of governance as a needed policy strategy. Domenech shows that through ‘migration experts’, the migration governance model was locally interpreted and adopted. This is how the notion of ‘migration ungovernability’ or ‘“crisis’ were regionally explained as effects of changes in international migration patterns in the 1990s, difficulties of Latin American states to respond, and an increase in irregularized migration, human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Overcoming such ‘crises’ required regional partnership and security measures favouring the safe orderly control of flows, including: visas, redoublement of border policing and joint operations to combat irregularized migrations, human trafficking and migrant smuggling (Domenech 2018:116–118).

The migration governance quest gained traction amongst national immigration agencies and in consultative spaces like the Puebla Process (1996) or the South American Conference (2000). Since then it has prevailed as the exclusive response to contemporary migratory processes. Two examples attest to this. First, against the impact of the massive Venezuelan exodus, under a migration governance frame and with the support of IOM, amongst other UN and multilateral organisms, the Quito Process was launched in 2018 as a non-binding initiative seeking orderly, regulate and safe Venezuelan migration across the region. Second, before the increase in global irregularized migrations heading to the US, a high level Ministerial meeting, with IOM support, was convened by Panama in April 2022 to reinforce a continental battle against irregularized migration and smuggling networks.

Additionally, the IOM expanded its spatial reach. From two regional offices, it covers the hemisphere. The Regional Office for South America is based in Argentina, while the Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean is located in Costa Rica. Both offices, delineated a South American and a Central America, North America and the Caribbean Regional Strategy 2020–2024, an agenda reinforcing the global migration governance quest as the main way out of the complex migratory context in the Americas. In this endeavour, the US is pivotal. Being the largest destination globally, the US needs allies to remotely control global mobilities en route. As IOM’s major partner, its influence is decisive in how regional migration governance shapes mobility across the region. As the IOM itself states: ‘The U.S., through its Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the USAID, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and other units, will likely continue to be a vital partner for IOM in the region’ (IOM 2020: 7).


The unattainability of the migrant’s governance quest

Indeed, the quest for global migration governance has been taken up in the Americas. In recent decades, however, it has not been able to ensure ‘safe, orderly, and regular’ migrations or to address the root causes of constant border ‘crises’: the disappearances and deaths of migrants and massive irregular transit migrations across the continent account for this. Only four years after launching the two Global Compacts, the regional migratory panorama has become more convulsive and critical, showing no signs of abating. At least three reasons might explain why this quest seems unattainable.

  1. Despite its trans-boundary nature and because this is a non-binding quest, member states retain their autonomy in implementing policies to classify and govern the migrant population and reinforce security strategies in the name of national territorial control (Betts 2011). Our world is divided into nation-states, and states’ sovereignty notably prevails over migrants’ rights. If irregularized migrants, asylum seekers or not, are constructed as threats to state’s security, redoubling of control is justified even if this means disregarding migrants’ rights or putting them at risk of death. Regrettably, this is a brutal pattern across the Americas and the global.
  2.  ‘Safe, orderly and regular migration’, the foundation of the global migration governance quest, seeks to preserve a status quo based on regulated openness, which ‘naturally’ produces its opposite: irregularized non-orderly migration. Desirable regulated migrations are depicted as safe and ‘positive’ while ‘undesirable’ disordered irregularized flows are naturalized as risks and targets to be excluded. Migration governance does not tackle the causes that produce irregularized migration or migrant smuggling. What legally produces illegalized, deportable and exploitable migrants (De Genova 2002) are precisely the legal barriers, state reinforced immigration policies and hyper-policed militarized borders, which are part of this regional governance.
  3. The model of migration governance yields an inherent contradiction between its simultaneous call for protecting and promoting ‘desired’ regular orderly migrations and excluding irregularized migrations. Interdictions on transit routes, return protocols and protracted waiting times to keep irregularized migrants in Global South transit countries, as far as possible from major destinations like the US and the EU, are the results from this model. Outsourced exclusion, operating within the framework of regional partnership, holds Global South countries responsible for irregularized transit migrants, including asylum seekers. Those countries today host 85 per cent of asylum seekers worldwide, confirming that, as Lissa Malkki (1995: 513) states, asylum seekers have become ‘problems’ of the Global South for Global North nations have not ceased an ‘escalation of unilateral measures against refugees’. This is why certain Latin American countries are now producers of forced migrations, while simultaneously being receptacles and potential refuges for both intercontinental and transcontinental populations seeking protection. This represents a historical challenge for a region which, on the one hand, is the most unequal on the planet with an overall poverty rate of around 33 per cent of the population. On the other hand, however, it has traditionally sponsored pro-migrant and refugee rights legal frameworks like the Cartagena Declaration of 1984; where the freedom of movement has been constitutionally recognized in countries as Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Guatemala and Ecuador; or where freedom of circulation agreements have proliferated like the CAN, MERCOSUR, CARICOM or between the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle[1] (Ceriani 2022). In the increasingly complex current scenario, will Latin America be able to finally put into practice these progressive legal frameworks for migrant’s rights , or will it fully comply with the migration governance model and its contradictory implications, including the reinforcement (or even militarization) of border control and exclusion to maintain the status quo of ‘safe, orderly and regular’ migration?


Reflecting on the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees, Jennifer Hyndman and Johanna Reynolds (2020) sharply ask: ‘Who is protecting whom? Who authorizes protection? And, what power relations shape its terms?’ (2020: 66). These queries are timely for it would seem that protecting nation states and their own citizens is paramount, not the protection of asylum seekers or irregularized migrants. Migration governance is not a quest for ‘global migrant social justice’ (Scheller 2018), but a strategy to preserve state-centrism status quo and its infallible forms of violence to sustain its power. Therefore, we must rethink the approach to migration primarily by understanding that the unattainability of the global migration governance quest is due to a foundational limitation: it attempts to govern that which is ungovernable, namely migrations, and in particular irregularized transit migrations.


Ungovernable subjects on the move

Migrants embark on their mobilities without prior state permission because they exercise their autonomous human right to escape from contexts of oppression, extreme poverty, inequality, wars, racism, patriarchal violence, state violence, climate disaster and social devastation. They are on the move to sustain their lives, disregarding the state mandates of control and regularity that have never been transformed in the light of their needs. This is why the act of moving, as irregularized migrants, is a political act that contests state power, reshapes space and challenges governance models (De Genova 2009). Migrants, far from simply being ‘desirable’ regulated labour power or unlawful irregularized ‘victims’ moved by smugglers, as states depict them, embody a social force on the move defying the status quo that perpetrates the oppression from which they flee.

Faced with the unattainability of modern states to govern the social force that migrations are, we must then take seriously Donatella Di Cesare’s (2019: 1) call to stop seeking answers to questions such as how migration flows ought to be governed. Rather, we should imagine another possible form of coexistence beyond a model based on the rejection of all those who have been constructed as ‘irregular’, ‘disordered’, detainable and deportable: the millions of migrants and asylum seekers who are now on the run to sustain their lives. The untiring thousands of irregularized migrants who not cease to transit the Americas force us to understand that the ungovernable character of migrations implies a radical transformation of a state-based system of governance that for the past two centuries has been built on exclusion, violence and the denial of rights to a vast majority, especially impoverished migrants who, as they exercise their freedom of movement, autonomously seek a new safe haven to live a life worth living.


[1] CAN stands for Andean Community of Nations and MERCOSUR, for Southern Common Market, in their Spanish acronyms. CARICOM is the abbreviation for the Caribbean Community and El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala comprise the Northern Triangle.


Ashutosh, Ishan and Mountz, Alison (2011). ‘Migration Management for the Benefit of Whom? Interrogating the Work of the International Organization for Migration’, Citizenship Studies, 15(1): 21–38.

Betts, Alexander (ed.). (2011). Global Migration Governance. Oxford University Press.

Bevir, Mark (2007). Encyclopedia of Governance, Vol. 1, London: Sage.

Bobbio, Norberto (2002). Diccionario de Política, 13° edición, Mexico: Siglo XXI, 703–710.

Ceriani, Pablo (2022). Crisis migratoria en América Latina: un fenómeno que expone a la población más vulnerable, 25 September, available at: (accessed 9 December 2022).

Damilakou, Maria and Venturas, Lina (2015). ‘Discourses on Latin America: The Migration-Development Nexus’, in Lina Venturas (ed.), International ‘Migration Management’ in the Early Cold War. The Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, Corinto: Universidad del Peloponeso.

De Genova, Nicholas (2002). ‘Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 31(1): 419– 447.

De Genova, Nicholas (2009). ‘Conflicts of Mobility and the Mobility of Conflict: Rightlessness, Presence, Subjectivity, Freedom’, Subjectivity, 29(1): 445–466.

Di Cesare, Donatella (2019). Resident Foreigners: A Philosophy of Migration, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Domenech, Eduardo (2018). ‘Gobernabilidad migratoria: producción y circulación de una categoría de intervención política‘, Revista Temas de Antropología y Migración, 10(Diciembre): 110–118, available at: (accessed 9 December 2022).

Hyndman, Jennifer, and Reynolds, Johanna (2020). ‘Beyond the Global Compacts’, Refuge: Canada's Journal on Refugees, 36(1): 66–74.

IOM (2020). Centroamérica, Norteamérica y el Caribe: Estrategia Regional 2020-2024, San José: IOM, available at: (accessed 9 December 2022).

IOM (2021). Financial Reportfor the Year Ended 31 December 2021, available at: (accessed 9 December 2022).

IOM (2022). Migration Management, available at: (accessed 9 December 2022).

Kooiman, Jan (2008). ‘Exploring the Concept of Governability’, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 10(2): 171–190.

Malkki, Liisa H. (1995). ‘Refugees and Exile: From “Refugee Studies” to the National Order of Things’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 24: 495–523.

Mixed Migration Centre (2022). MMC Latin America and the Caribbean Quarter 2 2022, available at: (accessed 9 December 2022).

Pécoud, Antoine (2010). ‘Informing Migrants to Manage Migration? An Analysis of IOM’s Information Campaigns’, in Martin Geider and Antoine Pécoud (eds), The Politics of International Migration Management, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 184–201.

Sheller, Mimi (2018). Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes, New York, NY: Verso Books.

About the Author

Soledad Álvarez Velasco is a social anthropologist and human geographer whose research analyses the interrelationship between mobility, control and spatial transformations across the Americas. She holds a PhD in Human Geography from King’s College London. She was an Assistant Professor at the Heidelberg Center for Ibero-American Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany (2022-2021) and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Houston (2020-2021).  As of January 2023, she will join the University of Illinois Chicago as an Assistant Professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and the Department of Anthropology.