Bringing the migration compact home

Canada was a leader in helping to win others over on the global compact for migration — can it now walk the talk back home?

By: /
March 1, 2019
A group of asylum seekers wait to be processed after being escorted from their tent encampment to the Canada Border Services in Lacolle, Quebec, August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

In December, 152 UN member states — 90 percent of the world’s countries — voted to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in Marrakesh. Much of the media coverage focused on the few (only five!) countries, such as the United States and Poland, that refused to sign on to the agreement. But what about those who have signed? What is in store for them?

As a co-founder of Wilfrid Laurier University’s International Migration Research Centre — one of only a few Canadian organizations granted UN special accreditation to participate in the Global Compact for Migration process — I participated in the preparatory process leading up to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in 2016, as well as the consultation and negotiations leading to the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration on December 10–11 in Marrakesh last year.

In 2019, states have jumped into action on implementation, with the formation of the UN Migration Network and the development of processes and structures to facilitate the achievement of the compact’s 23 objectives. This week, I attended the High-Level Debate on Migration and Development at the UN General Assembly, where member states and civil society came together to discuss how countries can develop and implement national action plans for realizing those objectives, in line with the 2030 Agenda.

It was emphasized at these meetings that implementation will be impeded by negative narratives and misconceptions about migration. Many states echoed the comments of Mexico during the opening panel of the dialogue, that “implementation at this stage…must allow dialogue and understanding to prevail over stereotypes, so that we can see the virtuous cycle of migration and not overlook the benefits of migration.” Indeed, implementation will only be realized if we can “stick to the facts” (as noted by Germany) and tackle stereotypes and misunderstandings about migration, so that facts prevail over fiction.

Separating fact from fiction about the compact

Misunderstandings about the compact still persist and make next steps difficult. These myths need to be debunked. For instance, some have claimed that the compact threatens national sovereignty. However, the fact is the compact is a non-binding agreement, not a treaty, and reaffirms a commitment to multilateralism alongside a commitment to national sovereignty.

Indeed, the sovereign right of states to determine their national migration policy is one of the guiding principles of the agreement. And, going forward, states are free to withdraw from or join the collaborative effort. German Chancellor Angela Merkel received a standing ovation in Marrakesh when she referenced the painful memories of World War II and the creation of the United Nations as a reminder to steer away from unbridled nationalism, which serves to foster xenophobia, and instead embrace multilateralism. The compact will enable states to share resources and work collaboratively to address complex issues that cross borders, while, as stated in its preamble, “acknowledging that no State can address migration alone, and uphold[ing] the sovereignty of States and their obligations under international law.”

Critics also argue that the compact was drafted by states, in the interest of states. In reality, it is a bit more complicated. While the process was indeed led by member states, as most high-level UN processes are, there was substantial input from civil society and the private sector. Different regions and civil society organizations were involved in an extensive 18-month series of multi-stakeholder hearings and regional civil society consultations during 2017 and 2018. The UN Migration Network has explicitly noted the importance of civil society in accountability, monitoring and implementation. To strengthen its role, a civil society liaison will be appointed as part of the secretariat, likely to be announced at a meeting scheduled with civil society organizations in Geneva on April 4. These and other mechanisms will enhance civil society engagement; however, there remain some structural barriers to engagement (from financing to security protocols), and civil society is in no way on an equal playing field as member states.

"The biggest misconception about the compact is that it extends new rights to migrants. This is pure fiction.

The biggest misconception about the compact is that it extends new rights to migrants. This is pure fiction. Rather, the compact reaffirms that migrants should enjoy human rights independently of their status; it does not, in fact, extend new or special rights to migrants. “It would be ironic,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “if, on the day we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we would consider that migrants are to be excluded from the scope of the Declaration.” Further, the compact reaffirms a commitment to gender equality and to combat xenophobia at a global level.

Finally, there is a view that the compact is merely an aspirational document. In fact, the compact is about facilitating action, not merely espousing aspirations. In one sense, the compact is of course an aspirational document, given that it reaffirms multilateralism and a commitment to human rights for 258 million migrants worldwide. Yet, as the first-ever UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions, the primary purpose is to create mechanisms and governance infrastructure resting on existing human rights instruments and international law in order to facilitate action. The compact was developed relatively quickly, as far as international agreements go, involving a consultation phase, a stocktaking phase, and the intergovernmental negotiations — it has now moved on to implementation through the UN Migration Network as seen in the high-level debate (discussed above) this week.

Canada’s key role in negotiations

Canada showed exceptional leadership throughout the compact negotiations, often brokering communication among reticent states, facilitating meetings among the like-minded ones, and ensuring opportunities for civil society engagement.

In Marrakesh, Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said the compact is exactly what the world needs: evidence-based, grown-up dialogue.

Canada provided a strong voice on gender equality and human rights throughout the negotiations. Without Canada’s proactive efforts, the compact would indeed not have over 20 references to gender, and a standalone guiding principle on gender-responsiveness. In fact, all Canadian recommendations for consideration at the thematic consultations for the compact included points on gender. As Canada, in its intervention to the 69th Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee (2018), pointedly stated: “Canada greatly values the emphasis on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in the Global Compact. Collectively, however, more work is needed to ‘walk the talk’ and reach the most vulnerable.”

In addition to this rhetoric, Canada strengthened the efforts of UN Women, civil society, and the Expert Working Group for Addressing Women’s Human Rights in the Global Compact on Migration to bring gender to the fore of the negotiations. For instance, Canada co-sponsored numerous side events with UN Women and other UN agencies related to the following gender-related priorities: (1) protect and promote the human rights of migrant women and girls, especially as they relate to addressing sexual and gender-based violence and child and early forced marriage; (2) reduce inequalities in access to resources and services; and (3) improve women’s participation as decision-makers in shaping the sustainable development of their societies, including strengthening the capacity of local and national women’s initiatives.

What the compact means for Canada at home

Now that the compact is in place, all signatories will have to develop national implementation plans or initiatives to achieve its objectives.

In Canada, much work remains to convert the government’s rhetoric to reality. This is most acute with respect to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which has long been criticized by migrant rights groups for entrenching family separation for thousands of migrants, creating tiers of rights and access to services, and resulting in conditions that are ripe for exploitation and abuse.

"For Canada to truly convert its rhetoric into reality, it must rethink its dependence on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program."

By 2017, according to the 2018 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, the combined numbers of higher and lower skill streams, excluding roughly three hundred thousand international students, was 302,821, compared to 159,262 permanent residents admitted in Economic Class programs. Migrant workers in Canada, particularly those on closed work permits, face heightened vulnerabilities to workplace injuries, abuse and exploitation. They also face significant barriers to their right to accessing justice without fear of reprisal from employers, loss of current or future employment, and loss of status in Canada.

Recognizing this vulnerability, and following the spring 2016 parliamentary review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, recent regulatory changes were introduced to the compliance system, to make open work permits available to migrant workers in situations of abuse. While this is a positive change, the onus is on migrant workers to come forward, assuming they have the knowledge, resources and capacities to do so. Given the precarity of most migrant workers’ jobs and status in Canada, this change will not be sufficient to “[a]ddress and reduce vulnerabilities in migration” (Objective 7).

To provide open work or sectoral permits at the outset, rather than wait until abuse happens, would significantly reduce migrants’ vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Further still, providing enhanced permanent migration pathways for migrants across all levels would substantively reduce such vulnerabilities. Yet temporary migration represents the lion’s share of migration to Canada, despite the evidence that such programs entrench gender and racial inequality, and, if not accompanied by pathways to permanent residency, increase the likelihood of migrants falling out of status and becoming undocumented in Canada. Much more remains to be done for those in Canada under work permits in lower skilled jobs, particularly those in agriculture and the food industry with few opportunities for access to permanent residency.

Accompanying the growth in temporary labour migration in Canada over the last decade has been the expansion of the recruitment industry, which has increased the likelihood of migrant workers arriving in Canada indebted and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, forced labour and trafficking, such as the recent case of migrant worker exploitation in Barrie. While there are provincial regulatory frameworks aimed at recruiters in some provinces, such as Manitoba, including various provincial taskforces and initiatives on trafficking, in the absence of federal level legislation on recruitment, this patchwork has not been sufficient to “facilitate fair and ethical recruitment” practices and falls considerably short of ensuring decent work (Objective 6) or preventing trafficking (Objective 10).

This is particularly the case in the context of women migrant workers who are predominantly concentrated in domestic care jobs, many in private homes, that are prone to informality, lack regulation and collective bargaining rights, and heighten risks of sexual violence and exploitation. This is an area where Canada has moved quickly since December. In fact, in February the government has announced changes for migrant caregivers in Canada, who will have access to occupation specific work permits that allow them to change employers and provide more direct pathways to permanent residency, as well as access to work permits and visitors visas for their family members.

Despite these positive changes, for Canada to truly convert its rhetoric into reality at home, it must rethink its dependence on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Further, the government must apply its own Gender Based Analysis+ to the immigration system as a whole, in order to make the structural level changes needed to realize the compact’s guiding principle of gender-responsiveness.

Clearly, in Canada and the rest of the world, whether the compact is successful will depend on its implementation at the national level. “States who adopt must walk the talk!” reverberated among panelists during a side event in Marrakesh sponsored by Canada and the International Organization for Migration on December 9. Given the structural level change needed to address the shortcomings of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, can Canada “walk the talk” at home?