Five things to know about the global compact on migration

As states meet in Morocco to adopt the compact, launched at the United Nations in 2016, here’s what you need to know about the agreement.

By: /
December 10, 2018
A Syrian refugee girl from Afrin sleeps on a bench at the train station in Orestiada, Greece, on April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

An unprecedented number of people currently live outside their countries of birth — an estimated 250 million, including 65 million who were forcibly displaced. Looking ahead, this figure is only expected to increase, as the effects of climate change, political instability, global inequality and joblessness continue to adversely affect populations around the globe.  

Over the past few years, various international crises and conflicts have caused enormous movements of people across international borders: the Syrian civil war, unparalleled levels of migration from Sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean, instability and violence in Central America, the Rohingya genocide, the US-backed Saudi intervention in Yemen. Each of these situations has been dealt with on a largely ad-hoc, ‘emergency’ basis. As political polarization across the world deepens, the lack of appropriate international frameworks for cooperation and responsibility-sharing becomes even more apparent.

In response to these changing dynamics, the United Nations has created the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an “intergovernmental negotiated agreement…to cover all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner.” The agreement, which took 18 months to negotiate and draft, was adopted at a meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, Monday. It affirms the need for countries to work together to address the roots and realities of migration and lays out a framework for how to do so. With this week's meeting in mind, here are five things to know about the compact:

1. It’s the first of its kind.

The idea for the compact came out of the UN General Assembly meeting in September 2016, which produced the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The declaration affirms that migration is both a long-standing and growing phenomenon, the response to which must be comprehensive and cohesive across nations, with each member state doing its part. Towards this end, the assembly committed to developing the Global Compact for Migration by 2018. A Global Compact on Refugees also came out of the New York Declaration and is being developed separately to deal more specifically with the needs and circumstances of those who have been forcibly displaced.

The compact consists of 23 objectives and was developed to be consistent with target 10.7 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which addresses the question of migration management. Importantly, it is meant to set out a series of actionable commitments on the part of member states, but is not legally binding and upholds the sovereignty of states while attempting to foster international collaboration.

While the compact draws heavily from existing agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it is the first to address the full scope of international migration through coordinated global action. 

2. The compact frames migration as ‘inevitable’ but manageable.

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, has called not only for a unified international response to migration but also for the active management of migration, “to ensure that its benefits are most widely distributed, and that the human rights of all concerned are properly protected.” 

The compact rests on the assumption that migration is “both inevitable and largely positive for both migrants and societies” but that “discrimination and intolerance toward migrants must be countered.”

Following this assumption, the compact squarely addresses managing migration flows, protecting the rights of migrants and how host countries can develop integrated societies. While most migration is controlled through visa regimes and binational agreements, irregular migration and its associated risks, as Louise Arbour, the UN Special Representative for International Migration, points out, “is related to the lack of a regular and safe pathways.”

The compact seeks to address this by helping to facilitate labour mobility through international cooperation agreements and visa liberalization schemes.

It is noteworthy that the document treats migration almost as though it were a natural phenomenon. As such, migration is dealt with through a general anti-poverty and disaster preparedness framework, while the causes of that poverty and instability ­— namely unregulated multinational capital and foreign intervention ­— are left unarticulated. 

3. The compact affirms rights for all migrants.

Aside from being the first agreement of its nature, the compact is also noteworthy in that it does not make judgments about what kind of migrants are deemed ‘worthy’ of living outside their country of origin.

While noting that migrants and refugees are “governed by differing legal frameworks,” it affirms that people migrate for a wide variety of reasons that include factors within and outside of their control, often in combination, making the distinction at times difficult to ascertain, especially in light of climate change-induced movements and economic inequality. Regardless of why people migrate, the compact affirms, refugees and migrants are “entitled to the same universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, which must be respected, protected and fulfilled at all times.”

4. Data-sharing is seen as foundational to migration management.

The first objective of the compact addresses the current limitations on collecting accurate data in the migration sphere, particularly in regards to irregular migration. It establishes the need for data collection as the foundation for informed policymaking.

In order to improve data collection across countries, it calls for the development of a global program to increase national capacities to document migration patterns and trends, as well as collect data disaggregated by sex, age, migration status and other factors, by integrating migration-related questions into national censuses, for example.

The goal here is to consolidate relevant data and make it widely available to encourage inter-agency collaboration, while upholding the right to privacy and protecting personal data, though it is unclear as to how those two stated objectives will play out in practice.  

5. The far-right is not supportive.

Although the compact is entirely voluntary, non-binding, affirming of national sovereignty and, many would argue, largely symbolic, it has nevertheless become a flashpoint for the far-right in Europe, North America and Australia, who argue that an agreement of this nature would violate national sovereignty.

When the United States formally ended its participation in the compact in December 2017, then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley stated that, “our decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone. We will decide how best to control our borders and who will be allowed to enter our country. The global approach in the New York Declaration is simply not compatible with US sovereignty.”

More recently Austria, Hungary, Israel, Poland, Australia and the Czech Republic have also signalled their unwillingness to sign the pact, and it has become a topic of debate even in countries that support it, like Germany, Belgium and Canada. The right’s response to the compact in Europe and North America represents a general paranoia about international institutions and conspiracies being fomented by so-called ‘globalists.’

Alexander Gausland, leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, for example, argued during a parliamentary debate, “Leftist dreamers and globalist elites want to secretly turn our country from a nation state into a settlement area.”

Given the rise of the far-right, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the compact has received a mixed response. More surprising however is how little the UN has done to acknowledge and counteract an increasingly polarized political reality, an element of which is entirely opposed to the values that the institution was founded on.