What’s to Fear in the U.N. Global Compact for Migration?

The forthcoming adoption of the United Nations’ global migration compact has sparked turmoil, particularly among members of the European Union. But the compact itself refutes much of the criticism, says Solon Ardittis, director of Eurasylum.

Written by Solon Ardittis Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
U.S. president Barack Obama delivers remarks during the United Nations refugee summit on the sidelines of the 71st U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 20, 2016. Two global compacts, one on refugees and one on migration, emerged from the summit.AFP/Jim Watson

After two years of intense intergovernmental negotiations, the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration will be formally adopted on December 10-11 in Marrakech. Though the compact went largely unnoticed by most political parties and the public throughout the negotiation period, its forthcoming adoption is now sparking turmoil in Europe and around the world.

To date, at least a dozen U.N. member states have declared they do not intend to sign it or are considering doing so. Last fall, the United States became the first to withdraw. Hungary followed earlier this year, which set off a domino effect of withdrawals in the European Union over the past few weeks. Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech RepublicPoland and Slovakia have said they won’t sign, and Italy has signaled its disapproval, too. In Belgium, profound disagreement among coalition partners over the compact is threatening to bring down the government.

So what exactly does the compact proffer to make it the source of such growing discontent? The 30-page document is an international, nonbinding agreement that aims “to make an important contribution to enhanced cooperation on international migration in all its dimensions.” Emerging in the wake of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis, it draws on a range of existing international instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the vast majority of member states are signatories. And it aims to develop an international cooperative framework acknowledging that no nation can address the contemporary problems of migration alone. This is the first time in history that all U.N. member states have come together to negotiate an agreement on migration in such a comprehensive manner.

The compact is comprised of 23 objectives. These include, inter alia: collecting adequate data; ensuring all migrants have legal proof of identity; saving lives and establishing coordinated international efforts on missing migrants; strengthening the transnational response to smuggling and trafficking; managing borders in an integrated manner; and giving migrants access to basic services. The compact also includes a follow-up and review mechanism.

Crucially, while acknowledging states’ shared responsibilities, the compact reaffirms their sovereign right to determine their national migration policies and to govern migration within their jurisdictions. It also stresses that the compact’s implementation will account for different national realities, capacities and levels of development; and will respect national policies and priorities.

Given such lenient and largely unthreatening policy objectives, what’s behind the growing resentment?

First, after only recently appearing on the radar of political parties in Europe and internationally, the compact now seems to offer a golden opportunity for populist parties and opinion-makers to push their claims that nations are losing control over their sovereignty and borders. Ironically, the same parties that now criticize the compact have traditionally challenged national governments for not taking sufficiently coordinated action to manage irregular migration, migrant smuggling and human trafficking, or for addressing the growing number of migrant fatalities at sea. The compact represents a foundation for such coordinated action.

Its most vocal opponents claim, among other things, that the compact does not sufficiently distinguish between legal and illegal migration, that it mixes up the rights of asylum seekers with those of economic migrants, or even stipulates the number of migrants that each member state will need to accept. All this is strictly contradicted in the compact itself.

Nevertheless, such unfounded criticism has eventually led many governments to adopt a low profile, avoid media exposure and be represented at the Marrakech conference next week at a much less senior level than anticipated. One notable exception is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has intensified efforts to reassure “concerned citizens” and to reaffirm that the compact aims to strengthen the protection of national borders rather than weaken them.

Also worthy of mention is E.U. migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos’s Dec. 4 warning that withdrawal from the compact could hamper cooperation with third countries to control migration and send mixed messages about the E.U.’s resolve to cooperate on an equal basis with its African partners to address future migration challenges. While the E.U. of course has its own cooperation channels and modalities with key migration origin and transit countries, particularly on development and migration management policies, there is little doubt the Global Compact would open additional avenues for the E.U. (and indeed other U.N. member states) to engage in more informal, multistakeholder and non donor-dominated discussions on a range of migration-related policy initiatives.

The second point that needs be stressed, particularly with respect to the E.U., is that the compact bears no comparison to some of the remarkably more constraining transnational legal and policy frameworks on migration adopted over the past decade. In particular, there have been a wide array of E.U. directives on immigration (legal and irregular), migrant integration policies, migrant smuggling, trafficking in human beings and a range of related policy areas that have been regulated at European Union, rather than member state, level after the E.U. executive gained increased competences to legislate in this field.

Of course, the E.U. has a history of controversial policy interventions on migration. However, with the exception of the E.U. refugee relocation program, which has generated limited consensus among member states, and of the United Kingdom and Denmark’s decision to opt out of some of the E.U.’s most stringent migration policy instruments, to date none of the bloc’s migration-related policies, including those that were legally binding and requiring transposition into national law, has generated as much turmoil as the U.N. Global Compact for Migration.

The compact may have some inherent weaknesses, such as not sufficiently demonstrating that it will be relevant and actionable in member states with such contrasting migration features and policy approaches. Doubts also persist on the levels of financial resources that will be allocated to implement such a nonbinding and largely aspirational policy framework.

It remains that the agreement to be signed next week need not become a cause for concern for any member of society, and even less so be used as a scapegoat by potentially ill-intentioned or ill-informed commentators. Despite its nonbinding nature, the Global Compact looks set to establish some potentially innovative ways for all key stakeholders – in government, civil society and the private sector – to communicate and cooperate on a range of contemporary migration issues.

At this stage, what should really matter is the degree of genuine commitment signatory parties will express in the next few years and the quality and political clout of the follow-up and review mechanisms to be established after the compact is adopted. All the rest is unnecessary and unhelpful noise.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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