The Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was born out of the European ‘refugee crisis’. The negotiations began when national governments realised that better cooperation was needed if they wanted migration to be managed in the future. The aim of this short article is to sketch the ‘making-off’ of the Compact.
The Compact was set to be the first one of its kind: never before have all UN members discussed a common strategy to coordinate migration (and not only refugee movements).
Negotiations about the Compact began after the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants was adopted unanimously by all 193 UN member states in September 2016. As a result, the members agreed to formulate two compacts in 2018: one on refugees and one on migration. Despite the initial agreement, the United States was the first nation to drop the Migration Compact when the Trump administration began. Just a few months before the Compact was to be officially signed in Marrakech in December 2018, more than ten other countries withdrew.
Some countries such as Israel, Poland or the Czech Republic rejected the Compact out of fear that it would promote migration. Austria withdrew from the Compact claiming that it gave the impression of the existence of a ‘human right to migration’. Similarly, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz criticised that the document prohibits mass deportations, a political instrument that some countries would not want to give up. Political statements like these caused confusion in the public debate and clouded the facts - i.e. that there is no such thing as a ‘human right to migration’ or that mass deportations are always illegal as they undermine the right to an individual process.
The Australian government described the document as a threat to its fight against human smuggling. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is known for following a hard line against migration, capturing migrants arriving by boat who come without an entry visa and sending them to detention centres on Pacific islands. This is detrimental to the stipulations of the Compact which commits to using imprisonment of migrants only as a last resort.
In Belgium, the Compact unleashed a nation-wide discussion which ultimately led to the breakup of the government. The nationalist Flemish party left the coalition in protest against the Compact. The minority government still flew to Marrakech to sign the Migration Compact in December 2018. More than 5,000 people took to the streets of Brussels after the far-right Flemish party called to rally against the Compact. The march turned violent and the police had to intervene. The upcoming national elections in May will show the impact of the political conflict over the document.
Despite the initial enthusiasm to build an international system of migration management, nationalist parties throughout a number of countries worldwide have used the Compact to push their own interests. Far-right media outlets and social media activists organised campaigns of alternative facts against the Compact - with considerable ‘success’. They turned the Compact, an international non-binding agreement which would usually go unnoticed by public opinion, into a first-rank agenda item that sparked huge controversy.
The timing to negotiate the Compact was both the worst and the best. There has never been more public attention on international movement than in the past four years, even if it has been coupled with growing hostility and scepticism against migrants in many countries. This created the perfect initial impulse for the first-ever global negotiations about migration in such depths.
Although several countries withdrew from the Global Compact for Migration, an overwhelming majority of 164 UN member states signed the document. The real question is now to what extent they will abide by its provisions.
Rebekka Fiedler recently graduated from the MSc in Migration Studies at Oxford University. She is now based in the UK, but she comes from a small town in Eastern Germany. The summer of 2015, the peak of the ‘migration crisis’, left her with many questions, of which most remained unanswered by mainstream media. She is interested in the nuances of who is understood to be a migrant will be integrated into society. In her dissertation, she examined the political production of the German Integration Act. It is in her heart to connect academic and everyday conversations around human mobility.