The Global Compact for Migration in a nutshell
On 19th December 2018, 164 heads of state and government adopted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in a United Nations conference in Marrakech. This agreement is the result of a two-year negotiation process that constitutes a historical milestone in international migration politics. As such, it has received lots of mediatic and political attention, some of it with an honest purpose, some of it remarkably disingenuous. This article joins the conversation on the Global Compact on Migration with the aim of clarifying the content of the text, its highlights, and its limitations.
The importance of the Global Compact rests on two factors. On the one hand, there has never been an international agreement on migration – a delicate issue to address at the multilateral level, since it points to the core of national sovereignty – with such a comprehensive and multidimensional scope. Previous efforts had concentrated on particular aspects of migration (like the 1975 Migrant Workers Convention or the World Health Organisation’s 2017 Framework to Promote the Health of Refugees and Migrants) or situations of migrants (such as protocols against trafficking and smuggling of persons). On the other hand, the political climate of rising xenophobia and isolationism raised many doubts about the feasibility of the agreement ever since 2016, when the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants launched the negotiations leading to the two respective Global Compacts.
The nature of the text has been shaped by these circumstances. The Migration Compact, as it has been frequently stressed, is a non-binding agreement. It provides a framework for States that voluntarily choose to cooperate between themselves and other actors, without establishing any international obligation upon them. This makes it more flexible for its signatories, while still being politically powerful and representative of their common engagement. The Compact builds on the United Nations’ strand of work on development, in particular the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. It reflects two key concerns: the need to include everyone involved in migration, from city mayors to journalists, in drafting and implementing the agreement; and the urge to tackle the spread of misinformation on migration over politics and society.
What does the Global Compact for Migration actually say?
Despite all the fictional stories circulating on its content, the Compact does not recognise any new human right (such as a 'right to migration'), nor establishes immigration quotas for receiving countries. It includes 10 principles and 23 objectives, each of them containing a number of actions that States commit to, and it designs some mechanisms for its application.
a) Principles. Scroll around the graph to see the Compact’s guiding principles (only visible on a computer).
b) Objectives. The objectives of the Compact can be grouped into four categories. Click on each of the boxes and on the icons to learn more about them (only visible on a computer).
Some of the actions that relate to these objectives include:
Improving national data collection by integrating migration-related topics into national censuses;
Banning the confiscation of work contracts and travel or identity documents from migrants, in order to prevent abuse;
Ensuring that the provision of humanitarian assistance for migrants is not considered unlawful;
Establishing transnational coordination channels and contact points for families looking for missing migrants;
Facilitating access to justice and safe reporting without fear of detention, deportation or penalty for victims and potential victims of trafficking;
Protecting family unity and ensuring that anyone legitimately claiming to be a child is treated as such;
Ensuring that immigrant detention is not promoted as a deterrent or used as a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment;
Stopping allocation of public funding to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants;
Developing standards for the mutual recognition of foreign qualifications and informal skills;
Enabling political participation and engagement of migrants in their countries of origin, including in peace and reconciliation processes, in elections and political reforms.
The good, the bad and the absent
The Migration Compact offers a powerful platform to start doing international migration politics in a fresh way. Beyond introducing new commitments such as those highlighted above, the Compact intends to simplify administrative procedures for a broad range of migration-related topics, from consular assistance to preserving social security benefits for migrant workers. It upholds human rights in contexts where they are not always a given and it puts data and knowledge at the centre of policy-making. Another celebrated innovation is the inclusion of provisions that understand migration as a consequence of natural disasters and climate change.
On the other hand, the Compact also has some problematic aspects. First, the clear-cut divide it establishes between migrants and refugees might do more harm than good to those on the move. Building on the 2016 decision to draft two Global Compacts, one on refugees and one on migrants, paragraph 4 states that these are two ‘distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks.’ Leaving aside the theoretical discussion, explicitly excluding refugees from the Migration Compact deprives them of benefits like the enhanced protection against discrimination or the facilities to transfer remittances. This distinction also overlooks regional protection frameworks (such as the American) which define refugees more broadly and would grant refugee protection to people who under the Migration Compact could be classified as ‘migrants in other precarious situations’ (paragraph 21.g).
Another issue is the relationship between migration and development. The text rightly recognises the impact of migration as a driver of development for all countries and the economic impact of remittances and diaspora investments. However, it misunderstands the other side of the link, by conceiving development as a way of curbing migration. This premise, for which there is very little empirical evidence, appears both as the second objective (‘mitigate the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin’) and as one of the purposes (paragraph 12). The consensus among academics and practitioners on the field, however, is that the availability of means and the capacity to move are directly – not inversely – correlated. In other words, that more development can lead to more migration.
Yet another controversial aspect is the unbending criminalisation of smuggling. While the efforts to protect migrants victimised by their smugglers are commendable, experts like Gabriella Sanchez or Jørgen Carling have long argued for a more nuanced perspective on this phenomenon. Smuggling has stepped up with the increasing securitisation of borders and the scarcity of safe and regular routes; for those on the road, including refugees, smugglers are often just service providers who offer the only way to cross the border. Cracking drown on smuggling before putting out pathways in place for migrants may have disastrous humanitarian consequences. Once the need for smugglers slackens, their business should decline by itself.
Finally, there are some important issues that were left out of the Compact. For example, it was impossible for states to agree on banning child detention altogether, limiting themselves to ‘favouring community-based care arrangements’ (paragraph 29.h). It would have also been interesting to have a definition of what the Compact’s vague catchphrase – ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’ – actually means to its signatories.
All in all, the Global Compact for Migration is a historical breakthrough, ambitious in its scope and its determination. It represents a new global approach to international migration, acknowledging that the movement of people across borders is an unstoppable reality which may even be beneficial for all. In the words of Louise Arbour, UN Special Representative for International Migration, on the adoption of the Compact, ‘rather than ignore the impetus of some to relocate, or worse, to attempt to crush it at unconscionable cost, we are now committed to safer and fairer ways of managing borders.’ The implementation of the text will tell how far the international community is willing to go on from these first steps.
Magda Rodríguez Dehli
Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid, studying abroad at UCLA and at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon, and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She interned at the Spanish Foreign Ministry and at the European Commission and she is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish foreign service. Her two passions are singing in the shower and keeping a close eye on all things political.