Analysis: the story behind this document - and why some states decided they didn’t want to have anything to do with it

By Alan Desmond, University of Leicester

The UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is viewed by some as a landmark achievement of international cooperation in the contentious field of international migration. The Compact was adopted by most of the world’s states at a special conference in Marrakech in Morocco this week. 

The 34-page document is the result of negotiations between states over the course of the past two years. The scope and ambition of the Compact is reflected in its attempt to ensure respect for migrants’ human rights and, at the same time, cooperation between states on the control and management of migration.

It initially looked like the Compact would enjoy the unanimous support of all nations across the globe, a remarkable feat for an agreement about the movement of people across international borders. But recent statements by a growing list of countries that they will not support the Compact have dashed any expectation of universal endorsement. But what exactly is the Compact, why did it come about and why are some states suddenly deciding that they don’t want to have anything to do with it?

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The New York Declaration 

Following the 2015 migration crisis which saw images such as that of the body of toddler Alan Kurdi seared into the minds of people across the globe, the international community was jolted into taking various courses of action. One of these was the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants by the UN General Assembly in September 2016. The Declaration committed states to providing increased protection for migrants. It set in train a process for states to develop a Global Compact on Refugees and a separate Global Compact on Migration which would increase cooperation between states on the issue of international migration. 

The Global Compact on Migration 

The main goal of the Compact is to ensure that "migration works for all". To achieve this goal, it sets out clear objectives to make migration safe, orderly and legal. This means that states should work together to reduce dangerous, irregular migration which often results in the exploitation and even death of migrants. This is to be done by increasing options for legal migration and by improving the situations in countries which drive people to leave in search of a better live in wealthier countries. 

The Compact contains a total of 23 objectives which include commitments to improve the collection of data on migration, to provide migrants with access to basic services and to combat racism and xenophobia. It also envisages the establishment of an international forum to allow states review the progress made towards the commitments set out in the Compact. The forum is to be convened every four years, with the first meeting taking place in 2022.

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This is the first time ever that all the countries of the international community have come together to negotiate a comprehensive, all-encompassing agreement on all aspects of cross-border migration. As such, it represents a historic accomplishment. It is now clear, however, that not all of those countries are prepared to endorse the agreement they spent so long negotiating.

So who's afraid of this document and why?

The Global Compact garnered scant attention from the mainstream media until September 2017 when the US announced that it was withdrawing its support. Since then, eight other countries, mainly from the EU, have indicated that they don’t support the internationally negotiated document, with a dispute over the Compact threatening to topple Belgium’s coalition government last week. 

So what is it about the Compact that states have to fear? Arguably, not a lot. First of all, it is crucial to understand that the Compact is an aspirational document rather than a legally binding treaty. There is no mechanism that would allow states to be legally compelled to comply with the Compact. Even if the Compact were a legally binding treaty, it contains the clear statement that it’s up to each country to decide its own national migration policy.

Cross-border migration is, by definition, not an issue that any one country can address on its own

It is also worth pointing out that the Compact was negotiated by the states which make up the international community, including the very states which are now suddenly claiming that the Compact would violate their sovereignty and would force them to admit migrants. Not alone does the Compact not oblige any country to admit migrants, it actually aims to get states to cooperate to ensure "safe and dignified" deportation from host states to countries of origin.

The explanation for denunciations of the Compact might instead lie in efforts to make political capital out of the hot-button migration issue. Some politicians and political parties seem happy to misrepresent the Compact so as to stir up public concern about loss of control of borders and future "invasions" of migrants, leading governments to respond by withdrawing support. It is also possible that some governments fear that backing an agreement which explicitly recognises the human rights of migrants would incentivise further immigration. While there appears to be some Irish fringe opposition to the Compact, there is no indication that the country is to withdraw its support for the agreement. Indeed Ireland has been involved at the UN level from the outset in facilitating the processes leading to development of the Compact. 

Despite the growing list of countries expressing aversion to the Compact, there is an obvious need for global cooperation on regulation of migration. Cross-border migration is, by definition, not an issue that any one country can address on its own. The Compact observes that migration has been part of the human experience throughout history. The current estimated population of 258 million international migrants indicates that this observation continues to hold true. Despite recent withdrawal of support by some states, the adoption of the Global Compact on Migration will provide cause for celebration ahead of International Migrants Day on December 18..  

Alan Desmond is a lecturer in law at the University of Leicester. He recently edited Shining New Light on the UN Migrant Workers Convention(Pretoria University Law Press) which is available to download for free here.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ