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A Once-Smooth Path for the Global Compact on Migration Becomes Rocky

A Once-Smooth Path for the Global Compact on Migration Becomes Rocky

City view in Marrakech

Moroccan flags flying in Marrakech (Photo: Michelle Mittelstadt)

The world’s first global international agreement on migration, negotiated without acrimony over a two-year period, hit significant turbulence as far-right governments, nationalist parties, alt-right media, and even France’s yellow-vest protestors attacked the nonbinding compact in the lead-up to its December 2018 approval.

Issue No. 8 of Top Ten of 2018

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While attention focused on the 20 or so countries that opted out of or expressed concern about the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, 164 countries formally endorsed the accord during a high-level UN meeting in Marrakech on December 10-11.

How the widely embraced political commitment to improve cooperation between migrant-sending, transit, and receiving countries came to be perceived as an assault on national sovereignty will be one for political scientists, pundits, and marketing experts long to debate. The role of alt-right media, which portrayed the compact as an existential threat, undoubtedly will figure in that conversation. (“The UN’s Sinister Blueprint for Globalist Migration Hell” screamed one headline.)

Louise Arbour (c), Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for International Migration, and colleagues at the closing ceremony of the Marrakech conference. (Photo: United Nations)

Initiated in September 2016 when 193 countries met at the United Nations for a high-level summit on migration and refugees, the compact saw its first signs of trouble in December 2017 when the Trump administration withdrew from the negotiations, saying an international accord “is simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty.”

Australia and Hungary followed suit in mid-2018, swiftly joined by Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Latvia, Poland, and Slovakia. In the hours before the start of the Morocco summit, Chile backed away. Brazil intends to withdraw when its new, nationalist government is seated in January. And Switzerland and Italy have said they will present the 34-page document to their parliaments for discussion.

Perhaps nowhere was the compact’s entanglement in domestic showdowns between mainstream and nationalist parties more visible than in Belgium, where the government was at risk of falling after the Flemish nationalist party N-VA quit in protest over Prime Minister Charles Michel’s decision to travel to Marrakech for the compact’s adoption. (For more on this populist pushback, see Issue #2: Pushing Migration to the Forefront, Populists Make New Strides.)

Evolution of Countries’ Positions on the Global Compact, December 2017 – December 2018

Why the Opposition?

As world leaders headed to Morocco, the Trump administration issued a statement claiming backers of the compact aim to use it “as a long-term means of building customary international law or so-called 'soft law’ in the area of migration.”

“No one from outside is going to decide about who can live and work in our country,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said. “That is solely up to our businesses, institutions and government.”

UN leaders and compact supporters repeatedly underscored the compact’s nonbinding nature and the fact it would in no way impinge on national sovereignty or create any right to migrate. “We must not succumb to fear and false narratives,” UN Secretary General António Guterres said.

The accord, which has 23 objectives, aims among other things to mitigate the adverse drivers that fuel migration, lays out guidelines for protecting migrants during the different stages of migration, and includes a focus on their integration into new countries as well as return and reintegration for failed asylum seekers and others who do not have a right to remain. (For more on this approach to return migration, see Issue #6: Intensifying Focus on Migrant Returns Takes a More Global Stage.)

Viewed by most experts as a significant accomplishment that recognizes migration implicates too many factors to allow for unilateral solutions—and by a tiny but vocal minority as a stalking horse for globalist intervention—what is now known as the Marrakech Compact moves into its next, and more complicated stage. To realize its promise, national governments will have to think of migration more holistically and work in cooperation with other countries to implement the compact, which is a task for 2019 and well beyond.


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