Global Compact Lays the Groundwork for International Cooperation on Migration
Editor’s Note: This commentary was published before Hungary announced on July 18 that it will not sign the final compact.
Friday the 13th was a lucky day for international migrants this July. That day, 192 out of 193 members of the United Nations agreed on the text of a wide-ranging agreement to cooperate to make international migration safer, more orderly, and more likely to occur through legal channels: the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. Even governments deeply skeptical about many aspects of migration, including those of Australia, Hungary, Poland, and the United Kingdom, recognized that they cannot achieve their migration goals without the cooperation of other countries—notably, the countries migrants come from or cross through on their journeys. Only the U.S. government failed to participate in crafting the agreement, having pulled out of the compact process in December 2017, claiming that an international agreement on migration would infringe on U.S. national sovereignty.
The vision the Global Compact for Migration articulates has two core elements: cutting down on the negative factors that compel people to leave their homes—from poverty and a lack of opportunity to high crime rates and climate change—while amplifying the benefits that migration can bring individuals, communities, and countries of origin and destination. It is an ambitious document, balancing the rights of individuals with the prerogatives of states, emphasizing both the importance of rules and the need for flexibility in applying them. The compact asserts that migration policy-making should be guided by improved data and empirical evidence, while recognizing that governments have different priorities, capabilities, and resources. And it acknowledges that states have responsibilities to each other in migration matters as well as a duty to protect people on the move. Human rights do not stop at borders; migrants have the same fundamental rights as any other people, regardless of where they are or what their migration status is.
The compact’s 23 objectives are a mix of the broad and aspirational (#7: Address and reduce vulnerabilities in migration) and the very specific (#22: Establish mechanisms for the portability of social security entitlements and earned benefits). Each objective is accompanied by a menu of actions states can draw upon to make good on their commitments. But as with any international agreement, the strength of these commitments and the national actions they inspire will determine the document’s effectiveness.
The Global Compact is not a treaty. It is not legally binding, but the participating states have made political and moral commitments to pursue its aims. The stakes are high—and the pay-offs could be high as well. The compact is built on the assumption that states have common interests in managing migration effectively, even when they disagree on priorities. For example, one of the issues on which countries of origin and destination have had the most difficulty finding common ground is the involuntary return of migrants who have no legal authorization to remain in the destination country. European states have signed numerous readmission agreements with countries of origin but complain that they are implemented half-heartedly or not at all. Countries of origin allege that migrants’ human rights and dignity are violated in return proceedings, and that the real difficulties of reintegrating migrants into weak economies are underestimated. Reintegration assistance is far less than what is needed.
Objective 21 of the Global Compact commits states to “cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as sustainable reintegration.” This objective commits both sides to complementary actions: assurances of due process, individual assessments, and respect for the rights and dignity of returnees on the one hand, matched with cooperation in identifying the nationality of migrants, providing them with travel documents, and helping them to prepare for return. These are routine pledges, but the compact embeds them in a framework of partnerships for reintegration cooperation and assistance, taking into account the needs of the communities of return as well as those of individual returnees. More countries may get more of what they want—but not everything—by collaborating in this framework.
UN Member States crafted this agreement with an eye to the long term, but it already has one accomplishment to its credit: it has brought one of the last outstanding global issues into the United Nations. For decades, the international system has had standards and institutions to facilitate cooperation and the maintenance of order on issues of finance and trade. More recently, it has developed a framework for dealing with climate change. But international migration remained a patchwork of unilateral, bilateral, and regional policies, long considered too divisive for general debate within the United Nations. With the Global Compact for Migration, a framework of common expectations and obligations has at long last emerged. The United Nations is the most universal international institution, and its formal equality among Member States gives it credibility with the poorer and weaker countries that are the source of much of the world’s unauthorized migration—countries whose participation is essential for any new framework of cooperation to work in practice.
The development of the Global Compact has run parallel to an institutional shift in the UN system. The same special session of the General Assembly in 2016 that set in motion the negotiation of the compact also brought the International Organization for Migration (IOM) into the UN system as a related organization, giving the United Nations unprecedented capacity to help its members address migration issues. The UN Secretary-General has put the IOM at the helm in coordinating the migration-related work of UN agencies, with the aim of offering coherent and comprehensive support to states as they set about implementing their commitments to safe, orderly, and regular migration. The move to create a more coherent “migration network” within the UN system was recognized and welcomed in the Global Compact.
The Global Compact for Migration has been two years in the making, the product of intense formal and informal negotiations at the United Nations and in national capitols. It sprang from the multiple global migration crises of 2015 and 2016, which convinced even the wealthiest destination countries that they cannot handle the chaos and danger of unplanned large-scale migration on their own. (Only the United States persists in the illusion that it can.) The agreement of the compact is a milestone but not an endpoint. In December 2018, it will be formally adopted at a conference in Morocco. Then the hard work begins.