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An Overheated Narrative Unanswered: How the Global Compact for Migration Became Controversial

December 2018

An Overheated Narrative Unanswered: How the Global Compact for Migration Became Controversial

Mehmet Alkan

Though an agreement on international migration that can rightly be called historic was formally adopted by 164 national governments at a UN meeting in Marrakech on December 10, much of the media coverage has focused on the dozen or so countries that rejected it and a handful of others that remain ambivalent.

Still, it is worth asking how we got to the point of such division for a compact that had been provisionally agreed to five months earlier by 192 of the 193 UN Member States.

Only the United States refused even to be involved in the negotiation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, bowing out in December 2017. This was not entirely surprising, since the Trump administration has consistently been averse to multilateralism and was turning its back on other international agreements, including the Paris climate accords. The United States was an outlier, and while the absence of the most important immigration country in the world was regrettable, many were secretly relieved that the Trump administration would not be in the negotiations as a spoiler.

What Does the Compact Propose?

The Global Compact states a willingness to cooperate on the thorny issues of migration and an agreement about what needs to be accomplished. Some of its 23 objectives are quite specific—collect more and better data on migration, reduce what migrants pay to transfer money to their home countries, improve the consular services available to migrants, ensure that they have proof of legal identity so that the authorities can prove who they are and migrants can demonstrate they are not terrorists, criminals, and so forth.

Other objectives are even more ambitious and were difficult to agree, particularly those about access and stay. These include the objective of expanding legal pathways, which would disrupt the business model of smugglers while making the immigrant’s journey much safer. One of the most controversial, and most important objectives for negotiators from destination countries in Europe, is the facilitation of returns for migrants who do not have legal permission to remain in a country—but to balance that with more reintegration assistance.

A third group of objectives has very broad and long-range goals: minimizing the negative drivers of migration, reducing the vulnerability of migrants on their journeys, and eliminating discrimination and social exclusion.

All other 192 UN members participated in the often-difficult negotiations, and none of them spoke publicly against the agreement on or before July 11, 2018, when the final text was agreed. The Global Compact, negotiated over six months, lays out 23 objectives for international cooperation to address problems arising from chaotic mass movements of people; maximize the benefits that orderly migration through legal channels brings to countries of migrant origin and destination as well as migrants, their families, and communities; and recognize the need for greater protection of migrants’ human rights.

How the Road from New York to Morocco Became Bumpy

What 164 countries agreed on in Marrakech is a nonbinding framework for cooperation. But the Compact’s character is often misrepresented, sometimes deliberately, and widely misunderstood. It is not a treaty, and not legally binding. Its significance lies in its being the first international agreement that governments have formally negotiated and adopted on international migration.

So how did the opposition grow from one country in December 2017 to more than a dozen a year later? It follows the trajectory of growing nationalism on every continent (although no African country had, at time of writing, repudiated the Compact). A critical decision to delay formal adoption of the Compact for five months, between the finalization of the text in New York and formal adoption in Marrakech, allowed time for the opposition to spread and get organized.

The government of the Kingdom of Morocco wished to host the adoption conference as an expression of its growing role on the international stage and as a leader in Africa in particular. It needed time to prepare to host the conference—not least to construct, in record time, a building large enough to hold hundreds of emissaries of national governments, the United Nations, and other organizations.

It does not appear that other government representatives or the UN authorities saw any danger in this delay. Relief at having arrived at an agreed text may have encouraged a sense of complacency. Even when Hungary announced that it would not support the Compact within days of the acceptance of the text, becoming the second country to rebuff the accord, it was seen as another outlier. In fact, Hungary’s opposition may even have consolidated support initially, as not many governments at that stage were eager to be associated with the strident Hungarian prime minister.

What a difference a few months make! Over the course of the late summer and autumn, the Compact was taken up as another weapon in the arsenal of anti-immigration, anti-globalization forces on the European right. On far-right websites such as Breitbart and Rebel Media, a drumroll of denunciation gathered strength, painting the Compact as a nefarious attempt to deny states their sovereign right to make decisions about their migration policies (never mind that the Compact clearly states it is based on respect for national sovereignty). Much of the virulent criticism is contradicted by even a cursory reading of the text. In Estonia, in fact, controversy was dampened when a well-known actor went on national television and actually read out all 34 pages of the text.

The announcement by the government of Austria, then holding the EU Presidency, that it would not endorse the Compact, proved more decisive, leading to a cascade of withdrawals of support from right-leaning Eastern European governments. It was joined by Australia, Israel, the Dominican Republic and, at the last minute, Chile. The Swiss and Italian governments delayed their endorsement decision in order to allow for parliamentary debate. The Belgian prime minister went to Morocco to support the Compact despite a split in the governing coalition that threatened to take down his government.

The withdrawal of support by a number of states was encouraged by a December demarche from the U.S. government; the fact the Compact was not derailed by this tumult and behind-the-scenes lobbying to pad the opposition’s numbers represented a minor miracle. International migration has proved to be one of the most effective tools of mobilization for populist forces in political contests across the West. It is perhaps surprising that the organizers of such forces were slow to pick up on the potential of the Compact to aid their projects. But once it was recognized as a valuable tool, the division of the West followed a now-familiar pattern.

Compact supporters were slow to come up with a forceful counter-narrative about the benefits of well-managed movements and the urgent need for cooperation among countries to address the worst effects of migration—the misery and death for many along the migration trail as well as people’s legitimate fears of the consequences of out-of-control migration. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany gave a passionate defense of the Compact in Marrakech, calling it “the answer to pure nationalism,” and got a standing ovation.

The debate seems to have been finally joined, and many chastened supporters admit that they did not do enough to sell the benefits of the Compact to skeptical publics. But the value of the Compact will be proved in its implementation at least as much as in its argumentation. That is the challenge now.