As images circulate worldwide of American tear gas enveloping would-be asylum seekers on its Mexican border and of terrified faces of children being snatched from their parents by United States patrols, a United Nations-sponsored pact on orderly migration is expected to win near-universal approval and even gain support at a global conference in December.
The intergovernmental conference, to be held in Marrakesh, Morocco, on Dec. 10-11, is scheduled to be the last step before the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is formally adopted in a resolution of the General Assembly.
It is an aspirational and extremely ambitious plan, a voluntary pact negotiated by member countries over the last two years. It is not a binding treaty and has no means of enforcement.
“We are now in the really final phases of this process,” Louise Arbour, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for international migration, said in a briefing for journalists at the UN on Nov. 27. (See the UN video below.)
Arbour, who is presiding over the Marrakesh conference, to which heads of state and government have been invited, outlined the scope of the agreement and corrected a few misperceptions about what it does and does not do.
Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice and UN high commissioner for human rights, said that the lack of enforcement power means that mobilization will have to happen at all levels of government and civil society to implement “what is obviously not a legally binding document, but is the beginning of the first ever really serious effort to enhance international cooperation on the management of cross-border human mobility.”
The agreement began to take shape in 2016, in the waning months of the administration of President Barack Obama, whose policies on immigrants and migrants in the US were considerably more liberal than the Trump administration’s hostile orders barring outsiders, first Muslims and now Central Americans.
Trump, determined to erase the Obama legacy of international cooperation, opposed the compact it from the beginning. He withdrew the US as the compact was being negotiated in 2017 and is reportedly pressuring other countries to renounce it before or during the Marrakesh conference.
In July, 192 of the UN’s 193 member countries — with the US the firm outlier — gave the final draft their approval to move ahead but with strong opposition from about half a dozen countries, mostly those with anti-immigrant, nationalist governments.
Hungary, perhaps the strongest critic of the agreement with the US, has said it has rejected the accord entirely, followed by Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland. Israel and Australia also recently disassociated themselves from it. Sweden, with its government in limbo after an inconclusive election in September, is dithering.
Switzerland, which backed the compact in October, says it will not attend the Marrakesh conference as it waits for a winter session of its parliament to debate and possibly approve the agreement. Some Swiss diplomats say that their government will probably support it.
There are bound to be voices in dissent at the Marrakesh conference, where nations, pro and con, will be heard in open discussions and speeches. India, for example, has forcibly driven Rohingya asylum-seekers away from its northeastern border and threatens to deport Muslim Bengalis who entered the country decades ago. Like Trump, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi cites sovereignty and security as justification.
“The general feeling is that due to American lobbying and pressure, maybe a few other countries will also express their hesitation on the current shape of the compact in Marrakesh,” Anwarul Chowdhury, a former ambassador from Bangladesh who became a UN envoy for least developed and other vulnerable countries, said in an interview.
Chowdhury, who played a large role in framing an earlier agreement on the free movement of migrant labor (which never entered into force) has long been an advocate of a regulatory system for more humane migration. He has followed the progress of the global compact closely.
“Wrecking the conference is not possible,” Chowdhury said of rumors that the US would mount a disruptive countercampaign in Marrakesh. “Even if there are 20 countries against it, I think the general consensus is to go ahead without them. In any case, even if there is no consensus, member states feel that if the majority says go along, let’s go along. The feeling is, let’s have a compact.”
Chowdhury said that advocates of the compact, which will be reviewed every two years, think that national outlooks can change as political leaderships change and that the position of the US may also change for the better at some point, just as positions changed dramatically in Hungary and Australia for the worse.
“So they are taking a longer-term view of the whole thing, letting it go ahead as a General Assembly resolution — which anyway are flouted many times,” he said.
The migration compact lists 23 objectives covering factors from managing secure borders and gathering accurate data to searches for people missing in migration and the transferal of social-security benefits migrants may have accrued.
Apart from criticisms of the exhaustive content of the compact, which numerous countries say can never be applied in totality, there are also criticisms about how the agreement will be monitored and supervised by the UN. An eight-member core group of the larger interagency Global Migration Group is set to guide implementation.
The International Organization for Migration has been designated the lead agency, a move that has sparked opposition for various reasons. More will be heard about the basis for these critiques in Marrakesh.
Then there is the possibility of turf battles emerging, as they often do, among UN agencies, which have never heeded calls for unified action by many secretaries-general.
A companion to the migration agreement is the Global Compact on Refugees, which has not attracted as much controversy and is to be formally adopted by the General Assembly in December.
The compact on migration explains the relationship and differences between refugees and migrants: they are both entitled to the same universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, which must be respected, protected and fulfilled at all times. However, migrants and refugees are distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks. Only refugees are entitled to the specific international protection as defined by international refugee law. The Global Compact on Migration refers to migrants only and presents a cooperative framework addressing migration in all its dimensions.
In Washington, the nonprofit organization Refugees International has prepared briefings on the strengths and potential problems in one or both compacts and notes that they may fall short of current needs, given recent crises over large-scale migrations in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Ironically, large migrations are taking place not only from but also within parts of Africa, where the first great migrations in human history took off 60,000 to 70,000 years ago.
“Unfortunately, although the challenges of responding effectively to refugees and migrants have continued to mount, the negotiations to develop the compacts coincided with a period of growing nationalism and xenophobia around the world, making refugee and migration issues political hot buttons,” Refugees International said in its report.
“Amid this backsliding of political will — especially from governments that were once leaders on these issues — the final text of both compacts falls short of the goals and expectations set forth in the New York Declaration [the 2016 framing document] in a number of ways.”
Refugees International mentions the need to involve more refugee and migrant participation in deliberations as the compacts go into effect. The organization also calls for more specific commitments to women and girls, who suffer not only hardship but also physical abuses, including rape and forced marriage.
In a speech in Geneva in October to an international dialogue on migration, Arbour said that the new global compact had preserved room for agility.
“This means not engaging in work that is already being done by others,” she said. “It also means being ready to change tack as circumstances warrant.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.