New UN global compact on migration moves ahead

The co-facilitators leading the intergovernmental consultations and negotiations on issues related to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Photo by: Loey Felipe / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — The first global framework to help manage migration for the nearly 260 million people living outside their countries of origin is moving closer to completion.

The “zero draft” of the new Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was released early this week, along with a schedule by the compact’s co-facilitators — the United Nations missions of Mexico and Switzerland — that puts the compact on a track for completion by the end of 2018.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for the “need for action, and the need for engagement, and the need for a U.N. that is fit for purpose,” in advance of the zero document’s release in January.

“Globally, migration remains poorly managed. The impact can be seen in the humanitarian crises affecting people on the move; and in the human rights violations suffered by those living in slavery or enduring degrading working conditions. It can be seen, too, in the political impact of public perception that wrongly sees migration as out of control,” he said at the launch of the U.N.’s own report on global migration.

With 22 objectives and dozens more “actionable commitments,” the draft compact, though less detailed, resembles the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals framework.

Many of the compact’s objectives — like the SDGs’ 17 goals — create lofty targets, such as the ideas of  managing “borders in an integrated, secure and coordinated manner” and creating “conditions for migrants and diasporas to fully contribute to sustainable development in all countries.” And some of framework’s objectives — including empowering “migrants and societies to reach full inclusion and social cohesion” — are also broad, and could be interpreted in various ways. This could present the risk that states can “pick and choose” which objectives they want to implement, as Eiri Ohtani, the director of the United Kingdom NGO coalition the Detention Forum pointed out.

The creation of a global migration compact stems from the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants agreement, which call on member states to start negotiation for two parallel compacts covering the different populations. Unlike refugees, migrants are not covered by international law.

The total number of international migrants has grown 49 percent since 2000, exceeding the global population growth of 23 percent. Migrants now constitute 3.4 percent of the world’s population. While their remittances to family and friends back home totaled about $596 billion in 2017, some migrants still travel by taking unregulated paths and work without a state’s legal recognition, making them vulnerable to trafficking and other dangerous outcomes.

Similar to the separate refugees compact now in the works, the migration compact is a non-legally binding, cooperative framework intended to address some of the challenges. The “360-degree vision of international migration,” states a new, comprehensive approach is needed to address the risks of migration. States, as well, can benefit from a more systematized practice of addressing everything from border security to the treatment of new migrants, it says.

The consulting process leading up to the draft document was “genuinely open,” said Marta Foresti, a member of Overseas Development Institute’s senior management, who attended a December preparatory meeting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

“There is a sense that states will be negotiating openly,” she told Devex, prior to the launch of the zero draft. “There was a positive feeling about a collaborative spirit. The meeting delivered a shopping list, I think, or a long list of areas of content for the compact.”

The U.S. announced it would pull out of the migration compact shortly before the Puerto Vallarta meeting. The decision did not guide any of the proceedings and was not mentioned, according to Foresti. But it did offer a bit of an “icebreaker,” she commented.

“What I've heard was that it was good to know the U.S. [is] pulling out, as a starting point for countries to discuss where they stood in relation to it,” she said, noting also that one should not assume the withdrawal is entirely good news. The U.S. not participating in the compact, however, will not prevent the non-legal framework from moving ahead.

There is no “political climate” for the creation of any new body to oversee migration, or for new legally binding agreements, Foresti says. The compact will be formed without a set pool of money, and responsibility for implementing change and tracking progress will fall to cities, as well as subregional and national branches of governments. Progress will be reviewed every five years.

That does not automatically mean the compact won’t have teeth, Foresti says.

“It would be a mistake to therefore think it is nothing in an area where there [is] so much,” she said. “Having and enabling a framework where states commit to greater cooperation and better cooperation should not be underestimated,” she said.

It is also likely that the compact could prompt new bilateral agreements between particular U.N. states, and serve as a means to combat a growing trend of nationalism in many countries around migration issues.

“It is more a platform for innovation for action, to stimulate bilateral agreements,” she said.

“I personally think that politically it is also a platform where the fact that there are some countries in the world that have very entrenched views on migration and very specific political priorities, namely the U.S. and European countries, are not the only countries around the table ranks.”

Ensuring children have access to appropriate protections was one of the key asks from civil society attending the Puerto Vallarta meeting, says Daniela Reale, a lead child protection officer at Save the Children U.K.

“One of our key asks was to increase this legal pathway, to help kids have protection and avoid suffering from violence and exploitation,” she said in January.

One of the action points in the draft compact sets out to “strengthen measures to facilitate citizenship to children born in another state’s territory,” in the event the child would otherwise be considered stateless. There is a call to protect unaccompanied and separated children throughout their migration process with new procedures for identification, legal assistance and work to facilitate family reunification. Another action measure calls for the end of child detention.

UNICEF’s deputy director of programs, Susana Sottoli, shared the “good news” on social media that the compact includes children’s rights as a guiding principle.

There’s also a need to work with wary governments, some of which have seen major influxes of migrants from places in conflict, including Syria.  

“At the moment, everything is around limiting migration. It’s a narrative we are seeing. There is quite a lot being said about avoiding xenophobia and so forth but the priorities are, how do we control migration?” she said. “There’s a need to hope enough people will buy in, and [the compact] will be taken seriously enough.”

The document is entering into member state negotiations in mid-February. The compact is expected to be formalized at an end-of-year conference in Morocco.

Read more Devex coverage on migration.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.