The migration compact doesn’t help a fraught debate

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 16, 2018

Lively debate. Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Nasser Bourita (C), United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (L) and chair of the opening session of the UN Migration Conference in Marrakech, December 10. (AFP)

It’s being billed as the first international deal on the migration crisis but it’s not really an agreement to do much of anything.

The UN Global Compact for Migration, the formal name for the document adopted December 11 in Marrakech, makes several declaratory statements. It also offers many sweeping suggestions but the compact does not specify the mechanism for delivery. The document has been called historic. It might have been but it isn’t.

What happened in Marrakech was the adoption by 164 countries of a symbolic statement of good intent towards migrants. It was a start. The UN General Assembly is to formally endorse the compact. And that will be that. The migration issue will be back where it has been since 2015 when Syria started haemorrhaging people and Europe began to feel the effects.

So, where are we on migration? European politics has changed in three years and the discourse is hateful. The far-right is ascendant in several European countries and its laser focus is on migrants. Unfortunately, the UN Global Compact doesn’t help the debate. It doesn’t make distinctions between migrants, refugees and asylum seekers clear.

Let’s start with figures, as laid out by the United Nations’ International Migration Report 2017.

— The number of international migrants worldwide was 258 million in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010.

— In 2017, 67% of international migrants were living in 20 countries, with the largest number in the United States. Saudi Arabia, Germany and Russia had the second, third and fourth largest numbers of migrants worldwide. The United Kingdom was fifth.

— In 2016, refugees and asylum seekers worldwide were estimated at 25.9 million, with Turkey hosting the largest number, followed by Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Pakistan.

It’s important to note the enormous difference between the number of migrants and refugees. Every refugee is a migrant but only some migrants are refugees. Not all asylum seekers will become refugees. The distinctions are increasingly lost in the fevered migration debate. Migration, refugee status and asylum claims have all been lumped together, sometimes mendaciously but more often due to misinformation.

The UN Global Compact for Migration does not provide much clarification, either. It states: “Refugees and migrants are 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 defined by international refugee law. This Global Compact refers to migrants…”

The United States pulled out of the compact this time last year but that was only to be expected from its “America First” transactional president, Donald Trump. So, too, Australia’s stated concerns. Canberra has long enforced a tough, if controversially successful, migration and asylum policy, which the Australian government says the compact would undermine.

What of the 30 other countries that agreed to the pact but did not attend the Marrakech conference? What of the waverers? New Zealand, for instance, where the opposition raised concerns about the pact treating “illegal and legal migration the same.”

What of the generally principled Dutch, whose parliament granted approval to the compact even as the government insisted on a legal addendum expressly stating it wasn’t a viable juridical document?

The compact expresses the hope that migrants will be afforded the same basic services as citizens and it subsequently defines the following objective: the enhancement of available “pathways for regular migration… labour mobility” across regions.

Is it any wonder, in an increasingly nationalist age, that such an agreement — even if unenforceable — is viewed with suspicion?