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U.N. Representative: Migration Compact Will Require Political Courage

A year into the development of a global compact on migration, the U.N. official coordinating the process, Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour, discusses political short-termism and the challenges of international cooperation over migration.

Written by Tania Karas Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Louise Arbour, U.N. special representative of the secretary general for international migration, pictured in 2006. Jens Kohler/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Last month’s U.N. General Assembly in New York marked the midway point in a two-year process to reach two global compacts – one on refugees and another on migration.

The U.N. official coordinating work on the migration compact, Louise Arbour, took leaders at the summit to task for the “subversive language which feeds into this negative perception of migration,” calling for migration policies that would address needs of the future.

A Canadian lawyer and former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Arbour was appointed U.N. special representative of the secretary general for international migration in March, with responsibility for leading the development of the compact on migration.

Unlike the refugee compact, which is led by the U.N. refugee agency, the migration compact will be negotiated by U.N. member states, meaning it comes with competing interests and the need for compromise. After a year of consultations, Mexico will host a meeting in December to take stock of progress to date, before negotiations on a draft compact begin.

Refugees Deeply: In the year since U.N. member states agreed to work toward the global compacts, attitudes toward migration have hardened in many developed countries. Has this made your job harder?

Louise Arbour: We may want to distinguish between whether attitudes have hardened or whether we are simply witnessing more visible hostility. We’re going to need more political leadership. I think that political leaders cannot always have the luxury of being carried by a wave of favorable public opinion. Sometimes, you have to do difficult things, which is [to] get ahead of the issue.

The good news is that in the broad migration portfolio, reality is much better than perception. It’s a reality that is very complex, but, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive and beneficial to all concerned.

Most migration is actually regular and well-managed. Irregular migration, smuggling, trafficking are a small part of the activities that are involved in migration, but are very dramatic in terms of the impact that they have on public opinion and on the ability of states to control their border and to manage their labor markets, the informal economy.

It’s critical that we also improve the management of regular migration. For instance, people who came into a country through legal channels – some are still often the victims of discrimination, manifestations of racism and xenophobia.

Refugees Deeply: There’s no legal framework for migrants like the Refugee Convention. Might a global compact help institutionalize migrants’ rights?

Arbour: There are actually a lot of international legal instruments that have an impact on various aspects of migration, including the entire international human rights framework. But there’s nothing for migrants that is comparable to the specific, dedicated protection regime that comes from the Refugee Convention.

The global compact has not been launched for the purpose of putting that in place. I’m not sure that [U.N. member states] meant to institutionalize anything.

Until we see a draft of the global compact and the negotiations start, it’s difficult to see what form it’s going to take. Even the expression “global compact” is not a standard type of instrument. What’s emerging from the consultations so far is that member states are not looking for a legally binding instrument or outcome, but for a cooperative framework, sort of an agreement to cooperate, recognizing the centrality of state sovereignty in border control.

What we hear repeated all the time is that states have the absolute prerogative to control their borders, to decide who, apart from their own nationals, will have the right to enter their country to stay.

At the same time, by definition, international migration relates to state interdependence. It invariably involves … a state of departure and a state of transit and ultimately a destination, and sometimes many transits. It begs for a better framework of state cooperation. I think that’s what the compact should start developing.

Refugees Deeply: What kinds of challenges and opportunities arise from the global compact on migration being led by U.N. member states themselves?

Arbour: I think the challenges are not unlike the challenges presented by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s a very tall agenda to bring some kind of order and good management to human mobility.

The fact that it’s led by member states and that it’s not contemplating a legally binding document presents an opportunity, if there is good political buy-in and an appetite for outcome. At the end of the day, you can negotiate a legally binding instrument, but if it’s not ratified by anybody, years later its impact is not huge.

Refugees Deeply: What are the main priorities that have emerged from the thematic and regional consultations to date?

Arbour: It’s too early to talk about areas of consensus. [But] what was there as an impetus for the New York Declaration is still there – which is a concern about large flows of mixed migrants and refugees whose status is not yet ascertained. The other [issue] that has emerged loud and clear is this question of irregular migration and better ways to deal with it, including the opening of legal pathways for accessing labor markets, particularly in the West but also on a South-South migration basis.

Refugees Deeply: It seems to be an uphill battle to persuade states to increase legal pathways for migrants. Where do you see political will or positive examples?

Arbour: I think we’ve seen examples in responses to natural disasters, earthquakes and tsunamis that don’t necessarily produce refugees within the meaning of the Refugee Convention – that is, people fleeing persecution. For instance, after the Haiti earthquake, the United States, Canada, several Latin American countries offered temporary shelter to people on a humanitarian, compassionate basis. These temporary protection regimes are examples of international cooperation that’s already there.

When it comes to opening more legal pathways to access labor markets, I believe that the self-interest of well-managed democracies that are facing demographic deficits will speak for themselves. We will see European countries unable to sustain their current level of prosperity without having a workforce to sustain it. This workforce is not going to come internally as the ratio of fertility to mortality rates continues to produce a deficit. It’s going to have to come from migration.

Refugees Deeply: How should future trends in areas such as demographics, climate change and digital technology inform the approach of the global compact?

Arbour: One of the imperatives for this process is that it should be very forward-looking. The danger is for member states to be hypnotized by the immediate current realities and challenges. Democracies have a lot of virtues, but they also have a few shortcomings, and “short-termism” is one of them. Policies tend to be developed on the basis of electoral cycles, and so very long-term, far-sighted policies are the hardest ones to put in place.

You’ve put your finger on a lot of issues that are not amenable to very short-term responses. This calls for political leadership – to have the courage to direct policy not only on the immediate challenges, but also to help deal with challenges that are less easy to foresee.

Refugees Deeply: You’ve criticized the “overly simplistic” linkage between development and migration. What would be a more nuanced approach?

Arbour: First, we need to acknowledge that development, in and of itself, is a very good thing. It should not be promoted simply in the hope of reducing migration. Secondly, migration, in and of itself, is a very good thing, and the global contact is there to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration. This is not an initiative to try to curtail or reduce the opportunities that migration presents, not only for migrants but also for countries of origin and destination.

If I could put it in a nutshell, you often hear the slogan, “Migration by choice, not by necessity.” That’s obviously an appeal to increase development and to reduce climate change and so on, so that people are not forced to leave.

For migration to be by choice, you need not only to reduce necessity, but you need to increase choices. You have the right to leave your country, but if you have nowhere to go, what does it mean? To me, that is a call for reducing the elements of necessity that force people to move and increasing the opportunities and choices that they’ll have to migrate in an orderly fashion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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