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Expert Views: Good and Bad News in the Draft Global Migration Compact

Experts weigh in on the “zero draft” of the Global Compact on Migration, an international agreement to improve cooperation over migration which countries will negotiate this year.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes
Eritreans prepare to board a plane from Italy to Sweden as part of an E.U. relocation program. ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

The tough negotiations over an international deal on migration will soon begin after the first or “zero” draft of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was released last week.

While the U.S. withdrew from the talks in December, and Hungary recently threatened to do the same, other countries have until a December 2018 summit in Morocco to agree how to improve international cooperation over migration.

We asked experts what they found encouraging and what was absent from the zero draft, the basis for the upcoming negotiations. Please send in your own comments and responses using this form – we’ll include the best responses below.

(The Global Compact for Migration was one of two non-legally binding agreements that countries committed in the 2016 New York Declaration to conclude by this year. Experts discuss the other draft global compact, on refugees, in this article)

Marta Foresti, Managing Director, Overseas Development Institute

With 22 objectives, there is a lot to take in and a lot to potentially like. That’s good as we need ambition. Many people are finding references to specific objectives that they have been advocating for; others are happy to see some concrete commitments. That was not a given; many commentators say that they are “surprised not to be disappointed.”

People are pessimistic in general about these kind of global processes, and the fact that this compact is a non-binding, non-normative framework was also seen by some as a limitation. Yet there is quite a lot of determination in the language of the draft, in ways that people did not expect. For example, one commentator said, “This feels like the basis of something that one day could become a convention.” Whether this is politically feasible or desirable is beyond the point: It is interesting to hear so many potential detractors say they like the draft.

The other reason why there was very little room for optimism was the U.S. withdrawal and Hungary’s opposition, as well as European states’ reported concern that the recent U.N. secretary-general report “Making Migration Work for All” was too unbalanced towards a positive view of migration, and in favor of sending rather than receiving countries. Given such a tense political climate, the assumption was that the zero draft would have opted for a more conservative approach.

The document, as far as it can, feels defiant of the very toxic political climate.

Yet a number of things that people assumed would be too difficult to include are in fact mentioned. I’ve been quite close to the process, but I was still surprised to see clear commitments on missing migrants and ending child detention, for example. Although the draft does look like a bit of a shopping list, it is somewhat reassuring that the document, as far as it can, feels defiant of the very toxic political climate. It is a genuine and comprehensive representation of what the co-facilitating states have heard during the consultation phase.

However, as much as the zero draft is comprehensive, it lacks a sense of overall direction and purpose. Given how divisive debates on migration are in many countries, I struggle to imagine that direction and purpose emerging from the political negotiations. Having a list of objectives and commitments can be useful, but without a clear sense of collective vision, the big risk is that states will pick and choose rather than bargain or negotiate over concrete proposals, turning the current draft into an empty vessel.

It’s difficult to tell whether it’s a good or a bad thing to have such a long shopping list. Some argue that because there’s so much in there, the chances are at least some commitments will remain by the end of negotiations. Others argue that having such a long list is almost as bad as having none: It does not create a sense of which are priorities that states can actually agree and negotiate on. Because this document will be non-binding, its success will rely on the concrete opportunities and narratives, or “the mood” that it creates. That is yet to emerge.

I have also noted a mismatch between the framing of the draft and some of the proposed commitments. For example while the opening statement recognizes that migration can bring benefits and prosperity to all – in sending, transit and receiving countries, in practice the objective related to development is mainly focused on tackling the drivers of migration in poor countries. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the relationship between migration and development works. The evidence is quite clear that people tend to migrate as development occurs (or as a form of development) and to pursue development opportunities. This objective plays to the political priorities of a number of European states, which are increasingly targeting development policies as deterrents to irregular migration.

Kathleen Newland, Senior Fellow and Co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute

The zero draft elaborates on the 2016 New York Declaration without breaking new ground. In a field as contentious as international migration, this may be the best that can be hoped for. The New York Declaration is a negotiated document that was adopted unanimously by the U.N. General Assembly, so it is difficult for states to disavow it.

The draft outlines the “what” of the Global Compact, but has little to say about the “how,” or even the “why.” How will states, acting cooperatively, realize its objectives? In this, the zero draft shows how much remains to be negotiated over the next five or six months – the elements that are necessary to make a difference to countries, communities and the people who live in them.

That means eight more years of muddling through, at best, without progress toward resolving the lack of governance that makes a Global Compact so badly needed.

The zero draft offers less than one page each on implementation, and on follow up and review. Its most concrete provisions on implementation are, first, to “establish a capacity-building mechanism” that is left unspecified and to contribute to national and subnational abilities on migration (this despite states saying repeatedly that they do not want new structures). Second, the draft delegates responsibility to the U.N. secretary-general to ensure that the U.N. system can support the implementation of the compact. This does not guarantee that states will provide either the financial or political support to the secretary-general to get this job done.

The follow-up and review section lays out long-drawn-out procedures at the U.N. to review progress on the compact at global and regional levels. Most shockingly, it pledges to determine measures to strengthen the global governance of international migration in 2026. That means eight more years of muddling through, at best, without progress toward resolving the lack of governance that makes a Global Compact so badly needed.

Francois Fouinat, former senior adviser to the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Migration

The zero draft notes that implementation of the Global Compact on Migration depends on concerned parties joining efforts, including a “coherent U.N. system.” Yet the main U.N. actors, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), are seldom alluded to in the draft and never mentioned in connection with each other.  The U.N. General Assembly’s stipulation that the two global compacts should be “distinct, separate and independent” has been perfectly respected.

It is disappointing that there is no reference to the Global Compact on Refugees, even if the Draft abundantly mentions the protection and assistance needs of all categories of migrants, including forced migrants.  The risk of having a large proportion of asylum seekers and forced migrants falling into the cracks between the two compacts (see Jeff Crisp’s comments) is real. This also ignores the U.N. Secretary-General’s report on International Migration, which calls for building bridges between the two compacts.  It rests on the doubtful assumption that refugees and migrants can easily be distinguished.

IOM and UNHCR are the two global organizations with an exclusive mandate to deal with people on the move.  They both are billion-dollar agencies employing more than 10,000 people each and they often are involved in the same situations.  “A strong IOM-UNHCR team is indispensable,” Peter Sutherland, the late Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for International Migration, wrote in his recently published report. Their respective roles and expertise are complementary.  Joining forces in mixed movements situations is essential. It is also in line with the U.N. reform the Secretary-General is undertaking.

Otherwise, there is a serious risk of two U.N. entities dealing with a large category of people — forced migrants — from two “independent” angles, with the attending consequences, including competition, gaps and overlaps, differences of treatment and waste of scarce resources.

Talha Jalal, Coordinator, Mixed Migration Platform

The zero draft is a crucial step towards ensuring that migrants, whether seeking a better life or escaping violence and poverty, can do so in a safe, predictable, and orderly manner. Commitments towards family reunification and increased regular pathways, including labor mobility schemes at all skills levels, are especially welcome.

However, there are a number of significant points of concern. While the draft acknowledges the reality of migration as part of human existence, it falls short of a commitment for all people to be able to seek better lives outside their countries in safety and dignity. Despite proposing some additional pathways for regular migration, labor migration remains the primary channel for movement, implicitly valuing migrants only so far as their immediate labor worth to host nations (even if at all skills levels.)

The “root cause” approach to migration and development carries the implicit categorization of migration as a problem to be solved rather than a phenomenon natural to humanity.

Large unregulated markets fed by the most vulnerable migrants, such as sex workers and domestic workers in the Middle East and Europe, will continue to pose serious protection risks if alternative pathways are not offered to these groups as well.

The emphasis of the zero draft is also too heavily focused on mitigating initial movement from countries of origin, and too little on creating greater opportunities in host countries with the resources to do so. The “root cause” approach to migration and development carries the implicit categorization of migration as a problem to be solved rather than a phenomenon natural to humanity. With this approach, countries will continue to be under-prepared to receive and support migrants.

Read the Mixed Migration Platform’s full note on the zero draft here.

Tendayi Bloom, Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, the Open University

It’s exciting that statelessness is addressed explicitly in the zero draft, and that this is done in more detail than in the compact on refugees. It provides specific actions to avoid some causes of statelessness and to ensure statelessness persons are not blocked from some basic services. This is an excellent start, but there is more to be done.

Statelessness can block people from access to regular migration pathways, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Even when they have not moved, stateless persons can be profoundly affected by migration control measures like detention. This needs to be addressed explicitly across the objectives in the next draft of the compact.

Further, the draft’s approach to identity documents risks conflating the human right to a nationality with the aim of ensuring that people are deportable. Under the fourth objective, the document sets out to provide all migrants with identity documents and civil registration “as a measure to avoid statelessness in accordance with the fundamental human right to a nationality.” Yet in a later section, the need for documentation is explicitly linked to migrant returns.

These two approaches could lead to radically different outcomes. While access to identity documents and civil registration are important components of ensuring access to citizenship, they will not do so on their own. The connection needs to be made explicit for the human right to a nationality to be protected.

These answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Read more expert views on the zero draft:

This story has been updated to correct the title of the U.N. secretary-general’s report.

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