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Long Live Multilateralism: Why the Global Compact for Migration Matters

As the world finalizes the Global Compact for Migration, ODI’s Marta Foresti explains the political significance of reaching an international agreement on migration that many saw as an impossible gamble in an age of xenophobia and nationalism.

Written by Marta Foresti Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Flags fly in front of the United Nations in New York. DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

U.N. member states last week finalized the text of the first ever international agreement on global migration. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) is the result of nearly two years of intense and – at times fraught – negotiations. The U.S. left the negotiating table at an early stage and Hungary pulled out at the end of negotiations. Others have threatened to follow

But they did not leave. Instead, last Friday, national delegations from all over the world gave the Swiss and Mexican co-facilitators and the U.N. Special Representative on Migration Louise Arbour a standing ovation for achieving an “historic breakthrough” on global migration.

Migration experts have a tendency to be skeptical of such language, usually with good reason. However, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the political salience of the Global Compact, despite its limitations. It has the potential to help bring at least some real change to how the world approaches migration. In the current political climate, that is a significant achievement.

When the Compact process started two years ago, many were skeptical about the likelihood of the GCM seeing the light of the day.

To begin with the limitations: Like most globally negotiated agreements, the GCM is far from perfect and is not a done deal. For a start, it is a voluntary non-binding agreement, unlike the 1951 Refugee Convention. While the text is now final, the GCM will not be formally adopted by U.N. member states until December at a global summit in Marrakech, Morocco. More states may still pull out of the deal. While it is unlikely that many other world leaders will want to be associated with Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, migration debates are highly sensitive and volatile in many countries, so it is possible that other states will pull out of the deal. Finally, the text is necessarily the result of several compromises, and not all issues have been adequately addressed or resolved. First and foremost of these is the relationship between irregular migration and diminishing legal pathways for people to migrate.

Yet let’s remember that when the Compact process started two years ago, many were skeptical about the likelihood of the GCM seeing the light of the day. Others believed that the text would have to be watered down as to become hollow. None of this was the case.

The significance of the political and diplomatic process leading up to the GCM agreement cannot be exaggerated. States engaged, discussed and found ways to compromise. Many non-state actors – including me – contributed and helped shape the ideas and innovations in the text. The co-facilitators listened and managed to translate the complex political dialogue into a text that, while not perfect and the result of many necessary compromises, is dense with proposals.

At a time when European states cannot reach a meaningful agreement to cooperate while an increasing number of people die at sea, and with Trump pushing an ever harder line on immigration at home and abroad, it is more urgent than ever to commit to discover and test new forms of international cooperation and to explore solutions and pragmatic ways forward. The GCM offers a framework to do just that. In the words of the Swiss ambassador for development, forced displacement and migration during Friday’s ceremony at the U.N.: “It looked like an impossible bet, but the Global Compact has cut through the noise of xenophobia and populism.”

So what to make of the text itself? I see it as a springboard for doing migration differently. Sure, it is long – with 23 objectives, limited internal coherence and perhaps not enough of a sense of purpose. It falls short of doing the right thing on something as important as child detention – where states could not agree to simply end detaining children, but rather to “ensuring availability and accessibility of a viable range of alternatives to detention in non-custodial contexts, favouring community-based care arrangement.”

“It looked like an impossible bet, but the Global Compact has cut through the noise of xenophobia and populism.”

On matters of migration and development, the text recognizes that migration can help achieve development outcomes and as such it is a cornerstone of the Agenda 2030 on sustainable development. That’s no small result. However, the text also falls back into donor-convenient rhetoric of suggesting that development policies, programs and money can address the “adverse drivers” of migration, when there is little evidence that development aid can stem irregular movement.

Even so, the text is also rich in ideas and innovations; for example, the proposal to establish skills partnerships between countries to facilitate labor mobility.

Is it a “laughable wish list” as someone on Twitter suggested to me? I rather see it as a pragmatic and potentially very useful menu of options – or a “treasure chest”. It will be down to states but also political leaders, policymakers, mayors, businesses, activists, researchers and others to make good use of the ideas in the GCM and to put the text into action.

And when it comes to action, I believe that the non-binding nature of the Compact can be a blessing, not a curse. We have seen time and time again countries signing up to international agreements and failing to respect them. There are limits to how far legal frameworks can deliver on a phenomenon as politically charged and complex as global migration, where the appetite for international cooperation is, frankly, limited. It requires political leadership and long-term vision, fueled by innovation and experimentation. So a pragmatic voluntary agreement like the GCM can come in handy, as a platform for negotiations, deals and dialogue.

What to expect next? In the months leading up to the Compact’s formal approval at the Marrakech Summit, it will be vital for action to take place at different levels: governments can begin to establish or re-energize bilateral or multilateral collaborations, commitments should be made to fund and deliver specific objectives and actions, mayors could proactively use the Compact objectives to form coalitions and agree action plans. In short, discussions should begin in earnest between all of us willing to make the best use of the GCM as a platform for action.

This is clearly just the beginning of the journey, and I am under no illusion that it will be an easy one. I also know that internationally negotiated agreements cannot resolve all the challenges or make the most of all the opportunities of global migration. But it feels so good – for once – to have something to build on rather than despair about.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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