Why have 12 countries pulled out of the UN migration pact?

Graffiti in an abandoned hotel on the north coast of Lesbos, Greece (2018). Migration has become one of the most highly divisive political issues of our time.

Next week, world leaders will meet in Morocco to adopt the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). The Compact was developed in response to the unprecedented levels of human movement around the world — and a desire to work together to better manage it.

While 192 countries agreed the wording of the agreement only this July (all except the United States), a number have recently pulled their support. The Slovak Foreign Minister, even resigned in protest at his Parliament’s decision to reject the pact.

So why after this initial show of global solidarity is political will waning?

Arguments against the UN migration pact

Human mobility is as old as human history itself. Ever since we picked ourselves up on to two legs we have been on the move. Yet, migration has become one of the most divisive political issues of our time.

In the US mid-term elections, President Trump made the Central American ‘migrant caravan’ a core campaign issue. In UK, fears about migration played a role in delivering the vote to leave the European Union. Across Europe, calls for tough action to protect borders has become a defining feature of many emergent right-wing parties.

The eleven countries that have pulled out of attending the Summit in Morocco and adopting the compactAustria, Australia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Israel, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland — have provided a variety of reasons for doing so. Most have flatly rejected the compact, while others like Switzerland and Italy are waiting for their Parliaments to decide.

Here are six of the most common arguments against the pact and how they measure up.

Objection #1: It impinges upon national sovereignty

The main objection against the GCM is that impedes a countries’ ability to decide its own policy on migration. In pulling out of the negotiations in 2017, the United States argued that migration was a domestic policy issue. Similarly, Australia’s Prime Minister expressed concerns that the compact would be used to undermine Australia’s border protection laws and practices. Hungary’s Foreign Minister likened the GCM to the EU setting quotas for refugees, which they rejected.

The reality is that the compact is non-legally binding and specifically protects national sovereignty. It states that nations have the sovereign right to “determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction”. It does not stipulate any mandatory number of migrants to be accepted by a country.

It does however set a number of commitments as a general direction of travel. For instance, it has objectives to ensure migrants’ rights are protected and that they have access to basic services. It also wants countries to agree to use “detention only as a measure of last resort” and advises nation states to “review and revise” laws and policies on detention.

Objection #2: It blurs the line between legal and illegal immigration

Many governments have argued that the GCM blurs the distinction between legal and illegal immigration — and inadequately deals with security concerns related to this distinction. The Australian PM believes the GCM fails to adequately distinguish between people who enter Australia illegally and those who come to Australia the right way. The Austrian Chancellor has also argued this and goes further by stating that it mixes up rights of asylum seekers and economic migrants.

While the GCM does have objectives to protect the rights of all migrants including providing legal identification, the Compact specifically states: “Within their sovereign jurisdiction, states may distinguish between regular and irregular migration status.”

The GCM also has specific objectives to open up and strengthen pathways to regular and legal migration and to tackling illegal migration, smuggling and trafficking.

Objection #3: It will make the migration crisis worse

A third line of argument is that the GCM will only encourage more people to leave their homes. Leaders have raised worries that it effectively legalises mass migration. Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said the pact inspires immigration and encourages smuggling — instead of stopping it. A recent survey found that 40% of Germans agreed with the statement “I fear that the signing of the UN migration pact could lead to additional claims for asylum.”

On the contrary, the compact has been designed to improve coordination and management of migration — and to gather better disaggregated data so that countries can make evidence-based policy concerning migration.

And the clue is in the name: the GCM aims for safe, orderly and regular migration. Plus, as we saw above, there are those specific objectives on tackling illegal migration…

Recent efforts to strengthen cooperation and coordination have been successful in stemming the flow of migration. Since 2015 migration across the Mediterranean has declined to only 10% of its peak. Data from the US also shows that deterrence and enforcement measures along the US-Mexico border only work to reduce illegal migration when they are accompanied by more legal pathways to migration.

Finally, the countries that have pulled out of the migration pact are in fact not countries that bear the brunt of the migration crisis. By far the greatest amount of displaced people and refugees are located in developing countries, where serious burdens are places on their ability to absorb such large numbers of people and ensure they have access to jobs, basic services and safe, secure living conditions.

Objection #4: It will make migration a human right

Some leaders have argued that the GCM is a backdoor way for the UN to turn migration into a human right, which would further impeded national governments’ ability to pursue independent migration policy.

See points above about national sovereignty. But furthermore, there is no language in the pact about making migration a human right.

In fact, migration is already fairly well protected. There are a number of declarations and covenants that protect people’s right to move and pursue their material well-being, including Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state and (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Migration is also included specifically in at least three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Goal 8.8, 10.7 and 17.18).

The countries that criticise the new GCM are already signed up to these existing agreements.

Objection #5: You could be jailed for criticising migration

In a particularly spurious example, Dutch MEP Marcel de Graaff, whose government supports the pact, said the compact seeks to extend definition of hate speech to include migration — so you could be jailed for criticising migration policy.

The wording in the GCM asks governments to “promote independent, objective and quality reporting… stopping allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants”.

You’re going to object to this? This is very different to what de Graaff suggests.

Objection #6: It sees migration as a positive

Finally, many of the objections come down to the simple fact that the GCM is at odds with domestic policy on immigration. Many objecting parties have built their popularity by promoting the belief that migration is a negative phenomenon. These countries want to stop immigration — not manage it better or make it safer. In fact, Slovakia’s Prime Minister said as much. He said his government would “never” accept the pact because of its take on migration as a generally positive phenomenon, which contradicts Slovakia’s will to distinguish among the migrants.

The GCM does view migration positively. It contains language about the social and economic contribution that migrants make to their countries of origin and destination — if managed well. It seeks to enhance this contribution and the contribution that migrants make to sustainable development more generally, and reduce the negative impacts of unmanaged migration.

At least this the most honest argument against the GCM. It could even be considered laudable that countries like Israel have acknowledged that they can’t sign up for something that cannot deliver.

Global solidarity needed for global challenges

World leaders are not stupid enough to have misunderstood the, often clear, wording in the GCM that protects sovereignty. Instead, they are playing politics with migration and trotting out the old line that they do not want an unelected body to dictate to them — knowing full well that their representatives agreed the wording of the text.

Like all non-binding international agreements, the compact will depend on strength of political will to deliver. At least it is only a minority share of governments who have rejected the deal. They can still turn this around.

The EU’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopolous, acknowledged: Migration cannot and never will be stopped. It is a global phenomenon, which requires global solutions and global responsibility sharing. Countries need to work together to take action that maximises the benefits, makes it sager and minimise the challenges.

Londoner. Traveller. Writer. Twitter: @jessicatoale Instagram: @jessica.toale

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