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Will the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration solve the crisis?

Dr Rajeesh Kumar is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 02, 2019

    At an intergovernmental conference convened under the auspices of the United Nations in Marrakesh, Morocco, 164 nations adopted a pact on 10 December 2018 to manage the global migration crisis. The 'Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration' is the first, intergovernmental agreement that covers all dimensions of global migration. The legally non-binding pact aims to promote efforts to strengthen regular migration pathways and protect the human rights of migrants. Its objectives and commitments provide states and international agencies a means to coordinate migration policies and ensure that migration works for all. However, on the flip side, the non-participation of some important countries raises questions about the future of the pact.

    Why a Global Compact

    The last few decades have experienced massive population shifts across the globe. The conflicts in West Asia, Africa and South America, and the extreme violence associated with them have forced people to leave their homes and seek a haven in foreign countries. In addition, climate change effects also contributed to the growing number of migrants and refugees. According to the United Nations, approximately 258 million migrants around the world are living outside their country of birth. Out of these, around 68 million are in the “forcibly displaced” category, more than at any time in the recorded history of the modern world. Since 2000, the number of global migrants has grown by 49 per cent, from 2.8 to 3.4 per cent of the global population. The UN data also shows that, since then, more than 60,000 migrants have lost their lives while on the move.

    On the other side, resentment against migrants has intensified across the globe, particularly in Europe and the United States. Though the global migrant population constitutes merely 3.4 per cent of the world’s population, burgeoning protests against migrants have created a wider perception that migrants are threats to national economies. The rising tide of resentment in these countries has also produced the impression that most migrants are settled in the developed world whereas the reality is otherwise. Studies show that the developing world hosts more than half of the global migrant population and that migrants have contributed to the development of both sending and hosting countries.

    Against this backdrop, recognizing the need for enhanced international cooperation and a comprehensive approach to the issue of migrants, all the 193 members of the UN adopted a resolution called New York Declaration in September 2016. The resolution demanded the protection of the ‘safety, dignity human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants, regardless of their migratory status.’ Combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination towards migrants, supporting the host countries, and developing non-binding principles and guidelines for treatment of migrants were the other proposals of the declaration. In addition, the New York declaration recommended two global compacts: a global compact on refugees and a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.

    Deliberations and Stocktaking

    As proposed by the New York Declaration, elaboration of the Global Compact for Migration took place in three phases; consultation, stocktaking, and negotiation. The first phase involving six rounds of informal thematic sessions, which aimed to gather substantive inputs and recommendations for the Global Compact, was held between April and December 2017. The human rights of migrants, drivers of migration, irregular migration, international cooperation, smuggling and trafficking, and contribution of migrants were the main foci of these deliberations. In addition, five UN regional consultations (Africa, Asia and Pacific, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Western Asia), multi-stakeholder hearings, and regional civil society consultations also took place in 2017.

    Subsequently, the stocktaking phase reviewed and analysed the information gathered during the consultations. The meeting provided “a platform for delegations and other stakeholders to jointly shape a vision for the Compact and collectively identify actionable commitments as well as respective means of implementation and partnerships the Compact may include.” The outcome was a 'Zero Draft' jointly prepared by Mexico and Switzerland, the co-facilitators of the process. Finally, the third phase, intergovernmental negotiations began with the release of the draft in February 2018 and ended with its finalization in July 2018. The final draft, which was agreed to by all 193 members of the UN, has four sections: vision and guiding principles, objectives and commitments, implementation, and follow up.

    Objectives and Commitments

    The Global Compact aims to ensure that migration 'works for all' by setting out a common understanding and shared responsibilities. It strives to foster international cooperation among “all relevant actors on migration, acknowledging that no State can address migration alone, and upholds the sovereignty of States and their obligations under international law.” Its central principles are people-centredness, national sovereignty, international cooperation, rule of law and sustainable development. The 23 objectives of the Compact seek to minimize the factors which force people to leave their country, ensure legal identity and documentation, provide regular pathways, eradicate trafficking, and facilitate return and readmission of all migrants. Moreover, to achieve these objectives, it spelt out 187 actions and many commitments.

    Objectives for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration:
    (1) Collect and utilize accurate and disaggregated data as a basis for evidence-based policies
    (2) Minimize the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin
    (3) Provide accurate and timely information at all stages of migration
    (4) Ensure that all migrants have proof of legal identity and adequate documentation
    (5) Enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration
    (6) Facilitate fair and ethical recruitment and safeguard conditions that ensure decent work
    (7) Address and reduce vulnerabilities in migration
    (8) Save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants
    (9) Strengthen the transnational response to smuggling of migrants
    (10) Prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons in the context of international migration
    (11) Manage borders in an integrated, secure and coordinated manner
    (12) Strengthen certainty and predictability in migration procedures for appropriate screening, assessment and referral
    (13) Use migration detention only as a measure of last resort and work towards alternatives
    (14) Enhance consular protection, assistance and cooperation throughout the migration cycle
    (15) Provide access to basic services for migrants
    (16) Empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion
    (17) Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration
    (18) Invest in skills development and facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications and competences
    (19) Create conditions for migrants and diasporas to fully contribute to sustainable development in all countries
    (20) Promote faster, safer and cheaper transfer of remittances and foster financial inclusion of migrants
    (21) Cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as sustainable reintegration
    (22) Establish mechanisms for the portability of social security entitlements and earned benefits
    (23) Strengthen international cooperation and global partnerships for safe, orderly and regular migration


    One of the positive aspects of the Global Compact is the framing of migration in the logic of development. The significant case against migration has been the perceived negative economic impact on host countries. However, migrants spend 85 per cent of their earnings in their host communities. Similarly, migrants across the globe sent approximately USD 600 billion in remittances in 2017, which is three times higher than the global Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). In this way, migrants contribute to the development of both the country of origin and host states. By accepting this known but concealed fact and developing policies to utilize the potential of migrants, the Global Compact aims to minimize the global resentments against migration. The Compact also states that it is rooted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

    In addition, the Global Compact puts the rights of migrant women and children at its heart by mainstreaming a gender perspective. Among the 258 million migrants around the world, more than 50 per cent are women and girls. Moreover, women constitute 74 per cent of international migrant domestic workers. The Compact has two guiding principles that articulate the need for ‘gender-responsive’ and ‘child-sensitive’ migration policies. Moreover, many of its objectives and commitments argue for ‘gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.’ Terms such as 'gender-responsive'/'gender-equality' or 'gender-based violence' appear 29 times in the 34-page document. Similarly, the Compact aims to enhance global cooperation to reduce migration-related deaths, and in combating smuggling and trafficking, all of which are priorities for any government.

    Climate change is another global problem contributing to the migration crisis The Global Compact recognizes climate change as a driver for migration and lays out a framework for dealing with it. According to the World Bank, around 143 million people, especially in the developing world, could be forced to relocate within their countries by 2050. Another study shows that about 2 billion people may become climate change refugees by 2100. The Compact proposes building a Platform on Disaster Displacement” and developing an 'Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change' to address the issue.

    Prospects and Challenges

    With its comprehensive approach to migrants and their problems, the Global Compact for Migration provides both opportunities and challenges. First, it puts forth a balanced approach by framing goals that correspond to the interests of different stakeholders. For instance, while Objective 20, promoting the transfer of remittances, serves the interest of states of origin, Objective 21, facilitating return and readmission, satisfies the receiving countries. While respecting national sovereignty and international law, the Compact acknowledges the prerogative of States to decide who they allow onto their territory. It, therefore, provides for enhanced cooperation among states to manage global migration.

    Second, migration, provided it can be monitored appropriately, can positively contribute to the development of both the countries of origin and the host. However, fear of the outsider has created massive popular sentiments against migrants in host nations. s. The Global Compact helps to dispel these fears by giving preference to evidence-based policies through data collection and accurate information about migrants. This approach will be helpful in dispelling misguided and xenophobic policies, particularly in Europe and the United States. Proper implementation of the objectives of the Compact will ensure that migration works for all and contribute to solving the global migration crisis. The adoption of the Compact by New Zealand just a few days after the Marrakech Conference shows that the Compact is finding resonance and acceptability and is a step in the right direction.

    Third, many see the non-binding nature of the Global Compact as a challenge and the most significant limitation. They fear that the Compact will be just another talking shop without making any real difference to the migration problem. However, in international politics, distinction between binding texts (hard law) and non-binding texts (soft law) is minimal because the parties, i.e., the states themselves, enforce both types of agreements. Moreover, soft law also ensures the support of the maximum number of members and a fast process since it usually does not require voting in domestic parliaments. None of the objectives or commitments of the Compact imposes any new obligation on the signatories. Instead, it reiterates the existing treaties and conventions. Issues with hard law can be seen in the approach of the UN member states towards the 1951 Refugee Convention, a legally binding document. Even after six decades of its adoption, more than 50 countries are yet to sign the agreement.

    The most significant challenges before the Compact lie in its implementation and in the many significant countries that have not signed up to it. The refusal of many countries, including the United States, Australia and Hungary, to adopt the Compact corresponds with the rise of populism and anti-immigrant sentiments across the globe. These countries view the adoption of the Compact as an instance of surrender of sovereignty. Addressing the gap between reality and perception about migration and migrants will be a great challenge before the Compact in the coming years. Finally, the Compact does not talk about who will coordinate, monitor and fund its implementation. Since member states are responsible for implementation, they will have to do much more than mere reviews and occasional follow up in order to achieve the goals of the Compact.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.