Why the UN Global Compact on Migration matters

In response to the large movements of refugees and migrants around the world, including the dramatic movement of over one million Syrians, Afghans, and Africans from various countries to Europe in 2015, world leaders at a UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016 proposed two “global compacts” to improve the governance of international migration: a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and a Global Compact on Refugees. The Global Compact on Refugees already has a normative framework, the 1951 Geneva Convention, which has been ratified by almost every nation, and a lead UN agency in the UNHCR that can assist Member States to improve protections and more equitably share the burden of hosting refugees.

While the Global Compact on Refugees is expected to offer support to countries that host large numbers of refugees by developing a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and to develop a plan of action to address refugee issues, the Global Compact on Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration (also referred to as the Global Compact on Migration or GCM) has a broader challenge. The GCM must offer a framework for protecting the human rights of migrants and integrating them in the places to which they move—often for the purposes of finding employment—while also helping combat xenophobia, racism, and discrimination toward migrants.

However the GCM has no existing normative framework to draw upon—although there are a number of International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions that aim to protect migrant workers, including Number 97 (1949) and 143 (1975), and the 1990 UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families—but fewer than 50 of the UN’s 193 member nations have ratified them.

In order to make progress towards the Global Compacts, UN agencies, governments, and NGOs have organized many meetings to review and discuss various dimensions of international migration, including the human rights of migrants, the drivers of migration, trafficking, and labor migration. The Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), an annual forum for governments to discuss links between migration and development, devoted its June 2017 meeting in Berlin to the GCM. The NGOs participating in the GFMD’s “Civil Society Days” that coincided with the government forum also focused on the GCM and stressed the need to protect migrants and respect human rights.

The GCM is expected to include provisions on thorny issues such as forced removals (deportations) and the detention of child migrants. However, it will also cover intergovernmental cooperation related to migration for the purpose of employment (labor migration), including proposals to increase channels for labor mobility and to achieve the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs, approved in September 2015, have 17 goals and 169 targets to reduce poverty while promoting inclusive and sustainable development. Each target has several indicators to track progress.

Goal 10 to reduce inequality within and between countries includes target 10.7 to facilitate safe, orderly, and regular migration via well-managed migration policies. Two indicators measure progress toward this target: 10.7.1 measures recruitment costs borne by migrant workers as a share of income earned in the destination country, and 10.7.2 is the number of countries that have implemented well-managed migration policies.

The GCM will ultimately help to set the priorities of national governments and the UN system. Although the GCM is entirely led by UN Member States, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which recently affiliated to the UN, is an intergovernmental organization that has been tasked with “servicing” and managing the process for crafting the GCM. However, the IOM is not the only UN agency with responsibilities when it comes to migration, and its major role in the negotiations could prove problematic because it was created by and reflects mainly the interests of national governments, and the IOM has not adopted the UN’s binding human rights obligations. The absence of the ILO as a lead agency—even though it is the UN’s labor rights agency and has expertise on labor migration—is also significant because the ILO has a human rights-based mandate and a tri-partite governing structure that includes governments, workers, and employers—all of whom are major stakeholders when it comes to labor migration.

The GCM is on a very short timeline. World leaders are scheduled to meet in September-October 2018 to wrap up negotiations and endorse the GCM. When it comes to labor migration, UN Member States are seeking consensus to better manage it in the 21st century—a technically difficult task and politically controversial issue—on a very short timeline. That’s a herculean challenge for a world with increasing right-wing anti-immigrant populist movements and xenophobia towards migrants. Some governments are even erecting or proposing more border walls, detaining migrants and asylum-seekers, and pursuing other policies that violate the human rights of migrants.

The conclusion of the UN Global Compact on Migration in 2018 could go a long way towards improving the management and governance of international migration, or give nations an excuse to make things worse. That’s why monitoring the GCM negotiations over the next year and a half is important.