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What is the Global Compact for Migration?

Published 10. Dec 2018
We have witnessed heated debates on whether countries should approve the Global Compact for Migration or not. What is the compact? What are the legal and political obligations we commit to – and what are the consequences?

Here are 12 key questions and answers:

1 What caused this compact to be written in the first place?

During the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, member states unanimously adopted the New York Declaration to strengthen international cooperation and protection of refugees and other migrants.

The New York Declaration launched a two-year consultative process that led to the drafting of two ‘Global Compacts’ that are about to be ratified: one for refugees and another one for migration.

The exceptional rise in mixed-migration influx towards Europe in 2015 largely contributed to the call for better international cooperation.

2 Why are there two compacts? 

While the New York Declaration recognizes that migrants and refugees may face many common challenges and similar vulnerabilities, migrants and refugees are distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks.

According to the Refugee Convention, refugees have certain rights to international protection – beyond the universal human rights that apply to all, including migrants.

3 What is the purpose?

The compact for migration is meant to improve international cooperation, for the benefits of the migrants as well as countries of origin, transit and destination.

The compact is based on the New York Declaration, stating that migration should take place in a safe, orderly and regular manner. By nature, migration involves more than one state. When people cross borders, international cooperation is not only wanted, but required.

4 Is this a legally binding document? What about national sovereignty and the right of each country to decide their migration policies?

The compact is not a legally binding document. States endorsing it commit to respect its principles, and their action will be gauged against their efforts to implement it. But there is no mechanism to enforce its implementation in case they do not.

Countries will keep their sovereign right to determine their own migration laws and policies within the limits already set by existing international binding instruments.

5 How does the compact refer to the human rights of migrants? 

The compact is based on international human rights law and explicitly aims at upholding the principles of non-discrimination and non-regression.

States endorsing the compact commit to ensure human rights are respected and applicable to all migrants.

For instance, the compact will work to eliminate all forms of discrimination, promote access to basic services to migrants, and prohibit collective expulsion and return of migrants to their country when there is a real risk of death, torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. 

6 Why the term «compact»?

The term “compact” is used to combine a declaration of political objectives and ethical norms with a more concrete plan of action for how such norms and principles may be implemented.

7 Is the compact a political commitment?

Yes, adopting the compact clearly signals political support for its 23 objectives as well as its norms and recommendations – and co-operation with other states in managing migration.

The fact that some countries decided to pull out and not to sign the compact for migration demonstrates that the compact is more than a mere declaration. It is non-binding, but it will remain a milestone and a text of reference for states who endorse it.

A review process will be carried out every four years to assess the progress made in the implementation of the compact. 

8 Will the compact dictate more liberal migration policies?

No. The main objective is for migration to take place in a safe, orderly and regular manner, rather than through human smugglers and criminal networks. More legal alternatives combined with improved return agreements and more efficient international cooperation will reduce human trafficking and increase orderly movement of people.

9 Is the number of migrants increasing?

Yes, the number of migrants keep increasing: the world counted 258 million international migrants in 2017, which is almost a 50% increase since 2000.

Most migrate within their own continent. A limited minority seeks protection or work in other regions, such as Europe.

10 Will climate change lead to more migration?

Climate change and disasters are already triggering human movements and there is widespread agreement among scientists that the effects of climate change, in combination with other factors, will increase the displacement of people in the future.

The Global Compact for Migration is the first document negotiated in the framework of the United Nations in which the international community makes specific commitments to address the drivers that compel people to leave their countries of origin in the context of natural hazards, environmental degradation and the adverse effects of climate change, and to protect and assist those who are compelled to leave their countries in these contexts.

Present international law does not provide a right to admission and stay for those compelled to leave their country of origin due to climate change and disaster. The compact is proposing a coherent approach to address the challenges of human mobility in the context of disasters and environmental change.

11 Why have some countries withdrawn from the compact 

The compact recognizes the positive impacts of migration as a source of prosperity, innovation, and sustainable development and promotes enhanced migration governance to further capitalize on these.  As such, - and even though the compact acknowledges that migration as well “affects our countries, communities, migrants and their families in very different ways”-, the compact may be seen as a menace by those who primarily view migration as a threat to stability, national control, cultural identity and the domestic labour market.  

So far, a dozen countries have withdrawn from the process, including the USA, Australia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Check Republic, Austria, Italy, Slovakia, Latvia, Switzerland Israel, and the Dominican Republic, while some countries have experienced heated debates about the endorsement of the compact.  

12 What is the NRC view?

The compact is undoubtfully a good document where most of the asks of the civil society have been taken into consideration and where the fundamental rights of migrants are promoted.

The compact will have the virtue of setting high standards against which states can be held politically, if not legally accountable.

What is at stake now is the actual implementation of this framework.

Clearly, in addition to the humanitarian needs of those who suffer from the most disturbing aspects of migration, the increasingly “mixed flows” require better migration management and co-ordination if the protection of asylum space is to be maintained.