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The United Nations Global Compact for Migration

Published Friday, August 16, 2019

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was formally adopted by 164 Member States of the United Nations, including the UK, in December 2018. This briefing explains what's in the Compact and its implications for Member States.

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Background

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is an intergovernmentally negotiated agreement, prepared under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). 

The text of the Compact (GCM) was agreed at the UN General Assembly in July 2018 and formally adopted at an intergovernmental conference in Marrakesh in December 2018.

It aims to foster international co-operation on migration in a comprehensive manner, in order to “facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration, while reducing the incidence and negative impact of irregular migration,” and also “to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities migrants face at different stages of migration by respecting, protecting and fulfilling their human rights and providing them with care and assistance.”

The GCM sets out 23 objectives to achieve safe, orderly and regular migration. Within each objective it sets out a range of actions that can be drawn from in order to implement the objective. The text of the GCM affirms that it is a “non-legally binding, cooperative framework” and that States have the “sovereign right . . . to determine their national migration policy . . . in conformity with international law”. 

The decision to develop and adopt a Global Compact for Migration was taken at a summit of heads of state and government hosted by the UN General Assembly in New York on 19 September 2016. The commitment to develop the Compact was contained in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants adopted by all 193 Member States of the UN. 

The New York Declaration set out a range of commitments on refugees and migration policy and also included a commitment to a separate Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). The final text of the GCR was endorsed by the UN General Assembly on 17 December 2018 with two countries voting against (the USA and Hungary) and three abstaining (Eritrea, Libya and the Domenican Republic). The GCR is also non-binding. Its development and adoption did not attract the same level of controversy as that of the GCM.

Opposition to the Compact

The US Government announced in December 2017 that it would not be participating in the GCM. It said that the New York Declaration was inconsistent with the Trump Administration’s immigration principles and incompatible with US sovereignty. In July 2018, Hungary also pulled out. Between October and December 2018, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Australia and Israel also indicated that they would not be participating in the Compact.  Switzerland and Italy said they would be abstaining pending parliamentary decisions on whether to participate.  A dispute within the ruling coalition in Belgium over participation in the Compact led the Belgian Government to collapse in December 2018. 

Opposition to the GCM was encouraged by an on-line campaign by far right and anti-immigrant activists. This involved claims that the GCM would declare “migration as a human right” and make criticism of migration a criminal offence and that it encouraged mass immigration. In the UK, a petition on the UK Government and Parliament website calling on the UK Government not to agree to the Compact had over 130,000 signatures.

Several national leaders, EU and UN officials have made statements rejecting the claims made about it, stressing that the GCM is not legally binding, and does not include text making migration a human right or criminalising criticism of migration.

Adoption of the Compact

The GCM was adopted by acclamation by the representatives of 164 governments at the intergovernmental conference in Marrakech on 10 December 2019.  It was also agreed that the GCM would hitherto be known as the Marrakech Compact.

At the conference the UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to the “many falsehoods” uttered about the Compact. UN Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour said that that the Compact “reinforces, unambiguously, the fundamental principle that migrants everywhere should be treated with dignity and fairness”. She stressed however that the GCM does not create any new right to migrate, and that “it is not correct” to suggest the GCM imposes obligations on Member States and infringes on their sovereignty”. She said it did “nothing of the sort” and “is not binding, as a treaty would be”. 

The UN General Assembly officially adopted the GCM in a vote on 19 December. There were 152 votes in favour, with five countries voting against and twelve abstaining. The countries voting against were: Hungary, Poland, the USA, the Czech Republic and Israel. The countries abstaining were: Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Italy, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Romania, Singapore and Switzerland.

Brazil was among the countries voting in favour of the GCM. However, after taking office in January 2019, the new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said that Brazil would no longer be party to the Compact.

UK Position on Compact

In a written statement to the House of Commons on 10 December 2019, the Minister of State for International Development Alistair Burt confirmed that the Government would be endorsing the GCM in Marrakesh on that day. Mr Burt represented the UK at the Marrakesh conference. 

The written statement outlined the Government’s view that the GCM would enhance international co-operation to “tackle uncontrolled migration” whilst “reaffirming the sovereign right of all countries to control their own borders”.  It stressed that the GCM would “not in any way create legal obligations for States”, that it “protects every country’s right to determine its own immigration policies”. While the GCM emphasises that migrants are entitled to the same universal human rights as any other person, the statement noted that it “does not create any new ‘rights’ for migrants”. The UK government therefore did “not interpret the Compact as being in conflict with its current domestic policies”. 

An Explanation of Position was delivered by the UK Mission to the UN during the vote on the GCM at the UN General Assembly on 19 December 2019. It also expressed supported for a similar Explanation of Position issued by Denmark, on behalf of a group of European countries. The Explanation welcomed the non-legally binding nature of the GCM and its respect for the sovereign right of States to determine their own migration policies. It also referred to the recognition in the GCM of the obligation of all States to readmit their own nationals when they no longer have the right to remain elsewhere. 

The Explanation emphasised that a clear distinction between regular and irregular migrants would be applied in the UK reading of the GCM. It also stressed that States would not be committing to taking national steps to increase new legal pathways to migration, and would retain the right to apply criminal law and sanctions to those smuggled into their country.  It also underlined the UK view that the GCM in no way curtails the right to freedom of expression, and the importance the UK attaches to freedom to debate issues including all aspects of migration.

 

 

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