A major new international pact on migration, agreed in New York, will raise new doubts about many European countries’ approach to dealing with irregular migrants and the NGOs that assist them.
The Global Compact for Migration, agreed by 192 countries, includes commitments to reduce the use of immigration detention — and end it for children — and eliminate laws against providing humanitarian assistance to migrants. These sit at odds with the direction of policy change in several countries.
Negotiations on the agreement, involving all UN members apart from the United States, concluded at UN headquarters on 13 July. The document is the first major intergovernmental pact on immigration issues, and is due to be formally adopted in December.
The Compact commits governments to use immigration detention “only as a measure of last resort”, and to “work to end” the detention of children. That is potentially radical, according to Kathleen Newland, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. “The phrasing, not to use detention as a deterrent or punitively, is quite significant,” she said.
It has been an honour to co-facilitate an innovative diplomatic process that proves multilateralism is up to the task of improving the lives of millions of people around the world. Thank you amigo @jurglauber! #TheGlobalCompactMigration pic.twitter.com/wgdREMeXEK
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Many governments are moving in the opposite direction. “We certainly see that states continue to detain migrants, and some are even stepping up plans to detain migrants,” Newland said. Italy’s new interior minister has promised to build more detention centres.
The US government has faced controversy in recent months over its introduction of a zero-tolerance policy to prosecute all migrants crossing its borders without authorisation. That has led to thousands of children being separated from their parents. “Of course the US is not participating in this [UN] process,” said Newland. “But it still sets a standard. I was glad to see that in the text.”
“The fact that the states have managed to negotiate an agreement on such a contentious issue is really quite a remarkable accomplishment”
The agreement will also sit in tension with European governments’ policies towards NGOs and individuals who help irregular migrants.
The Compact’s commitment to improve rescue efforts calls on states to ensure that giving humanitarian assistance to migrants “is not considered unlawful”.
But French authorities have tried to prosecute a farmer who assisted migrants near the Italian border, while governments in Italy and Malta have launched prosecutions against the captains of NGO ships rescuing people on the Mediterranean crossing from Libya.
The compact’s section on humanitarian assistance “is something that can be held up to European policymakers, to say: ‘Look, you’ve committed yourselves not to do this’,” Newland said.
She highlighted, though, that the agreement is not legally binding. “The commitment is to draw from the actions described under each objective. States are not committing themselves to do all these things.”
And governments have been eager to minimise any suggestion of a stronger legal document.
That includes eliminating all references to non-refoulement — the legal prohibition on returning refugees to countries where they would be in danger — which had been present in earlier drafts. “That is significant,” Newland said. “The text skirts around the content of refoulement. But throughout this process, states have been very eager not to expand their legal obligations.”
“It’s something that can be held up to policymakers, to say: ‘Look, you’ve committed yourselves not to do this’.”
The Compact also aims to encourage cooperation on labour mobility and other regular migration options. That could include bilateral agreements between governments on special programs for seasonal workers or those with urgently-needed skills.
Béla Hovy, head of migration at the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said there were “lots of good examples” of such programs, which could serve as models for the arrangements envisioned in the compact.
Gulf countries have introduced some liberalising reforms to their kafala migrant worker system, and Germany has collaborated with Sri Lanka and the Philippines on training for potential labour migrants. “But it’s at a limited scale,” Hovy added. “And it’s all about scalability.”
For many observers, the existence of the Global Compact already marks a sea change in the global approach to migration. Governments “are on the same page,” Hovy said. “That is in itself quite amazing, because ten years ago there was hardly any political discussion about migration at the United Nations.”
Newland agreed. “The most significant thing is that there is a text,” she said. “The fact that the states have managed to negotiate an agreement on such a contentious issue is really quite a remarkable accomplishment.”
Moving from the text to concrete change, however, will pose a greater challenge. The Compact includes a commitment to develop a capacity-building mechanism which will provide governments with evidence on good practice, connections to international agencies which can assist in policy development, and in some cases funding for specific projects. Newland called it “a good place to start.”
Although the agreement is not legally binding, governments will be required to report their progress towards the Compact commitments. The requirements are, according to Newland, “a little weak institutionally”, with the first global review not taking place until 2022. “So a great deal depends on the commitment that member states have to making it happen,” she said.
The conclusion of negotiations was announced at an event in New York by the UN Secretary-General’s special representative on migration, Louise Arbour, and the President of the General Assembly. The Global Compact will be formally adopted by states at a special conference in Morocco to be held in December. — Fergus Peace
(Picture credit: Flickr/Maina Kiai)