Global Compact: Can it build a new story about migration?

Even the mere willingness of so many states to sign up to the new pact may herald a new challenge to zero-sum thinking on migration

On 10-11 December 2018, 164 states came together in Marrakech to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This is potentially a pivotal moment, as it is the first document prepared under the auspices of the United Nations to comprehensively address all dimensions of migration. The Compact is not legally binding – rather, it is a normative document which sets out 23 objectives about “good migration governance” grounded in values of state sovereignty, responsibility sharing, anti-discrimination, and human rights. The agreement could provide some foundation for a more human approach to migration.

There are at least two reasons why one can be sceptical about whether the pact is likely to succeed. First, implementing policies in line with the pact’s declared principles is likely to be more complicated if one considers the record of past normative commitments. A comprehensive approach which sets out to meet the interests of both migrants and of receiving and sending countries is not new. Indeed, the UN and the International Organization for Migration have been calling for such an approach since the early 2000s. However, such win-win-win rhetoric masks competing agendas across countries and regions whereby governments from the global south aspire to a right to mobility for their nationals and the global north privileges a closed borders approach.

What needs subverting is the argument that countries only have a limited migration-carrying capacity and cannot afford to host “too many” migrants

Similarly, the European Union’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility declares an intention to manage migration holistically – facilitating legal migration, fighting irregular migration, and ensuring migration contributes to development. In reality, a security approach centred on the desire to contain unwanted migrants in the global south has dominated. There is no indication that this security agenda will now prevail less, not least because the Compact privileges the upholding of sovereign rights, which necessarily entails subordinating some of its other objectives to the protection of national borders.

Second, even such a soft form of cooperation has generated Pavlovian reflexes of the assertion of an imaginary autonomy. Some ten states have taken the United States’ lead and pulled out of the pact (Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland). Their main objection is that the pact threatens their sovereignty and ability to decide their own migration policy. At first sight this objection seems surprising; after all, the pact is legally non-binding and “reaffirms the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy”. Arguably, the withdrawal of states from the Compact can function as a form of spectacle or impression management for domestic audiences sold on nativist rhetoric about protecting their presumed sovereign integrity. That is to say, these states seemed less concerned about the material impact of the pact on their policies and more on the symbolic function of withdrawing to reaffirm the importance of states’ borders. This demonstration of anxiety about sovereignty is particularly present in relatively young states (such as countries from the former Soviet bloc), states with a tradition of neutrality (Austria and Switzerland), and political traditions that value their “splendid isolation” via their insularity (the present US, Australia). Thus, it seems that the resistance to the Compact is not only fuelled by the far-right but is also about ideals of absolute sovereignty. Fear of the Compact is then not only about fear of migration but also about fear of multilateralism.

There could be an alternative to this rather dark scenario. The Compact offers mechanisms for nations to build a community by generating a shared narrative about migration governance and affirming a “common purpose” and a “collective commitment” among partner states.  

The Compact’s most promising aspiration is to change the way we talk and think about migration – use a different, less securitised language. For instance the Compact speaks about “management” rather than “control” as well as the potential for migration to make positive contributions to nation states and to individuals. It invites a reversal of the binaries that structure present thinking, such as: growth rather than excess, hospitality rather than burden; normal governance rather than state of emergency. What is at stake in terms of realising the potential impact of the Compact, then, is the construction of a compelling narrative which does not see migration as a problem or threat. What needs subverting is the argument that countries only have a limited migration-carrying capacity and cannot afford to host “too many” migrants. Such an argument refers to an imagined tipping-point past which societies move from social cohesion to economic, social, cultural, and political chaos. This is a zero-sum game logic that permeates current thinking about migration.

The participation of so many states in the Compact is an indication that there is readiness for change. Policymakers and politicians need to exploit this moment with courageous leadership capable of turning normative principles into concrete practices informed by evidence about the reality and contributions of migration. Otherwise, European countries and their counterparts around the world risk being held hostage to nativist rhetoric that threatens both migrants and international, European, and national social cohesion. The Compact represents an opportunity that must be seized.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Associate Fellow

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