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Two cheers for the Global Compact

By Rebekah Smith

The draft Global Compact on Migration is surprisingly ambitious – but will it be implemented?

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the talks last December. Hungary’s authoritarian nationalist government threatened to pull out too. But the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) is going forward without the US – and its current draft is a surprisingly progressive document.

The international community now has an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future of migration. Negotiations to finalise the GCM, which opened last month, aim to produce an agreement for signature by the end of the year. A new “zero draft plus” was published yesterday and the second round of intergovernmental negotiations start on 12 March. As it stands, the draft comprises 22 objectives for “safe, orderly and regular migration,” each underpinned by tangible commitments. But the deal is not done yet. And since it is non-binding, ensuring it is implemented will be a huge challenge.

The wins

The most important advance in the current text is the recognition and acceptance of the need for “options and pathways for regular migration in a manner that reflects demographic and global labour market realities.” This includes tangible commitments to introduce new legal pathways for regular migration, an unprecedented step at the international level. Underlying this statement is an understanding that migration is bound to increase in coming years (as I explain in another OPEN piece). That is a significant shift from the stance of many receiving countries that seek to deter migration by addressing its drivers (though these attempts also feature in the document as noted below).

The GCM is similarly forward-looking in recognising the need to create pathways for predictable movements of people in response to climate change. It commits to developing “tailored migration schemes of various duration… to facilitate migration as an adaptation strategy to slow-onset environmental degradation.” New Zealand became the first country to introduce such a scheme when late last year it introduced a climate refugee visa for Pacific Islanders likely to be displaced in the near future. But there has otherwise been little recognition of, or preparation for, the masses of people likely to be displaced by climate change.

While affirming the principle of national sovereignty, this GCM also implicitly works towards balancing it with the sovereignty of the person. It supports the decriminalisation of irregular border entry (making irregular entry an administrative, not a criminal, offence). It also commits states to save lives and prevent migrant deaths regardless of legal or entry status. This extends to relegating migrant detention to a measure of last resort. Given that the last few years have been full of horror stories of lives lost from the lack of such protections, it is good that the GCM seeks to value migrant lives properly.

The losses

But while the current draft of the GCM recognises the need to open new legal pathways for migration, it also includes an entire section on “minimis[ing] the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin.” This not only contradicts the spirit of the document, which recognises migration as bringing benefits and prosperity to all. It is also based on the fallacy that economic development at home can deter voluntary migration, as Marta Foresti remarks and Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel point out.

More broadly, the GCM could benefit from a deeper emphasis on the agency of migrants themselves and the incentives they face. While its proposals are progressive, they still generally focus on the factors and systems influencing migrants, rather than migrants’ agency in shaping their own future. For example, the section on recruitment reiterates existing international conventions insisting on zero-fee recruitment. These conventions position migrants as victims of exploitation, while ignoring their own decision making in what is essentially a market exchange for services.

The way forward

What is this all likely to mean? For the moment not much. As it is stands, the Compact is a non-binding agreement that includes tangible commitments but no tangible implementation plan. Of the Compact’s 25 pages, less than one is on implementation (and even this is far from clear). So even if all the progressive commitments make it into the final document, how can one ensure they are rolled out on the ground?

With 22 objectives, each with five or more commitments, it is obviously impossible to do everything at once So what is needed is a coordinated action plan across states and actors with clear priorities and benchmarks.

One priority should be practical innovations that could offer results without requiring difficult policy changes, such as Michael Clemens’ proposal for a Global Skills Partnership. This leverages differentials in the cost of training and skilled wages across countries to facilitate skills mobility while simultaneously increasing the skills base in both sending and receiving countries. Low-hanging fruit such as this should be prioritised, while supported by the more difficult long-term policy changes.

Implementing the GCM will also require innovative financing mechanisms. As international migration is by definition a cross-border issue, states may be loath to invest in such mechanisms on their own. Receiving states (for example) can benefit significantly from the investments made by origin countries on their sending systems. A Joint Financing Facility, similar to that put forward by the International Civil Aviation Organisation here, could make it easier and more politically feasible to develop a realistic action plan.

While the GCM has put forward a surprisingly progressive vision for the global governance of migration, it remains to be seen whether this vision is reflected in the final text. Governments also need to recognise that implementing the Compact will require an action plan and commitment mechanisms. Even so, against the backdrop of so much negative news about migration, it is cheering that the global community has recognised migration as a “source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development in our globalised world.”

Rebekah Smith is is a development consultant specialising in designing migration policies, particularly in South Asia-Middle East corridors. She is an alumna of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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