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Micheline van Riemsdijk, on the prospects of a global compact on migration. Montage: KHK/GCR21

The Global and its Discontents: Will the Global Compact for Migration follow the Path of the Paris Climate Convention?

06.11.2018 The Paris Climate Conference marked a historic moment in public memory: a global agreement on shared obligations to tackle a global challenge could be accomplished. The withdrawal of the US administration in 2017 only briefly interrupted the enthusiasm and resulted in increased commitments by the 'global rest'. In mid-December, the international community will decide on the Global Compact for Migration, a first attempt to grasp migration at the global level. In an interview with the Centre, migration researcher Micheline van Riemsdijk talks about first global efforts towards global governance of migration.


Unlike global issues such as trade, refugees, climate or security, which are characterised by cooperation at the international level, there is no coherent global governance framework for migration. Against the background of the refugee crisis of 2015, however, the international community realized the need for increased global cooperation with regard to migration and refugee movements. In 2016, the UN General Assembly therefore decided to draw up two new agreements on migrants and refugees. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was then created in a transparent, inclusive and state-led process. The text of the agreement was adopted in July 2018 by all UN member states with the exception of the USA and is now to be adopted in an intergovernmental conference under the auspices of the UN General Conference in Marrakech in December. 


Watch here: Interview with Dr Micheline van Riemsdijk


Both, the Paris Climate Convention and the Global Compact for Migration are important attempts to tackle tremendous challenges to human civilization through global cooperation. Contrary to the legally binding Paris Climate Convention however, the Compact on Migration presents a non-legally binding, cooperative framework, a kind of declaration of intent on the part of states that recognize that ‘no State can address migration alone’. While preserving the sovereignty of states and their obligations under international law, the agreement aims to promote international cooperation between all relevant actors in the field of migration and to protect the fundamental rights of migrants.[1]

Just like the Paris Climate Agreement, the Global Compact on Migration is currently experiencing massive resistance from (right-wing) populist forces[2]. While President Trump had largely isolated the USA internationally by announcing the withdrawal from the climate agreement, the field of opponents of the Global Compact is much more heterogeneous. Australia, the USA, Austria, Croatia, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are currently planning not to sign the agreement in Marrakech in December. Right-wing populists who have already made the rejection of migration the central narrative of their xenophobic policies, regard the Global Compact on Migration as an attack on national sovereignty and predict that the legally non-binding document will result in a massive inflow of migrants[3]. The German right-wing party AfD, which is stirring up unfounded fears of the agreement with a massive disinformation campaign on the Net, even presents the Global Compact on Migration as a hidden resettlement programme for economic migrants.[4]

Precisely because national sovereignty is the top priority for the participating states, the Global Compact on Migration is rather limited in its actual political influence, analyses migration researcher Dr Micheline van Riemsdijk. The researcher, who during her fellowship at the Centre examined the entire negotiation process of the UN Migration Pact, emphasizes in the interview that especially due to the insistence of the international community on national sovereignty, the Compact mainly represents a rhetorical commitment, from which so far, few concrete instruments can be expected. She sees the greatest strength in the potential of the agreement to protect the human rights of migrants. 

Van Riemsdijk, who observed the entire development process of the new document, views it as the most transparent, inclusive and comprehensive negotiation process ever witnessed in this field. As any other person with Internet access could, she analysed the videos and documents of the meetings in her research project. Against this background, the accusations of some right-wing populism, the negotiations being secret and shielded, are unreserved.

This document, which is not binding under international law, is first and foremost a recognition of migration as a global challenge for humanity. Today, every country is sending and receiving country of migrants, and the formulation of common norms, goals and instruments at the international level is entirely appropriate to this development. The blockade of the climate agreement by President Trump led to a strengthening of the climate movement worldwide and in many parts of the USA and a kind of ‘now even more so attitude’. Time will tell, whether this first global attempt to tackle the risks and challenges for both, individual migrants and migrants receiving coutnries can alleviate the fears of concerned citizens and withstand targeted attacks by right-wing populists.

[1] Article 7 of the Preamble oft he Final Draft of the Global Compact for Safe Orderly and Regular Migration: https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/sites/default/files/180711_final_draft_0.pdf

[2] In our recent October Newsletter, research fellow Franz Mauelshagen sheds some light on the impacts of populism on climate and engergy politics in Europe.

[3] Deutsche Welle 2018: German conservatives against UN migration pact: www.dw.com/en/german-conservatives-against-un-migration-pact/a-46168381

[4] Neue Züricher Zeitung 2018: Der unselige Geist des Migrationspakts https://www.nzz.ch/meinung/der-falsch-verstandene-pakt-ld.1433451

Martin Wolf
Head of Public Relations
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