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The Global Compact For Migration: What happened? And what's next?

by Anne T. Gallagher | International Catholic Migration Commission
Tuesday, 11 December 2018 10:30 GMT

Migrants, intercepted off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, wait to disembark a rescue boat at the port of Malaga, southern Spain, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To prove the Global Compact’s worth, we don’t need to get everything right immediately - even small progress will help to move us forward

Anne T. Gallagher AO is the President of the International Catholic Migration Commission and a leading international authority on human trafficking.

On December 10th, under a purpose-built tent in Marrakesh, Morocco, representatives from more than 150 countries affirmed their shared vision of a future in which migration is safe and beneficial for all. The significance of this moment should not be underestimated. Migration remains one of the most intractable of all international issues: we know perfectly well that cooperation is the only realistic way forward. But vast differences in interests and priorities has, until now, made substantive progress almost impossible.

What happened to alter this? Certainly the ‘migration crisis’ of 2015 was a game changer. Not just because of the scale of global movement – unprecedented since World War One – but also because of the weaknesses and gaps that it revealed in our collective ability to manage migration. Violence, political instability and lack of opportunity for anything resembling a good life has rendered great parts of the world deeply inhospitable to millions of men, women and children. For too many, their journey and its end is marked by indignity, hardship and sometimes death. And the countries to which they have fled: from Lebanon to Bangladesh; from Germany to the United States, are – or feel – close to overwhelmed.

The Global Compact for Migration is far from a statement of revolution. It is a carefully worded articulation of some key challenges and of how we might move forward. Certain topics – such as forced return and the responsibility of countries of origin – were off the table because it was understood that any agreement would be impossible. Even so, the consensus is a fragile one. In the months leading up to Marrakesh, several European countries, as well as the United States, Australia and Israel stepped out of the process altogether. And over the past few weeks, scare campaigns in several countries have warned of a potential takeover, by stealth, of national migration policies.

We can reject this fear-mongering while trying to understand the visceral reaction that the Compact has provoked. Put simply, reactions to the Global Compact confirm that migration is our collective panic-button: the flashpoint of our new culture wars single-handedly capable of bringing down governments and dividing communities. Dealing with migration openly and honestly is a gamble that some Governments are just not willing to take on, even while they know perfectly well that the status quo is unsustainable. This epic failure of leadership creates a vacuum that is easily filled by those who understand, all too well, how to tap into our collective fears around an increasingly fractured, unfair and uncertain world.

With its modest vision for a better future, the Compact might just prove to be the circuit breaker we need to challenge the nay-sayers and give voice to the many who have come to understand that the current situation is not working well for anyone. But for this to happen, the Compact needs to quickly prove its value: to demonstrate that working together under a wide umbrella of shared values and shared commitments is a necessity - not a capitulation.

How should we measure its success? Here is a simple, four-step checklist that might help us work out whether, in the next few years, things are improving or getting worse.

Do we know more? We know surprisingly little about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of migration and what works when it comes to policies and practices. The Global Compact is committed to improving the evidence base and this single achievement would be a real step forward. But that requires changes in how things are presently done. Governments need to find the courage to be much more open with their data. And civil society must do its part by proving itself a capable, and trusted ally: fully committed to rigorous research and willing to call out unbalanced advocacy and selective evidence wherever and whenever it appears.

Are we doing integration better? A significant proportion of the worlds’ displaced will not be returning home anytime soon. Either we work on making integration happen or we consign millions of women, men and children to less than a half-life in vast refugee camps and on the economic and geographical fringes of our cities and towns. Integration has been done well in the past, but the political and logistical challenges facing us today are unprecedented. Fortunately, this is one area where genuine innovation – from tech-driven solutions in Europe to automatic provision of work and residency rights in Uganda - is flourishing. We need to replicate and expand these small successes.

Is there less detention? Large-scale, indiscriminate detention of migrants is the canary in the coalmine: a clear signal that policies are not working and that government has lost its nerve.  The Global Compact does not reject detention outright, rather it is presented as an option to be used selectively and only after other approaches have failed. Effective, low-cost alternatives are available. And when detention is considered necessary, we know how to make it less harmful. In four years’ time, if the Global Compact is doing its job, migrant detention will be increasingly rare.

Are migrant workers better off? Labour migration, the engine of globalisation, is a mess. Too often, available pathways fail to match supply with demand. Those countries that reap the massive benefits of a cheap, flexible workforce routinely withhold basic rights. And we have all become adept at closing our eyes to the worst excesses of an unregulated global labour market, including widespread exploitation. It’s time to reject the widely-held idea that this group – numbering around 150 million – can be treated as lesser human beings. Extending them the protection of local labour laws would be a start. And reducing ruinous remittance costs is eminently achievable within the next few years.

To prove the Global Compact’s worth, we don’t need to get everything right immediately. Even small progress under the umbrella of this ‘new deal’ for migrants will help to move us forward - towards a world where the movement of people across international borders is safer, better regulated and widely embraced as mutually rewarding for everyone involved.