Migration as a Human Right? Debunking Myths Surrounding the UN Migration Pact

Two years after the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in the wake of the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, the United Nations (UN) has completed its preparations to further international cooperation and coordination concerning migration. This comes with the United Nations General Assembly’s embrace of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM)on 19 December 2018, two days after the same body approved the associated Global Compact on Refugees. The former is a 34-page pact which puts forward 23 objectives for safe, orderly and regular migration as negotiated by member states of the UN. Representing ‘a collective commitment to improving cooperation on international migration’, it has proven to be by far the more controversial of the two compacts.

Indeed, only 152 out of 193 UN member states endorsed the GCM. Five states (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland and the United States) voted against it, whilst 12 abstained and 24 did not vote. This outcome came after 33 states chose not to attend the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in Marrakesh, Morocco, on 11 and 12 December 2018.

The first rejection of the GCM came from the United States (US) back in December 2017. The former US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, justified this choice on the grounds that ‘decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone’, classing the GCM as ‘not compatible with US sovereignty’. The move was mirrored several months later by Hungary, whose Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó, considers the GCM to be ‘in conflict with common sense and also with the intent to restore European security.’ Other states have since followed suit, with Australia, Austria, Chile and Italy amongst those abstaining from last December’s vote. Intense political debates have taken place even in states which voted in favour of the GCM, including Belgium, Croatia, Germany, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Whilst the United Kingdom (UK) likewise supported the GCM, an online petition asking the UK not to sign it is still active and has now gained over 130,000 signatures.

The situation in Belgium should perhaps be deemed the most alarming, given that the country has been gripped by violent protests and an unfolding political crisis in connection with the GCM. Here, former White House adviser, Steve Bannon, and the President of France’s Rassemblement National (RN or National Rally), Marine Le Pen, attended an event led by the RN’s Flemish counterpart Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in Brussels on 8 December. At this time, Le Pen ominously declared that a state which ‘signs the pact obviously signs a pact with the devil.’ Less than two weeks later, the Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles Michel, resigned after his coalition partner, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance), quit following Michel’s signing of the GCM.

Demonstrators clash with Belgian riot police in Brussels on 16 December 2018. Source: Jonas Roosens/Belga / AFP.

The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, envisioned that ‘those countries that decided they are leaving the UN migration compact, had they read it, they would not have done it’. Whilst this might be true, it seems that state defections can be explained with reference to another type of ignorance. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, noted that fears about illegal migration are being ‘exploited by opponents of the Compact to spread false rumours.’ Indeed, examples of disinformation, in this case often advocated by representatives of nationalist and anti-immigration parties, can be identified and refuted.

Claim 1: The GCM will make migration a human right. The Vice-Chancellor of Austria and Chairman of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Freedom Party of Austria), Heinz-Christian Strache, implied this to be the case through stating in relation to the GCM that ‘migration … should not become a human right.’ The claim has been put forward even more explicitly by the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who proclaimed on Fox News that ‘what the UN wants to do is to make migration a human right.’ However, this is not true. The GCM at no point voices that a ‘human right to migrate’ does or should exist. This is supported by British Minister of State at the Department for International Development, Lord Bates, who asserts that the GCM ‘does not create any new “rights” for migrants.’ Rather, he explains, it ‘emphasises that migrants are entitled to the same universal human rights as any human being.’ It is therefore incorrect to view the GCM as a declaration of, or in support of, a human right to migrate.

Claim 2: The GCM will make criticism of migration illegal. According to Dutch MEP Marcel de Graaff, ‘criticism of migration will become a criminal offence.’ Likewise, this is also untrue. The document involves a commitment ‘to eliminate all forms of discrimination … against all migrants.’ In other words, this is about ending prejudice against migrants as people, rather than criticism of migration as a policy. De Graaff also claimed that ‘media outlets … that give room to criticism of migration can be shut down.’ Again, the exact wording of the GCM is crucial. States should ‘promote independent, objective and quality reporting of media outlets … including by sensitising and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology, investing in ethical reporting standards and advertising, and stopping allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote … discrimination towards migrants, in full respect for the freedom of the media.’ In any case, these claims run counter to the GCM’s more general commitment ‘to protect freedom of expression in accordance with international law’. Relevant here is also an insight put forward by Associate Professor of International Human Rights and Refugee Law at the University of Oxford, Cathryn Costello, who argues that any state which ‘decided to meet the commitment to tackle discrimination and xenophobia by censorship would in likelihood be breaching its international human rights obligations, in particular the right to freedom of expression.’ Overall, de Graaff’s interpretation is far removed from the GCM’s actual text.

Claim 3: The GCM will encourage migration. Szijjártó announced that the GCM ‘poses a threat to the world from the aspect that it could inspire millions [of migrants]’. In addition, Poland’s Minister of the Interior, Joachim Budziński, has linked the GCM to a specific type of migration, viewing it as a possible ‘incentive to undertake illegal migration’. Nevertheless, this is not necessarily the case. Amongst other commitments, the GCM is dedicated to the collection of improved data on international migration, the reduction of factors that encourage migrants to leave their countries of origin and the prevention of smuggling and people trafficking. Although it is difficult to predict the exact impacts of the GCM on migration flows, Szijjártó and Budziński’s bold statements are clearly facile.

Claim 4: The GCM threatens sovereignty. In relation to the GCM, Australia’s former Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, said that ‘it’s not in our national interest to sign our border protection policy over to the UN … We’re not going to surrender our sovereignty’. On the same note, Strache declared that ‘Austria’s sovereignty is of the highest priority, it is inviolable for us and we will protect it.’ Running counter to these comments, the GCM is nonetheless, as stated in its text, ‘non-legally binding’. This has also been confirmed by the European Commission, which insists that the GCM will ‘have no legal effect on national legal systems’. States will thus remain in charge of their immigration laws, with their sovereignty left intact. Besides, as observed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, ‘[h]uman rights strengthen states and societies and reinforce sovereignty.’ On that account, states are helping to legitimise themselves as independent sources of authority by supporting human rights through the GCM. Therefore, the GCM does not pose a threat to state sovereignty.

It is widely understood that transnational issues, such as migration, should be managed at least in part through global governance, with the support of the international community. However, it appears that the sensitivity of the present political climate, which has been significantly shaped by the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, is being overtly capitalised on, even as the number of arrivals falls to ‘pre-crisis’ levels. Indeed, a set of aims, issued with a view to mitigating some of the most detrimental problems faced by migrants and host countries, has ironically been turned on its head through disinformation, repeatedly spread by members of nationalist and anti-immigration parties in Europe. This is helping to drive a regressive and divisive type of politics, whose presence will likely be felt in the upcoming 2019 European Parliament elections.

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