Diplomats from around 180 countries will be gathering in Marrakech, Morocco for a ceremony on Monday to sign the U.N.’s Global Compact on Migration, a landmark agreement aimed at promoting international cooperation to manage the unprecedented population of migrants and refugees in the world. The United States will not be among them. The United States announced it was pulling out of talks over the pact in December, describing it as a threat to U.S. sovereignty.
The agreement has also proved controversial in Europe. Italy became the latest country to pull out of the agreement last week, following the lead of Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, and Switzerland. Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, has vocally opposed EU migrant quotas, quit while the agreement was still being negotiated. Belgium’s government is currently on the verge of collapse over disagreements about the compact; Prime Minister Charles Michel says he will be attending the meeting in Marrakech merely in a “personal capacity.”
Given all this controversy, it’s worth noting that the 34-page document, formally known as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, is a non-binding agreement. It doesn’t actually obligate its signatories to change any laws or implement any new policies. It includes no quotas or targets for the number of migrants that destination countries should accept. Rather, it lays out some general goals, including reducing the causes of migration, collecting accurate information about migrant populations, improving pathways for legal migration, combating human trafficking, and ensuring the human treatment of asylum seekers.
The objections to the pact are probably less about any of its specific clauses than about a generalized hostility toward the idea of taking in new migrants. “Stephen Miller pulled the United States out of the compact before there was even a draft text,” says Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who studies migration. “The fact that the word migration is in the title was sufficient for him to consider this a violation of U.S.
sovereignty.” He notes that the countries that have pulled out of the compact “offer nothing in counterpoint.”
The absence of the Trump administration from the negotiations is reflected in the text of the final document. For instance, it urges countries to “prevent family separation and reunite families when family separation occurs,” urges them to “use immigration detention only as a measure of last resort,” and includes references to the role of climate change in driving mass migration, all sections that might have been negotiated away or watered down had the U.S. participated in the discussions.
Clemens, who was a firsthand observer of some of the negotiations over the pact, said some of delegates “were glad not to have to deal with” the U.S., given its positions on these issues, even though the American absence “damages the legitimacy of the compact.”
Given how controversial even this document has been, it’s clear that a binding treaty including World Trade Organization–style obligations for signatories on migration issues would have been a nonstarter. But Clemens says, “People who see that it isn’t a treaty might be surprised by how much time and effort was spent negotiating each line.”
Some of the more contentious discussions, he says, were around a section on the “safe and dignified return and readmission” of people who are found to not have the right to remain in destination countries. Put simply, wealthier destination countries want a way to send back those who are rejected for asylum, while origin countries don’t think the burden should be on them to reintegrate people who tried to leave. (Reintegration has been a contentious issue in a number of countries.)
The compact is notable in that its emphasis is less on numbers of migrants each state should accept, the main focus of many of the discussions on this issue, than in how both origin and destination states can ensure the safety and dignity of migrants and even make the process beneficial for both sides. While the document won’t solve any major crises in the near term, the drafting of the compact, Clemens argues, was a “process of interaction that helps build trust” between origin and destination countries at a time when backlash is growing.
In that context, the decision by so many Western countries to withdraw from the conversation entirely, is important. There are more than 258 million people who need that conversation to happen quickly.