Most of the world’s powers, with several conspicuous absences, gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, on December 10 and 11 to adopt the United Nations’ Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). The GCM sought, for the first time, to establish universal agreements about the governance of international migration and its causes. But nations in the world are finding it difficult to come to consensus on such a defining issue.

While 164 of the 193 United Nations countries signed the GCM, many of its adversaries have had the loudest voices in pushing back. Anti-immigration, nationalist governments such as the U.S. and Hungary withdrew from the GCM, claiming it infringes on state sovereignty by imposing migration policy and new human rights obligations. Anti-GCM politicians and media have tried to rally public opinion, claiming that the compact will open borders to unhindered flows of migrants.

The compact has sown division even among civil rights activists, but for reasons other than opposition to the compact. Civil society opponents argue that the compact, which is non-binding and carries no legal obligation, does not go far enough in protecting the rights of migrants and remedying the structural inequalities that drive migration.

The compact’s non-binding nature took center stage at the U.N. conference. Nearly every speaker during the conference repeated the refrain that no government will be forced to do anything under the compact, with those who support the compact clearly attempting to reassure and bring back states opposing the compact.

In December 2017, almost a year before the Marrakech conference and six months before the text was finalized, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. would remove itself from the GCM negotiation process. The Trump administration, whose immigration enforcement strategies—namely, the separation of families and detention of child immigrants—are in direct violation of the GCM’s basic human rights commitments, feared the compact would “undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders.”

Since then, Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, and Slovakia have also refused to sign onto the compact. As with other controversial actions the Trump administration has taken in defiance of international norms (such as moving its Israel embassy to Jerusalem), its opposition to the GCM appears to have green-lighted other nations to follow suit.

The governments of Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Italy, Israel, Slovenia, and Switzerland are also wracked with in-fighting over the compact. Charles Michel, the prime minister of Belgium, came to Marrakech while a political storm raged at home. Michel’s support of the GCM repulsed the right-wing, nationalist N-VA party, who broke ties with him and shattered his ruling coalition.

United Nations Global Compact for Migration Divides Nations, Wields Little Power, but Offers Some Hope

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. (Photo credits: Sebastian Bouknight/Inside Arabia)


At the same time that the GCM has divided, it has also united, to a degree. The GCM, which is indeed the first international agreement to address migration in nearly all of its aspects, offers a glimpse of what intergovernmental cooperation on such an unwieldy issue could look like. It also is the first migration agreement to recognize the need for mitigation of climate change as part and parcel of migration governance. Supporters, aware that the GCM cannot force unwilling governments to change policy, value it as a framework that can at least keep abusive states accountable.

“It’s a start of the solution,” Issiaka Konaté, Director General of Ivoiriens Abroad, told Inside Arabia at the U.N. conference. “It’s not going to solve all the problems. Its advantage is that it puts all states around a table and says you must treat migration differently.” Konaté supports the GCM as “a common mechanism to ensure a better treatment of human beings. I do not understand why anyone could say no to [that] idea.”

For all of the differences of opinion amongst global migrant activists, the GCM has brought them into conversation as they have never been before. In Marrakech, two distinct conferences preceded that of the U.N.: the U.N.-linked Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) and the independent People’s Global Action (PGA). Although both have run annually since 2006, the energy was different this year.

United Nations Global Compact for Migration Divides Nations, Wields Little Power, but Offers Some Hope

Members of the Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrants’ Rights meet at the People’s Global Action in Marrakech. (Photo credits: Sebastian Bouknight/Inside Arabia)

NGOs and activists from every continent (except Antarctica) engaged in dialogue at the PGA, the GFMD, and throughout the GCM negotiation process. Migrant advocates working at the U.S.-Mexico border met and shared knowledge with those working on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sweden, Bahrain, Ecuador, and beyond. Many of these advocates and activists find that their human rights goals stand in conflict with individual governments’ political aims. Their hope is that a global, unified migrant movement that recognizes common humanity and intersecting struggles will have more power to make a change.

Gerald Lenoir, who founded the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, sees a parallel in the Black Panthers’ Rainbow Coalition, which unified black, Puerto Rican, and white working-class activist groups in the 1960s, before being broken up by state infiltration and violence. Solidarity threatened the state, and divide and conquer worked too well, Lenoir told Inside Arabia. Today, his organization, recognizing “our parallel experiences,” seeks to unite the racial justice and immigrant rights movements in the U.S., which have been surprisingly divided. “Now, we’re rebuilding,” Lenoir said.

Turning Words into Action

United Nations Global Compact for Migration Divides Nations, Wields Little Power, but Offers Some Hope

Secretary General Antonio Guterres and UN Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour. (Photo credits: Sebastian Bouknight/Inside Arabia)

In Marrakech, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “Unregulated migration bears a terrible human cost . . . . This is a source of collective shame.” While the GCM offers grand ideals and acknowledges the complexities of migration, it remains to be seen how it will impact real lives, and whether it will lower that human cost.

“Sometimes government and civil society get lost in policy-making,” Rwandan-German migrant advocate Jean Ngendahimana told Inside Arabia. “We need to put the talks into action.”

Rachid, a taxi driver in Marrakech, reflected popular skepticism about the U.N. conference: “What are they going to do? Nothing. They talk, and after, they will sign. And after, bye-bye.”

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told Inside Arabia that he hopes “the implementation will give more credibility to this compact and convince those who are still skeptical that it . . . allow[s] everyone to adapt it to their own context and constraints.”

However, adaptability does not seem to be the real point of contention for “skeptical” politicians. Yaya Sangaré, Minister of Malians Abroad, said that the GCM sends “a message . . . especially to Europe’s populist right parties, who have based their success on fear-mongering and the demonization of migrants.”

But because anti-immigrant vitriol essentially lofted leaders like Trump, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán into political success, it is unlikely that they will backpedal. It does not matter that the compact poses no substantive threat to their policies; it has been turned into a symbol by far-right, nationalist parties and used as an instrument to stoke fear and recruit support. Signing would hurt their image.

United Nations Global Compact for Migration Divides Nations, Wields Little Power, but Offers Some Hope

Udo Voigt, former leader of the German neo-Nazi party NDP and current Member of the European Parliament, protests the GCM. (Photo credits: Sebastian Bouknight/Inside Arabia)

An Imbalance of Power

For more liberal, migrant-receiving states, not signing the pact would hurt their image but might reflect their migration policies more accurately. Several migrant advocates at the PGA denounced European countries that claim to support migrants’ rights while also rejecting boatloads of rescued migrants and financing countries like Morocco to restrain Europe-bound migration.    

Mara Ansoumane Kory, a Guinean blogger and activist living in Morocco, told Inside Arabia, “Really, I’m O.K. with these countries [that are against the pact]. I salute them for their honesty . . . . What is most dangerous is hypocrisy. Hypocrite governments are like those of France. They sign, but they are not going to take part.”

An African delegate who wished to remain anonymous told Inside Arabia that, while he is officially required to sign the GCM on behalf of his country, he is personally opposed. Referring to the compact’s full title, he said that “‘orderly and safe’ means [powerful countries] will just take in migrants they need and ignore those they don’t, as usual.”

This delegate and many other people from the Global South involved in the migration conversation see a serious power imbalance in the compact, benefitting wealthier, migrant-receiving countries like those of the E.U. “Which African state have you seen say no, we won’t sign the compact?” Kory asked. “Even if they sign, they are signing for the bigger powers, for foreign countries.”

Europe, like the U.S., is a major destination for migration and holds most of the negotiating power in agreements about migration. Unencumbered international travel and work are taken as a given for most of their citizens (whose emigrants are called “expats”), but not for most citizens of the Global South. The E.U. also holds political and economic power over many states in the Global South, to the extent that Southern politicians “accept everything and bend to the injunctions of Europe,” Kory said.

Much has been made of the E.U.’s outsourcing of border control to Africa, which itself could be interpreted as an infringement on state sovereignty. The E.U. has set up “hotspots” in Niger, where asylum-seekers can go to get their claims processed. A Nigerien advocate at the PGA decried these hot spots as detention centers that violate freedom of movement and manipulate Niger’s migration policy, encouraging people from neighboring countries to enter Niger for processing.

On the southern shores of the Mediterranean, where hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees have set off in boats in attempt to reach Europe, the E.U. has funded states to limit migrants’ movements with sometimes appalling unintended consequences. The E.U.’s funding of Libya’s coast guard to turn back migrant boats factored into the enslavement of migrants there. The E.U. has provided $275 million to Morocco to build a more inclusive economic strategy in order to stem emigration and $160 million to beef up border security.

When asked about Morocco’s border enforcement and sometimes violent displacement of migrants away from the northern border, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita asserted the kingdom’s agency: “Morocco does not do this as someone’s policeman. What we are doing, we are not doing it for Europe. We are doing it as a responsible country that cannot allow that its territory to be used by anyone for illegal migration or human trafficking.”

Migration as Economics, Migration as a Human Right

The North-South imbalance is also apparent in economic framework used to talk about migration in the U.N.’s high-level conversations. By and large, negotiators judged the worth of migrants and their movements chiefly by their economic value. If migrants contribute to the economic development of their host and home countries (they do), migration is desirable. As consultant David Fine said at the U.N. conference, “Migration is good for business.”

At a side event in Marrakech, Pia Oberoi, a U.N. advisor on migration, warned that “[i]f we only talk about migrants in terms of their economic contributions, we run the risk of ‘othering’ them.” In other words, focusing on business sidelines migrants’ humanity and their fundamental right to migrate.

E. Tendayi Achiume, a U.N. special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia, told the U.N. conference, “Human rights need to be mainstreamed. We need to shift from the language of ‘managing’ migration to that of ‘governing.’ Migrants are not a pathology or a commodity to be ‘managed.’”

United Nations Global Compact for Migration Divides Nations, Wields Little Power, but Offers Some Hope

Stefano Scarpetta, of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, speaks at the U.N. conference. (Photo credits: Sebastian Bouknight/Inside Arabia)

Ivoirien delegate Issiaka Konaté also hopes that migration policy will shift “so it is not founded simply on the interests of countries, but in the interest of the human being.” Migrant advocate Jean Ndendahimana told Inside Arabia, “We need to have a common understanding [of] who the GCM is for. I want migrants to be at the center.”

The sidelining of human interest in the compact is partly due to how it was created. Monami Maulik, head of the Global Coalition on Migration (not to be confused with the Global Compact on Migration), said that the negotiation process for the GCM was “insular” and largely excluded voices of migrants themselves. When they were heard, they had little power.

Tendayi Achiume said that meaningful participation goes beyond mere consultation.” For their rights to be truly respected, migrants need to be active partners in creating the frameworks that govern them, she explained.

Facing the Unknown

The GCM comes at pivotal moment. The world’s population is mushrooming rapidly, political isolationism and xenophobia are spreading, and climate change is threatening to capsize institutions and displace hundreds of millions of people. According to the U.N., 260 million people live outside their country of birth and millions more will be on the move in decades to come.

The chaos of conversation around the compact is what a staggeringly globalized world with an inscrutable future looks like when it tries to confront its reality. Can global powers agree on how even to understand this new, wildly uncertain world, let alone how to govern the movements of its people?

In some ways, this compact, with its acknowledgment of the Gordian interconnectedness of the world’s problems, attempts to outline a way forward. Governing migration is not just a matter of quotas and border security. Countries must respond to the drivers of migration political and economic instability, persecution, climate change, personal ambitions.

Seventy years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, outlining fundamental rights deserved by every human being. Article 13 declares that everyone has the “right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state . . . [and] the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Some speakers in Marrakech drove home the point that, if countries actually complied with their obligations under the Universal Declaration, and particularly this one article, the GCM would be redundant. But the many U.N. human rights and migration agreements adopted since 1948 suggest their relative impotence against political aims.

Sangaré, Minister of Malians Abroad, told Inside Arabia: “Each country will continue to manage its borders as it sees fit, but the compact factors in as a moral reminder that we have made international commitments that we should honor. It says that no country can isolate itself from the concerns of the world.”