In late 2015, as Europe grappled with a migration crisis of a scale not seen since the Second World War, the United Nations decided to convene a meeting to address how member nations can respond.
A year later, 193 member countries signed on to the New York Declaration, which called for the adoption of a migration pact by the end of 2018.
As a result, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was born. A draft of the pact was agreed upon by UN members — except for the United States — in July.
On Dec. 10 and 11, United Nations members will gather in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh to formally adopt the pact.
Canada is expected to sign on, but several countries have expressed reservations.
Here’s a look at the UN’s unprecedented international migrant pact, its objectives and arguments for and against adopting it:
What are the pact’s objectives?
The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration purports to set out “a common understanding, shared responsibilities and unity of purpose regarding migration.”
It claims to be rooted in a shared understanding that better international cooperation is needed to handle migration in a way that’s fair to states, but protects the human rights of migrants and refugees.
To that end, the pact proposes a “360-degree vision of migration” that recognizes that better cooperation is needed to facilitate safe and orderly migration.
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That “vision” is laid out in the form of 23 objectives.
Some of the objectives have to do with streamlining international migration protocols by way of offering clear information on immigration law and application processes to the public, guaranteeing legal identity and documentation to all migrants, improving “certainty and predictability” in screening processes and sharing data to encourage evidence-based migration policies.
Others cover issues of human rights, and call for the international community to combat trafficking and smuggling, reduce the reliance on immigration detention centres, stray away from discriminatory migration policies and take measures to protect refugees returning to their home countries from unlawful imprisonment, torture and abuse.
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There are also objectives that have to do with minimizing the factors that cause people to want to flee their countries in the first place, such as poverty, lack of food security, inadequate educational and job opportunities, climate change and gender discrimination.
Which countries are opposed to the pact?
The United States was the first country to openly oppose the pact, and the only one to not sign on to the initial agreement over the pact in July.
In late November, the Australian government said it, too, will not sign up to the pact, despite playing a key role in drafting it. Australia says it’s concerned signing onto the pact will undermine its policies to deter asylum seekers, which include maintaining offshore detention facilities and turning away boats arriving by sea.
Several former Eastern Bloc states have also renounced the UN agreement. These include Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia.
Italy’s right-wing interior minister Matteo Salvini has stated his opposition to the pact, throwing Rome’s support into doubt.
Austria has said that it will not sign up; Belgium’s prime minister has said he will support the pact, but his right-wing coalition partner has opposed it and threatened to withdraw his support for the government if it signs on.
The Dutch government hasn’t said that it won’t sign, but a recent opinion poll in the Netherlands showed that 41 per cent of people opposed signing on, compared to 34 per cent in favour.
Will Canada be a signatory to the pact?
Canada played an active role in driving the agreement forward, and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Monday that Canada will sign on, despite Conservatives’ concerns.
On Tuesday, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer rose in the House of Commons and stated that signing on would mean that “foreign entities” would be able to dictate Canadian immigration policies.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded by saying that his government would continue to stand up for immigration and support diversity.
“Welcoming people through a rigorous immigration system from around the world is what has made Canada strong, and indeed something the world needs more of, not less of like they want to bring in,” Trudeau said, pointing a finger at Scheer.
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Scheer said he was especially opposed to Objective 17 of the agreement, which states that countries should “promote independent, objective and quality reporting of media outlets… including by sensitizing and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology.”
However, the pact also says signatories must commit to protecting free speech, “recognizing that an open and free debate contributes to a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of migration.”
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The Trudeau government has been flooded with letters from Canadians asking that a national debate be held on the matter before the agreement is signed.
The letters, an example of which was provided to The Canadian Press, claim the UN agreement is attempting to eliminate criticism of the accommodation of migrants and would effectively “label those who complain as racists or haters, thus stifling any freedom of discussion.”
Is it legally binding?
No — the pact sets out a “non-legally binding, cooperative framework,” meaning it’s more of a declaration rather than a legally binding treaty.
Indeed, the pact’s preamble states explicitly that it “reaffirms the sovereign right of states to determine their national migration policy,” meaning governments will not sign away their rights to design their migration policies by signing onto the pact — contrary to Scheer’s criticisms.
Indeed, Scheer’s characterization of the pact’s legal authority was dismissed as “factually incorrect” by a former Conservative immigration minister.
Chris Alexander, who served as immigration minister under Stephen Harper, tweeted that the pact “is a political declaration, not a legally binding treaty.”
Anne Peters, director of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Germany, points out that the text of the agreement “does not contain short and clear obligations,” and is more akin to the 2000 Millennium Declaration in terms of legal obligation than it is to, say, the Paris climate change pact.
Writing for the European Journal of International Law’s blog, Peters described the text of the pact as “soft law,” meaning that it is not legally binding.
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However, it’s not completely legally irrelevant either. The pact is worded in a way so as to encourage domestic courts and authorities to consider it over the course of their interpretations of the law.
Immigration agencies could also draw on the pact in making discretionary decisions.
“So overall, signing the migration compact will not be irrelevant in legal terms,” Peters concluded.
What do supporters of the pact say?
Louise Arbour, the UN special representative for international migration, has argued that signing on to the pact will equip countries to better reap the economic benefits of migration.
“There are many, many countries in the world today that will need to import a part of their workforce,” Arbour said last week. “The demographics are suggesting that if they want to maintain their current economic standards or even grow their economy, they’re going to have to receive well-trained foreigners to meet the labour market demands in their countries.”
She also criticized countries who pulled out or are threatening to pull out of the deal, saying that reneging on the pact “reflects very poorly” on them and goes against the spirit of multi-lateralism.
The European Commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulous, has said that adopting the pact would send a “clear signal” to African countries that European states are willing to cooperate them to address the migration challenge.
“It is in the interest of Europe, all the member states and of all countries directly or indirectly involved in migration,” Avramopoulous said on Tuesday.
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The World Economic Forum (WEF) has argued that the pact will benefit all countries.
In August, the WEF published an article by Anne Gallagher, president of the International Catholic Migration Commission, in which she argued that wealthy countries who don’t sign on to the pact will effectively be shooting themselves in the foot.
Gallagher wrote that it was in the best interests of countries to sign on to a pact that places a heavy focus on fighting migrant smuggling and human trafficking.
“Failing to cooperate on these urgent issues effectively means giving up: abandoning hope of any long-term, sustainable solution to irregular, exploitative migration,” she wrote. “This would be a universal disaster, but with a particularly vicious impact on wealthy countries of destination.”
Gallagher also dismissed concerns that the pact would undermine the sovereignty of signatories, stating that countries agreed from the get-go that the pact would not impose legal obligations.
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that the pact does not create a “right to migration” as some critics charge, and indeed doesn’t create any new rights for migrants at all, seeking only to strengthen and protect existing rights.
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The International Federation of the Red Cross said the pact has promise in fixing an existing approach to migration that isn’t working.
“Too many people are dying every day. Too many people are suffering. And too many people are being exploited by traffickers and smugglers who are all too happy to capitalize on the lack of an effective and humane global approach to migration,” the IFRC said.
“We urge all governments to come together, to sign this agreement and, more importantly, to work with us to turn its ambitions into policies and laws that make a difference on the ground.”
— With files from Reuters and the Canadian Press