The Global Compact on Migration is Now Being Negotiated. Here are Three Sticking Points

February 20, 2018

UN Member States are gathering today in New York at the United Nations Headquarters for the first round of negotiations on the Global Compact on Migration zero draft. It is a once-a-generation chance to shape migration cooperatively, for mutual benefit. Global migration governance is, in its current form, unprepared and insufficient to manage future flows.

The negotiations on the first draft of the Global Compact are therefore critical—especially considering the very brief window of opportunity between the end of this month and the start of summer this year, when the negotiations period is expected to close. The drafting process has cast a wide net. The “zero draft” of the Compact includes the multitude of commitments, ideas, and issue areas heard from Member States and other stakeholders throughout the months-long consultation phase last year. But with all suggestions in this one kitchen sink—and a very technical one at that—the side effect is that many could find something to object to in the current document.

I’ve been at some of the key meetings in this process. Some of the presentations and conversations I’ve heard point to a handful of potential sticking points in the negotiations. Some could bite in the short term as the text is negotiated, others in the long term as it is implemented. Here are three.

Conflicting Member State desires on high-skill versus low-skill migration

As Michael Clemens has articulated before, this tension is a crack at the heart of Global Compact negotiations. Richer, developed countries are wary of low-skill immigration, while poorer developing countries are skeptical of high-skill emigration, fearing a “brain drain.” In previous years, this crack has been largely patched over by promoting “circular” or temporary migration, in which low-skill workers are supposed not to stay forever and high-skill workers are supposed not to leave forever. But labor rights-focused organizations have been vocal within the Global Compact process about their objections to circular migration, raising a number of important concerns about migrants’ rights.

An alternative tool to address the same conflicting interests is Michael’s proposal for Global Skill Partnerships. A migrant-destination country supports vocational training for potential migrant workers before they migrate, in the country of origin, bundled with training for non-migrants. Developed countries win out via getting migrants with the skills to integrate and contribute right away, developing countries gain from increased human capital, and migrants have the opportunity to move along lawful channels to pursue better lives for themselves and their families.

New lawful channels—such as that laid out in the Global Skill Partnership example—are necessary given the current and projected demographic and economic pressures. But this discussion introduces a second potential sticking point: Are returns an obligation, and to what extent is the Global Compact going to be some sort of “grand bargain” on greater lawful channels conceded to get greater cooperation on returns?

To what extent are returns an obligation?

I heard several times in Member State remarks at the Stocktaking meeting in Puerto Vallarta that, from the perspective of numerous receiving European states, developing countries have an obligation to accept back their returned nationals. The zero draft of the compact calls on states to “cooperate in facilitating dignified and sustainable return, readmission and reintegration.” While the draft never names the “obligation” of states to take back their failed asylum seekers, the question of returns and the extent to which there is a universal obligation for states to accept back their migrants may become a stumbling block in negotiations. There are indications some Member States are less willing to discuss the potential for new lawful migration channels until the unauthorized migrants within their borders are dealt with—marking a contradiction Michael highlighted previously.

However, as we lay out in a recent policy brief, returns and immigration enforcement do not need to be undertaken independent from and before creating new lawful channels. Rather, past experience indicates creating new lawful channels, when coupled with enhanced enforcement, can displace and suppress unauthorized migrant flows—effectively achieving the aims of developed countries to reduce irregular migration, while providing a viable and lawful alternative migration path. In the example of the Bracero program, the reduction in unauthorized immigration happened during a time when legal pathways were expanded and immigration enforcement was enhanced (albeit in ways that were controversial), which required partnership with the Mexican government and willingness to cooperate, including on issues of deportations. More research on the nexus between irregular migration, regular pathways, and enforcement is needed, but this one example could prove a starting point for productive considerations.

More broadly, the question of returns introduces what could be a third sticking point related to mixed flows—something that doesn’t necessarily seem like a sticking point significant enough to stall negotiations in the weeks to come, but could prove a point of conflict down the road, including during implementation.

Who are the people within mixed flows, and how is mixed migration governed?

The de facto answer thus far has been to split the global compacts into two—one for migration, and a separate one for refugees—and proceed as if there is a bright line distinguishing forced displacement from non-forced migration. But migration flows are often “mixed,” with migrants seeking both security and opportunity. The Zero Draft of the Compact mentions mixed flows several times, with calls for protection and addressing vulnerabilities. But sticking points around mixed flows are likely to arise at some point unless Member States seriously tackle the question of what constitutes mixed flows and what governance mechanisms are needed.

Central America’s Northern Triangle is one illustration: recent CGD research shows the unaccompanied child migrants (UACs) have been fleeing a complex mix of economic factors and generalized violence. However, most are not considered refugees, as generalized violence is not covered under the 1951 Convention. Central American and other countries have previously pushed for greater attention and effort to address the child migrant crisis stemming from the region. The more likely substantial stalling could come in implementation versus negotiations. On the broader scale, Central American UACs are an example in part of a population that falls into the “migration” category and that is made up of people who are therefore missing the likely necessary protections afforded to refugees.

Calls for more and better data and research on the “root causes” of migration, as increasingly heeded, will reveal even more nuances in driving factors of mixed flows that fall well outside a simplified category of “economic migrant.” Unaddressed questions of mixed migration could eventually blur the dividing line enough that implementation of the Global Compact is hindered.

The window of opportunity to address these and other potential sticking points is a narrow one. Countries are set to meet in Morocco next December to formally agree on the final Global Compact on Migration, and the de-facto final text will be agreed to well before that. Overcoming these conflicts won’t be easy. But the alternatives—a bootless Compact or pure unilateralism—cannot rise to this historic challenge.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: Social media image by Jean-Marc Ferré/UN Geneva