Migration compact backlash shows that myths are now more powerful than fact

By issuing a set of non-binding guidelines for member nations, the UN has unwittingly boosted populist narratives of threats to borders and sovereignty

TOPSHOT - Demonstrators clash with Belgian riot police during a march in Brussels on December 16, 2018 called by the right-wing Flemish party Vlaams Belang and a dozen of organisations against the UN Marrakech global compact on migration, signed last week by the Belgian Prime Minister.  Brussels' Mayor forbade the venue of this march but State council ruled against that decision and the march was authorized. A counter march of Solidarity is also planned.   - Belgium OUT

At a time of mass migration flows, on a scale unseen in recent memory, the need for a universal set of principles to tackle the phenomenon is fairly obvious. In adopting just such a global approach, the UN is fulfilling its basic mandate of leadership around commonly held standards.

The adoption of an international deal earlier this month has however proven to be a tripwire within international politics, triggering a backlash that is only growing, especially in Europe.

The United Nations Global Compact on Regular, Safe and Orderly Migration was sealed at an international summit in Marrakech, Morocco. As the clumsy wording of the title suggests, the compact is the product of a consultative process that prioritised agreement over division.

The path leading up to its adoption was fraught. The roll-out could prove to be rockier still.

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has had to speak out against an onslaught of false reporting surrounding the pact.

The key issue spotlighted by its critics is that the pact undermines national sovereignty, when it comes to basic issues of who is allowed to enter and live in modern states.

Mr Guterres has often stressed that the compact is non-binding. This means countries do not have to adopt its wording in national law.

The agreement is a framework for global co-operation. It is not a treaty and does not impose conditions on the member states. "The compact is a non-legally binding agreement that reaffirms the foundational principles of our global community, including national sovereignty and universal human rights, while pointing the way toward humane and sensible action to benefit countries of origin, transit and destination as well as migrants themselves," Mr Guterres explained at the launch.

The compact’s 23 provisions amount to a framework to “facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration, while reducing the incidence and negative impact of irregular migration". Its overarching goals are “to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities migrants face at different stages of migration by respecting, protecting and fulfilling their human rights and providing them with care and assistance”.

At a vote in the UN General Assembly last week, only five countries voted against it. One of those countries was the US, which withdrew from negotiations in 2017 and continues to lobby against it. A total of 15 countries have refused to sign up, including Poland, Israel and Australia.

Contrast the perspective driving Mr Guterres with Mr Trump’s views, which the US president set out in a speech on Thursday. “Every nation has not only the right, but the absolute duty, to protect its borders and its citizens.  A nation without borders is a nation not at all.  Without borders, we have the reign of chaos,” he said.

The fear surrounding the compact is that prospective claimants will use its status in international law to argue superiority over domestic provisions. This to sovereigntists would mark a huge expansion in the scope of global international law.

One of the dissenting countries is Hungary. Its representatives have called the agreement “unbalanced, biased and extremely pro-migration”, and have warned that it raises migration to the level of a human right.

The critics see a worldview behind the compact that migration is not only a right but a good thing. There is plenty of statistical evidence that new arrivals are more economically dynamic and, overall, deliver positive social change across the world. The history of the United States attests to these facts, for example.

The countervailing basis of the backlash is that change is happening too fast as the volume of migration rises. Not only are there an estimated 250 million migrants around the world but more than 66 million are classified as displaced.

The power of migration to upend traditional left-right political systems has been the story of the decade.

In Europe it was one of the prime drivers of the United Kingdom’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. Mr Trump’s call to build the wall along the Mexican border helped garner votes that lifted him to the White House.

This positions the compact at the heart of the greatest minefield in international politics.

The Belgian government lost its parliamentary majority in a coalition row over joining the agreement. In Germany, the hard right has used the compact as its main talking point. As France witnesses the sixth weekend of the yellow vest protests, a look at the social media organising pages shows the migration pact features heavily among ongoing grievances.

Myths about the implications of the pact can prove more powerful than its provisions. Far-right groups see it as a handy symbol for conspiracy theories. As Mr Trump also said last week, no one voted for the financial and social burdens that he believes have stemmed from a policy to allow illegal immigration into the US.

Now, ironically, the powerful narratives that drive this sort of regressive politics have gained a boost from a set of guidelines that the UN issued as an international good.