Migration Policy: No Deal with the Devil

Why a global migration policy without Trump is better.

Image: Crossing the harbor of Ryan Vaarsi licensed under CC BY 2.0

After first pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement and UNESCO, withdrawing from international migration policy was the next step. The US government has announced its decision to pull out of the negotiations of the Global Compact for Migration. A global approach is not compatible with US sovereignty, said UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Only one year ago, US president Obama was an enthusiastic supporter of the 2016 New York Declaration which paved the way for two international compacts – the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration. The latter was intended to codify principles, obligations and agreements in order to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration – in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. One year later, the new US government under President Donald Trump withdrew from this process. What happened?

Trump's withdrawal was to be expected

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Trump would boycott the initiative for a Global Compact for Migration. This decision is in line with his confrontational stance towards the United Nations (UN) and his harsh and racist isolationist policies, true to the motto: Not multilateralism but “My Country First!”. Hardline anti-immigration advocates in Trump's circle of advisors were able to prevail against (so far) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley. Both were against terminating the cooperation at such an early stage, if only for strategic reasons. At this point, not even a draft of the Compact for Migration is on the table. Through their boycott, the US is missing its opportunity to shape future refugee and migration policy.

Dismissing another Obama Project

Trump's boycott is not based on rational negotiation logic but rather has its roots in his disdain towards his predecessor's policies. When, in September 2016, 193 UN nations agreed on the two compacts, Obama used this opportunity to present himself as the leader of the international community for a last time. The Trumpian withdrawal is therefore a symbolic act against his predecessor. As a consequence, in its migration policy as well, US foreign policy once again reveals itself to be without strategy or direction.

Why Now?

Until recently “The Eye of Sauron” – as a European diplomat called Trump behind closed doors –had not been focussed on the Compact for Migration, as there were many other crises to deal with. But in early December 2017, over 130 states met in Mexico in order to begin a new phase in the development of the Global Compact for Migration. Only two days before the meeting, US ambassador Nikki Haley informed the UN General Secretary that the US delegation would not be coming to this meeting. However, the US had not attracted overly much attention at the prior public consultations. At these preparatory events, not only states participated, but also thousands of representatives from science, private sector, union and civil society backgrounds, local and international NGO's, as well as migrants and refugees themselves. It seems that the US delegation did not have clear instructions from Washington.

However, the consultation period has now ended. The next step involves taking stock and deciding what will and will not be included in the Compact for Migration. The actual negotiations between the states will begin in February 2018 and are supposed to be finished by July 2018. In December 2018, at the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Marrakesh, the Compact will be solemnly initiated and plans of action will be announced.

Does a Compact for Migration without the US make Sense?

Naturally, Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric and the US withdrawal from the talks are putting a strain on the relations between the US and the UN. The US is the immigration country number one, even before Germany. Around 17 percent of the workforce in the US are immigrants. In addition, the US has traditionally held a prominent position in international refugee protection and for instance runs the largest UNHCR resettlement program. But according to Trump, that is now history.

However, the US withdrawal from the Compact for Migration might have positive effects as well. For a long time, the concrete consequences of Trump's foreign policy for refugee protection and both Compacts remained unclear. Many suspected that the US would wake up right at the beginning of the negotiations and attempt to torpedo them. This early withdrawal, before the actual negotiations even started, could therefore be a chance for constructive talks and reliable agreements. Just with the Paris Climate Agreement, there is no need to despair. On the contrary: Without the US, there is hope that a solid foundation for a global migration policy can be built.

The US is, however, still planning to be involved in the development of the Global Compact on Refugees. While positive in principle, this could potentially lead to problems further down the road.

Disciplinary Effect instead of Domino Effect?

Just like when the US left the Paris Climate Agreement, defiance followed after the first shock. The work on the Compact will continue without the US – so the message from the Mexico meeting. The US withdrawal could even have a disciplinary effect on states and compel them to seize the historical moment at which for the first time a global framework for migration could be created. In addition, pressure from nongovernmental players like the private sector, unions and NGOs is rising. Cities as well are forming global alliances that are often diametrically opposed to national governments' policies. Very few of these diverse actors want to see the Compact for Migration fail.

In a process without the US, a number of observers are ascribing a leadership role to Germany. The German government is still aiming at a Compact that not only creates a clear framework for safe, orderly and regular migration but also contains a plan of action for its implementation, including instruments and mechanisms. Whether Germany can assume a leadership role without a new government remains to be seen.

Further, there is a risk that some states will stall the implementation of the Compact after it is adopted. After all, the Compact for Migration will not be a binding treaty under international law, but will only contain political commitments. This means that its implementation will largely depend on political will. In particular, it remains to be seen how the Latin American states will react to the US boycott, as for them, a global framework without the US makes little sense.

We are just at the Beginning of a Global Migration Policy

After the US pulled out, President of the UN General Assembly Miroslav Lajcak stressed that no single nation can regulate migratory movements on its own. In view of this realization, a global migration policy including UN structures, principles and rules is currently being formed. To completely evade this development will be difficult, as the UN Sustainability Goals too demand that states facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility – in accordance with already existing international law standards and conventions. The Compact for Migration will merely provide a framework in which coalitions from states of origin, transit and destination together with nongovernmental players can push-start concrete projects.

For the moment, the world of migration policy will forge ahead without Trump – and maybe, it's better this way.


Contact: Felix Braunsdorf, Migration and Development


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