It’s time to calm down about the UN Global Compact for Migration

By . Published on Ipolitics Dec 10, 2018 10:34am

‘Some countries under pressure from anti-immigrant and anti-refugee groups are choosing not to endorse the agreement. How disheartening to hear similar sentiments in Canada.’

The UN headquarters in New York. (Neptuul/Wikimedia Commons photo)

People move — for work, for love, for safety. Human migration is a natural phenomenon, whether from the U.K. to Switzerland, the Philippines to Canada, or Flin Flon to Winnipeg. Today, in an increasingly interconnected world, there are more people on the move than ever. According to the United Nations, some 258 million people live outside the country of their birth. This accounts for just over three per cent of the world’s population, a number larger than ever and certain to rise.

Migration is not only driven by the needs of individuals; it’s very often in the interests of states. Countries like Canada need more people for economic growth.

But in a world where thousands of migrants die trying to cross the Mediterranean, and thousands more, including children, are threatened with military action by the U.S. president, clearly, we need to do much better, both at managing migration and protecting the rights of those who migrate.

Today (the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), after three years of negotiations, representatives of over 100 governments endorsed the UN Global Compact for Migration, and adopted guiding principles to inform the way in which the world deals with migration.

Here’s the thing: The Global Compact is not legally binding. It is not a treaty.

It is a declaration of principles to guide how nation states tackle challenges arising from human migration. It touches on all aspects of migration, such as remittances, human trafficking, and preparing for displacement caused by climate change. Its aim is to safeguard human rights and help states manage borders effectively through international co-operation while respecting sovereignty. States remain free to manage their own immigration policies.

Unfortunately, political leaders are calling on Canada to back out, and misinformed pundits are dogwhistling to xenophobes, declaring this the possible end of the Canadian identity. This past weekend, emboldened by these messages, far-right protestors, many from known hate groups, convened on Parliament Hill with anti-migrant messages. There was similar backlash in other countries. In the Canadian context, these reactions come at a time when more people are crossing into Canada from the United States seeking safety, the result of heightened bigotry fomented by the U.S. president’s assault on the rights of refugees and migrants.

Many of those turning to Canada are people who may otherwise qualify for refugee protection, but, because of restrictive U.S. asylum laws, can’t successfully receive it there. They can’t cross at official border crossings because of the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires them to seek protection in the U.S. So they traverse the border at irregular points to seek protection in Canada. This is dangerous for the migrants seeking safety, and makes it difficult for Canada to manage the border.

Endorsing the compact will push Canada, even if it won’t require it, to reconsider border policies that force refugee claimants to take irregular and dangerous routes into the country.

So why are the voices that decry what they see as “chaos” and “mismanagement” at the border also the ones opposing Canada’s endorsement of a non-binding set of principles for safe and orderly migration?

We live in challenging times for human rights, with rising xenophobia and racism across the globe. Some countries under pressure from anti-immigrant and anti-refugee groups are choosing not to endorse the agreement. How disheartening to hear similar sentiments in Canada.

This is an opportunity for Canada to show leadership in the vital global effort to protect the rights and dignity of those on the move, seeking to lead better lives. International guidelines on how to manage human mobility are precisely what we need as a first step in acknowledging that migration is a global challenge too big for any one nation to tackle on its own.

Instead, let us heed the words of Louise Arbour, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and current UN Special Representative for International Migration: “Chaotic migration is bad for everybody. It’s bad for migrants, who often die, and it’s bad for governments. But safe, well-managed migration is good for everyone.”

Alex Neve is Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada. Aditya Rao is the 2018-19 Public Interest Articling Fellow at Amnesty International Canada.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.