Will a Global Compact on Migration Lead to Lasting Change?

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By now, the images are familiar: dozens—sometimes hundreds—of people crowded into unseaworthy boats, refugee camps the size of small cities, a child’s dead body washed up on the shore. The very presence of these migrants at the borders of powerful states forces governments to confront immediate and pressing protection concerns, and migrants to bear the worst in racist and xenophobic rhetoric, policies, and violence.

On September 19, heads of state from across the world will gather at the United Nations for an unprecedented high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants. It will be followed by a leaders’ summit on refugees hosted by President Obama, where calls should be made for global commitments on increased funding and more welcoming policies. Out of the UN summit will emerge a political declaration and plans to develop a comprehensive refugee response framework and a global compact on migration over the next two years.

The UN will also commit to initiating a global campaign against racism and xenophobia—part of an effort to demonstrate collective action in response to what the UN calls “mixed flows,” or people displaced due to economic, political, or environmental upheaval, many of whom fall outside the legal definition of refugee. These efforts are intended to result in “safe, orderly, and regular migration” for all. President Obama’s summit is expected to see calls for global commitments on increased humanitarian funding and more welcoming policies for refugees.

Will it work? The Global Coalition on Migration and our civil society partners have been monitoring shifts in the global governance of migration for many years. Time and again, we see “crises” arise, followed by calls for collective action. In process after process, states pretend that they are responding, but what we see in reality is the repetition of the same vague commitments they have made for years—to respect the human rights of all migrants regardless of status—without moving in the direction of actually doing so. Is the UN’s global compact process shaping up to be any different? So far, the signs aren’t good.

For one, migration is characterized primarily as a national security and enforcement concern. Despite the welcome and necessary commitments of states to combat racism and xenophobia, deterrence continues to be the cornerstone of migration policy, rendering migrants vulnerable to human rights violations, racism, and xenophobia at all stages of the migration process. Migrants continually struggle to have their voices heard in this context.

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