Inaccuracies spreading about UN migration pact

18 December 2018

Last week the UK along with 163 other countries adopted something called the “UN Global compact on migration.”

While mainstream press attention has been fairly thin, the compact has evoked a lot of opposition including claims it will make criticism of migration illegal and make migration a human right.

So what is the compact and are the criticisms justified?

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What is the agreement?

The agreement (formally called the ‘Global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration’) is a list of pledges negotiated by UN members that makes a “collective commitment to improving cooperation on international migration.”

The document isn’t legally binding. Associate Professor in international human rights and refugee law at Oxford University, Cathryn Costello, told us: “The GCM is not only not binding legally, it is also drafted to be loose and facultative.

“It sets a broad range of quite general objectives, and for each of these, a range of possible actions that states (and indeed other actors) could pursue, if they so choose, in order to achieve those objectives.”

As the Economist puts it: “It encourages states to co-operate on tricky cross-border matters without forcing them to do anything.”

While it has been negotiated over the past two years by all UN member states except the USA, other members have recently pulled out of signing the agreement.

There was public and political pressure on other countries to not adopt the agreement, including the UK where over 100,000 people have signed a petition to that effect.

Critics say the agreement makes criticism of migration illegal—it doesn’t

Because the agreement isn’t legally binding, it doesn’t force member states to do anything, but some critics have said it sets the precedent for member states to take certain actions.

One objection aired by Dutch MEP Marcel de Graaff is that the agreement sets the precedent for countries to enact law that makes:   “criticism of migration … a criminal offense.”  

This is incorrect. The document asks nations to “commit to eliminate all forms of discrimination…against all migrants.” And any country that took this further and tried to criminalise criticism of migration would likely be breaching human rights legislation. 

Making sure migrants aren’t discriminated against is a very different thing to asking states   to criminalise criticism of migration. The document explicitly says: “We also commit to protect freedom of expression.”

Professor Costello also told us: “Any government that decided to meet the commitment to tackle discrimination and xenophobia by censorship would in likelihood be breaching its international human rights obligations, in particular the right to freedom of expression.”

Mr de Graaff also said the compact means: “media outlets…that give room to criticism of migration can be shut down.”

That’s also not correct. The compact asks signatories to commit to “stopping allocation of public funding or material supports to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants.”

In both these cases the phrasing is crucial. The UN wants signatories to ensure migrants aren’t discriminated against, not to outlaw criticism of migration.

It details measures to stop crimes against people, not criticism of a policy. However it does say signatories should: “Promote independent, objective and quality reporting of media outlets … including by sensitizing and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology, in full respect for the freedom of the media”

The agreement also doesn’t make migration a human right

Another criticism, aired by Nigel Farage on Fox News, is that: “what the UN wants to do is to make migration a human right.

“[It wants] to make illegal immigration legal by defining a refugee as anybody that wants to move between countries.”   

This isn’t what the agreement does, as he seems to be implying here.   The UK government says of the agreement: “It does not establish a ‘human right to migrate’ or create any new legal categories of migrant.”

A refugee is someone who has left their home country because they were persecuted or feared persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or being part of a particular social group or political opinion.

This definition was agreed by UN members including the UK in 1951 and also sets out rights for refugees that go above and beyond other human rights. For example signatories of the Refugee Convention commit not to return refugees to their country of origin.

But it’s incorrect to suggest that right or any similar rights are being extended to all migrants.

The agreement says: “Refugees and migrants are entitled to the same universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, which must be respected, protected and fulfilled at all times.

“However, migrants and refugees are distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks. Only refugees are entitled to the specific international protection as defined by international refugee law.

“This Global Compact refers to migrants and presents a cooperative framework addressing migration in all its dimensions.”

The UK government has said the compact “will not affect our ability to determine and implement our own migration policies, including in areas such as asylum, border controls and returns of illegal migrants.”

Professor Costello told us: “Whether migration is legal or illegal is mainly a question of national law.

Throughout the compact there is a reassertion of states' control over migration. It aims to ensure that if migration does happen, it is legal and safe and orderly.” 

Update 20 December 2018


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