The worrying faults of the UN migration compact

Countries are due to sign a United Nations (UN) compact for migration next week. However, its global, one-size-fits-all approach is dangerous. It risks many unintended consequences, including mass migration for welfare benefits.

Pakistani and Afghan migrants line up at the Croatian border with Bosnia and Herzegovina
Pakistani and Afghan migrants line up at the Bosnia-Croatia border. Are they headed for Western Europe to work hard or live off generous welfare systems? © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The UN compact on migration will lead to centralization and welfare immigration
  • Regional solutions are needed to deal with the world’s various migration crises
  • Despite the agreement’s faults, most European countries are likely to sign

Next week in Morocco, countries are due to sign a United Nations compact on migration. The United States, Australia, Switzerland, some Central European countries and others have already said they will not attend the meeting. A major political debate is taking place in Germany, especially among the Christian Democrats, with Chancellor Angela Merkel a strong supporter of the agreement and a large group opposing it. Although the pact is described as “not legally binding,” it is likely to create certain obligations. Considering the potential consequences – intended or unintended – concerns are justified and refusing to sign makes sense. All of these states are already signatories of the Geneva convention on refugees and willingly accept people who are politically oppressed.

Receiving refugees is a noble task and Christian duty. These are people who have been persecuted for political reasons or fully deprived of freedom in their home countries, as was the case of refugees from former communist countries or Nazi Germany. There is no shortage of repressive regimes today. However, the task of receiving refugees should mainly fall on countries that are nearby or culturally similar. A good example is South Korea, which shelters refugees from North Korea.

I very clearly remember the refugees from Hungary who escaped to the West when I was a child. In 1956, the Hungarians bravely rose up against communist oppression. Their revolt was brutally crushed by Soviet tanks. Thousands of Hungarians had to flee to avoid incarceration or the firing squad.

The task of receiving refugees should mainly fall on countries that are nearby or culturally similar.

As soon as they arrived, these refugees set to work and began trying to adapt. They were grateful for everything they received and did not expect anything to be handed to them. They were very quickly integrated and welcomed in Western Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Today’s migration situation, however, is different.

Refugees and migrants

Refugees are people escaping political oppression or war. They should be taken in; the crucial question is by which countries. Pragmatism is needed here, not principalist approaches.

Neighboring countries or those with similar cultures would be the first choice. In the case of Syria, we saw that Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon were very welcoming, but ran up against the limits of their capacity to accept refugees. Western European countries attempted to use Turkey as a wall, while declaring a culture of welcome. They tried to allocate people – both migrants and refugees – to countries who disagreed with the system and felt the European Union was twisting their arms.

A pragmatic, refugee-friendly approach was proposed by Poland, which said it would accommodate Christian refugees (Christians make up more than 11 percent of Syria’s population), while predominantly Muslim countries should shelter the Muslim ones. The EU, however, refused such a system for reasons of secularism and blind adherence to ideology.

Migrants are people who leave their countries in search of a better future, but who are not persecuted or heavily discriminated against for political or religious reasons.

Respect for human rights demands that people have the freedom to emigrate if they so choose. But immigration ought to be subject to the rules and restrictions set by various countries.

There are two types of migrants. There are those who are ready to work to achieve their goals but see no opportunities at home. They are happy to adapt to new circumstances and contribute to the receiving country’s economy and society. Each receiving country must have the freedom to decide how much of this type of immigration it will accept.

The other type consists of migrants who feel entitled to a better life based on their host country’s welfare system.

In principle, migrants are expected to respect the laws, culture and values of the receiving society. They should intend to contribute. Migration based on the idea that countries are obligated to receive people, which is unfortunately becoming more prevalent worldwide, understandably creates negative reactions. Combining the welfare state with a heavy immigration is therefore problematic.

Respect for human rights demands that people have the freedom to emigrate if they so choose. But following the principle of self-determination of societies, immigration ought to be subject to the rules and restrictions set by various countries.


Facts & figures

The objectives of the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration

1. Collect and utilize accurate and disaggregated data as a basis for evidence-based policies
2. Minimize the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin
3. Provide accurate and timely information at all stages of migration
4. Ensure that all migrants have proof of legal identity and adequate documentation
5. Enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration
6. Facilitate fair and ethical recruitment and safeguard conditions that ensure decent work
7. Address and reduce vulnerabilities in migration
8. Save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants
9. Strengthen the transnational response to smuggling of migrants
10. Prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons in the context of international migration
11. Manage borders in an integrated, secure and coordinated manner
12. Strengthen certainty and predictability in migration procedures for appropriate screening, assessment and referral
13. Use migration detention only as a measure of last resort and work towards alternatives
14. Enhance consular protection, assistance and cooperation throughout the migration cycle
15. Provide access to basic services for migrants
16. Empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion
17. Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration
18. Invest in skills development and facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications and competences
19. Create conditions for migrants and diasporas to fully contribute to sustainable development in all countries
20. Promote faster, safer and cheaper transfer of remittances and foster financial inclusion of migrants
21. Cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as sustainable reintegration
22. Establish mechanisms for the portability of social security entitlements and earned benefits
23. Strengthen international cooperation and global partnerships for safe, orderly and regular migration

Regional approaches needed

Migration is a delicate issue, and there are no general standards to apply. The one-size-fits-all approach does not work in human societies, though it has frequently been tried. All these attempts lead – as we saw in the communist world – to totalitarian systems.

The UN has this to say about its new project: “The global compact for migration is the first, intergovernmentally negotiated agreement, prepared under the auspices of the United Nations, to cover all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner.”

The agreement is described as an attempt to make migration safer – a laudable goal. However, it also paints migration in an overly positive light. True, some migration is necessary to enrich knowledge and human exchange, or to bring the right skills to places where they are needed. Mass migration, however, has plenty of negative sides.


Facts & figures

'Arc of instability' on the Sahel

The task of receiving refugees should mainly fall on countries that are nearby or culturally similar
Africa’s Sahel zone suffers from poor governance, the root cause behind the region’s tide of migration. The UN compact will not solve this problem. © macpixxel for GIS

There are problems in many parts of the world, but their causes and structures are very different. Regional solutions have to be found. The UN’s compact, however, includes the ingredients of centralization, which we know is inefficient. And though the pact is ostensibly “nonbinding,” it will likely result in attempts to impose quotas. That will be detrimental to all sides.

The compact’s spirit is revealed in the following passage: “It strives to create conducive conditions that enable all migrants to enrich our societies through their human, economic and social capacities, and thus facilitate their contributions to sustainable development at the local, national, regional and global levels.”

Points 16 and 17 of the compact’s objectives (see box) have been heavily criticized by opponents. They create wide-ranging rights for immigrants and imply they are entitled to welfare. No one is challenging that migrants should not be discriminated against, but the excessive obligation foreseen in these points for the receiving countries, under the pretext of avoiding discrimination, might lead to the opposite result. Both points are likely to encourage “welfare migration.”

The pact’s language is lofty, but instead of solving the problem it will create yet another global bureaucracy. It does not take regional differences into account and violates countries’ right to self-determination.

Potential solutions

One example of modern mass migration is the tide of African migrants to Europe. The main cause is poor governance in some African countries, whose economies have been ruined as a result. Many of these states are actually richer in resources and less densely populated than Europe.

Europe, with its declining population, could use a limited number of immigrants who are ready to work hard to make a life for themselves – just as should be expected of any country’s own citizens. Unfortunately, there is a perception in Africa that Europe is a welfare paradise for citizens and immigrants alike. The UN’s proposed pact would strengthen that misconception.

Mass migration is a symptom of a larger disease. It is tempting, but dangerous, to treat the symptoms without addressing the root cause: the mismanagement of some African countries. Measures like the migration agreement only reduce the pressure on these countries to solve their problems.

Mass migration is a symptom of a larger disease.

In Europe’s case, one remedy might be for countries to implement a policy by which migrants are expected to work and do not have immediate access to welfare. Such a step would require a drastic liberalization of labor laws to allow their employment, but it does not mean, as is frequently claimed, that they would be exploited.

There should be no tolerance for criminal behavior – even some minor infractions should result in immediate expulsion. Such measures would diminish the incentive for many to migrate. There are difficulties in enforcement, as when immigrants lack proper documentation. But such problems are then used as an unconvincing pretext to argue the measures are too impractical to apply.

By imposing a socialist system in Venezuela, a brutal regime brought misery upon a rich country. Millions of its citizens are now seeking shelter in Colombia and Brazil. The leadership has survived. In this situation, the neighboring countries have a responsibility to put pressure on the government in Caracas. Colombia and Brazil could also appeal to the global community for aid, but the main burden for dealing with the problem lies with Venezuela’s neighbors in the region.

When it comes to the terrible situation in Africa’s Sahel zone, direct humanitarian aid is paramount. Here, the UN and other international organizations are doing great work. Local politics, unrest and corruption are limiting the impact, but the new compact would be utterly ineffective in this context.

Polarizing debate

The migration issue is polarizing, and unfortunately, debate on it has become difficult. Often, criticism of open migration is not answered by sound arguments, but instead takes the form of labeling the other side as populist, right-wing and nationalistic.

Most European countries are likely to sign the UN compact, despite its many flaws. Some argue that the pact will bring more order to migration streams, but these arguments lack substance. The compact’s faults are dismissed as unimportant since it is nonbinding anyway. Why then, should European countries bother to sign at all? At best, the document serves to camouflage Europe’s total helplessness when it comes to migration policy.

Migration remains a regional problem. It has to be handled in a humane way. Global approaches are likely to fail and risk unforeseen consequences. Though its intentions are noble, the UN compact is likely to heap another layer of bureaucracy on top of global frameworks. It will create more opportunities to misuse well-meaning systems.

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