Explainer: What is the UN Global Migration Compact that New Zealand could join?

In four days, the way countries across the globe consider international migration may change; the result of the first major intergovernmental agreement on all aspects of international migration to be adopted by United Nations (UN) Member States.

Whether New Zealand will be among them is yet to be decided by the Coalition Government - but if it is adopted by Aotearoa, the National Party has declared if they win back power in 2020, they will pull us out of it.

Similar to the views of many countries, National believes adopting the Compact would be a danger to New Zealand's ability to set it's own domestic immigration policy.

The Green Party, on the other hand, think signing up is paramount to being a responsible international partner and looking out for the rights of migrants.

So what is the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and are the concerns of the Opposition warranted?

Origins of the Compact

Development towards the Compact began in September 2016, when all 193 United Nations Member States unanimously supported the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

As nations, particularly in Europe, struggled to manage the flow of migrants leaving parts of war-torn northern Africa and the Middle East, the Declaration proposed strengthening international cooperation in dealing with refugees and the effects of migration.

That included committing to cementing the human rights of migrants, combating xenophobia, racism and discrimination, and developing capacities for communities to host new-comers.

World leaders came together in September 2016 to adopt the New York Declaration.
World leaders came together in September 2016 to adopt the New York Declaration. Photo credit: Getty

The Compact was the result of such commitments, and in April 2017, stewarded by representatives from Mexico and Switzerland, the formal process towards it began, with New Zealand taking place in negotiations at the start of 2018.

Guided by the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a commitment to eradicating poverty worldwide, the Compact was drafted to address all aspects of international migration through an open and inclusive negotiation process.

Core to the UN's vision was the view that migration was integral to human experience throughout history, a source of "prosperity, innovation and sustainable development in our globalised world".

The finalised draft - decided by Member States in July, and celebrated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as a "significant achievement" - states that "it is crucial that the challenges and opportunities of international migration united us, rather than divide us".

"[The Compact reflects] the shared understanding by Governments that cross-border migration is, by its very nature, an international phenomenon and that effective management of this global reality requires international cooperation to enhance its positive impact for all," said Mr Guterres.

What's in the Compact?

The agreement creates a set of "non-legally binding" conditions for nations which adopt it, aiming to "enable all migrants to enrich our societies through their human, economic and social capacities".

While emphasising the need for international cooperation, the Compact also explicitly recognises the sovereignty of individual nations. 

"It fosters international cooperation among all relevant actions on migration, acknowledging that no State can address migration alone, and upholds the sovereignty of States and their obligations under international law," the Compact states.

This is done through 23 specific objectives laid out in the 34 page document:

  1. Collect and utilise accurate and disaggregated data as a basis for evidence-based policies
  2. Minimise 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 realise 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

There are several key themes found throughout the document's objectives, with one significant point being that countries should balance minimising adverse factors that drive people out of their countries with facilitating flexible pathways for regular migration.

Under the second objective, Member States are encouraged to help people before they leave their home countries by investing in programmes that eradicate poverty, ensure food security, progress health and education sectors and grow economies.

Developing strategies to support people following natural disasters and the effects of climate changes are also necessary.

If adverse effects cannot be mitigated, flexible and regular migration pathways should be ensured through international and bilateral arrangements, such as free movement regimes or visa liberalisation.

This would be done in consultation with businesses and trade unions to identify gaps in the labour market and what skills are needed in each country which could be filled by migrants. Organising academic exchanges and international scholarships for students would also be encouraged.

Difficulties and vulnerabilities that migrants may face have also been addressed, such as commitments to advancing child protection systems, gender-responsive migration policies, advancing local aid, and strengthening capacities to deal with migrant smuggling.

Despite the focus on migration pathways and concerns from nations about the potential for the Compact to ignore domestic migration policies, the agreement still stresses the need for "integrated, secure and coordinated" borders that ensure security for nations and prevent "irregular migration".

"We further commit to implement border management policies that respect national sovereignty, the rule of law, [and] obligations under international law."

Effective border management would be ensured through comprehensive pre-screening of migrants, individual assessments, and interview processes. Sanctions that address irregular entry would also be addressed to ensure they were proportionate.

One of the more controversial sections of the agreement is found in objective 17, where it states countries should promote independent and objective reporting "by sensitising and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology".

Controversial far-right speaker Stefan Molyneux likened this objective to enforcing propaganda.

Stefan Molyneux opposes the Compact.
Stefan Molyneux opposes the Compact. Photo credit: AAP

However, the Compact also notes it is committed to protecting "freedom of expression in accordance with international law, recognising that an open and free debate contributes to a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of migration".

The difference between refugees and migrants is also highlighted, with the groups "governed by separate legal frameworks", with only refugees entitled to specific international legal protection.

A similar, but separate, compact for refugees is also under development by the United Nations.

Adoption of the Compact

In Marrakech, Morocco on December 10-11, an intergovernmental conference will be held, where the Compact will be adopted by those Member States who wish to uphold its objectives.

While New Zealand has been a part of negotiations since the start of the year, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters and Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway are still tight-lipped on whether Aotearoa will adopt the agreement.

Several countries, including Australia, Hungary, Italy and the United States, have pulled their support out of fears for how the agreement may impact individual sovereignty and how countries develop their domestic migration policies.

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there were concerns the Compact may be used to "undermine Australia's strong border protection laws and practises".

"The Compact fails to adequately distinguish between people who enter Australia illegally and those who come to Australia the right way - particularly with respect to the provision of welfare and other benefits," said Mr Morrison.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison won't allow Australia to adopt the Compact.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison won't allow Australia to adopt the Compact. Photo credit: AAP

The United States pulled out at the end of 2017, when then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said migration was an issue for domestic policy.

"We simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders".

These are views the National Party seem to be aligning itself with.

"There is no automatic right to migrate to another country without that country's full agreement, a view which the United Nation's Global Compact on Migration, set to be signed next week, seeks to counter," said National leader Simon Bridges.

"While not binding, the Compact could restrict the ability of future governments to set immigration and foreign policy, and to decide on which migrants are welcome and which aren't."

But in July, then-General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak said such fears were not warranted.

"It does not encourage migration, nor does it aim to stop it. It is not legally binding. It does not dictate. It will not impose. And it fully respects the sovereignty of States," he said.

"It can guide us from a reactive to a proactive mode. It can help us to draw out the benefits of migration, and mitigate the risks."