By Rick Noack
December 4, 2018
When President Trump pulled out of discussions of a U.N. migration pact almost exactly one year ago, there was an immediate international outcry. Arguing that the agreement would interfere with U.S. sovereignty and migration policies, the Trump administration’s announcement followed its earlier decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement and other multilateral deals.
But whereas the United States has only become more isolated on other fronts since — now being the only country in the world on the way out of the Paris climate deal — Trump’s decision to abandon the U.N. migration pact has emboldened critics elsewhere. Other nations have followed suit in recent weeks, sparking fierce debates and government showdowns in some places.
The Belgian coalition government suffered a severe setback Monday after its biggest member party said it would oppose the country’s participation in the pact. In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s successors as party leader have also clashed over the pact as they head into a key vote on the conservative party’s future this weekend.
Meanwhile, the governments of Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland have determined that they will not sign the proposed pact or that they will delay a decision.
What is the U.N. migration pact?
The nonbinding agreement is the result of a broader plan, agreed to two years ago by all 193 members of the United Nations, with the aim of making migration more humane and orderly. The years before the agreement were dominated by news of refugees and migrants dying in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas as they tried to make their way to safer countries in Europe.
Although regulations exist to prevent the exploitation of refugees who flee war or prosecution, there is no agency that monitors the exploitation of migrants who leave their countries for economic reasons. The U.N. pact is supposed to create conditions that would make migration a more orderly process and prevent a repeat of some of the chaotic scenes that marked the past few years.
What’s the criticism?
Early criticism mainly came from European far-right parties, with Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) lashing out at it as a disguised mechanism to allow more migrants into Europe. The underlying skepticism isn’t unique to fringe parties any longer, however.
Some of the first European countries to pull out were Hungary and Austria, which have gone to great lengths to stop migration flows. Hungary built a fence on its border with Serbia and Croatia after it became a transit country for refugees and migrants heading to Western Europe in 2015. In Austria, the migration influx helped the far right gain power last year as part of a coalition government.
The criticism voiced in those countries has largely echoed the United States’ justification to pull out last year. The deal, the U.S. officials at the United Nations argued last December, contained “numerous provisions that are inconsistent with U.S. immigration and refugee policies and the Trump administration’s immigration principles.”
What do supporters say?
The agreement’s supporters say that working conditions of migrants and living conditions of their families are often dire and that a more concerted effort to stop human trafficking and workplace discrimination is needed.
Supporters have vehemently denied that the U.N. pact would interfere with countries’ sovereignty over migration policies. Besides being nonbinding, the pact emphasizes “integrated, secure and coordinated” border management, according to Benjamin Schraven and Eva Dick of the German Development Institute. Secure migration, the pact states, can be a “source of global prosperity.”
Ironically, supporters of the deal have cited countries such as Hungary to make their point. The Eastern European nation is experiencing a severe shortage of skilled workers. Despite opposing the migrant pact, its government seeks to fill those vacant positions with migrant workers — a challenging task, given that foreign workers have been drawn to more prosperous places that offer them more rights and protection.
What’s the way forward?
Even though more European nations are pulling out of the pact, it’s still too soon to declare it dead. The vast majority of migrants live in African and Asian nations, where U.N. member states see benefits to creating a more orderly approach to migration. African and Asian countries with large exoduses and influxes of migrants have shared interests in curbing illegal migration and promoting a more structured transit.