With one in every 30 people in the world now migrants, it was inevitable that the United Nations would try to coordinate the immigration policies of nations that send, receive, or block migrants. After 18 months of talks, this first attempt at a global approach wrapped up Monday in Morocco with an agreement. About 85 percent of UN members signed the nonbinding “Global Compact for Migration,” one that calls for “safe, orderly, and regular” migration.
In the end, the debate itself proved more valuable than the 23 legal and humanitarian aspirations expressed in the 34-page document. The discussion helped nations look inward, compare themselves with others, and perhaps notice how their domestic divisions influence their migration practices or their standing in the world.
Some were at ease in signing the pact. As British Home Secretary Sajid Javid (himself an immigrant and a Conservative) put it in a recent speech, “It is when we’re comfortable in our own security, identity, and values that we are also comfortable being open with others, whether at home or abroad.”
In many countries, the intense international focus on migration and the decision on whether to sign the pact proved disruptive.
It caused Belgium’s government to nearly collapse. It forced the Slovak foreign minister to tender his resignation. It helped trigger protests in Italy. With nine countries in Europe opting out of the pact, the European Union is now even more divided on how to stem the flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. In the United States, the pact was dismissed from the start by President Trump and drew little attention because of a more-divisive debate over the caravan of Central Americans and whether to build a wall on the US-Mexican border.
The mixed result in support of the pact is reflected in a Pew poll last spring of 27 countries that have more than half of the world’s international migrants. The sentiment against migration is strong. A median of 45 percent favored fewer or no immigrants while 36 percent say they want about the same number. Just 14 percent wanted more immigrants.
Of the estimated 258 million migrants worldwide, an unprecedented 68.5 million have been forced from their home. About 15 percent of the world’s adults say they would like to move to another country, according to a Gallup poll. The exodus from Venezuela, where some 3 million have fled so far, is one of the largest migrations. The number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees could reach 6 million to 8 million over the next year, according to the Brookings Institution.
As a global phenomenon, migration can destabilize communities as well as local politics. Yet it can also force nations to define their idea of home, or the values and protections that reflect a country. In Britain, for example, the decision to leave the EU and opt out of the free movement of EU citizens has opened “the need and the opportunity to define our country once more,” says the country's home secretary.
The UN pact itself may be forgotten but the exercise in birthing it was necessary and perhaps long-lasting. Migration is more global. Yet more countries find they must size up their identity as well as the size of their welcome mat to the world. The affections at home will be reflected in affections abroad.