UNITED NATIONS (AN) — A new global pact for promoting safe migration is advancing through the United Nations without participation from the United States and Hungary, both headed by populist right-wing leaders espousing hard-lines policies trying to keep immigrants out.
The compact affects some 250 million migrants, the U.N. estimated. Around 90% of cross border migrants move for economic reasons. Migrants comprise just 3.4% of global population but contribute nearly 10% of global GDP, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute study.
The United States initially supported the pact. After the change of administration in 2017, it withdrew support and boycotted the negotiations. Now, Hungary's Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó has announced his country will no longer be part of the U.N. process for adopting the pact.
“The primary issue for us is the security of Hungary and the Hungarian people and this document is totally at odds with the country’s security interests,” Szijjártó said in a ministry statement. The pact, he added, "is in conflict with common sense and also with the intent to restore European security."
More than 190 countries agreed on the pact, formally known as the Global Compact for Safety, Orderly and Regular Migration. The U.N. General Assembly approved it earlier this month. It is expected to be formally adopted at a high-level meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco next December.
Though it is not legally binding, the international agreement will promote safe and orderly migration and reduce human smuggling and trafficking, proponents said. It includes 23 goals for improvements in areas such as cooperation, human rights, safeguards against detention and migrant workers' pay.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called it “a significant achievement” that 192 of the 193 U.N. member nations — all but the United States — backed it after decades of efforts and negotiations that dragged on. Hungary's withdrawal means overall support for the agreement will drop to 191 nations.
The pact's overwhelming support reflects a "shared understanding by governments that cross border migration is, by its very nature, an international phenomenon," he said, because it takes cooperation to make it work and to ensure that "every individual has the right to safety, dignity and protection.”
Protesters at the border between Macedonian and Greece (AN/Trollman Capote)
American leadership in question
The United States did not become a holdout until U.S. President Donald Trump took power in January 2017. In September 2016, the Obama administration offered U.S. support for the pact — making for a universal declaration by all U.N. member nations that global migration needs everyone's involvement.
But the Trump administration announced last December the United States would no longer participate, as part of a continuing series of withdrawals from international organizations and treaties. It said parts of the compact were “inconsistent" with the Trump administration's immigration and refugee policies.
Trump's "America First" policies on migration, economy and trade — and his populist brand of anti-internationalism — resulted in a global backlash at U.N. Migration, or IOM, a U.N.-affiliated agency in Geneva traditionally led by an American.
IOM voted in June to elect António Manuel de Carvalho Ferreira Vitorino, a former European Union commissioner for justice and home affairs, as its next director-general. Vitorino edged out Ken Isaacs, the Trump administration’s candidate, in what observers saw as a strong rebuff to U.S. leadership.
Only once before in its 66-year history has the IOM been led by a non-American as director general; that occurred when Bastiaan Haveman of the Netherlands was at the helm in the 1960s.
Isaacs had made public comments that were widely seen as anti-Muslim, adding insult to injury over the Trump administration’s travel bans and its policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Isaacs lost in an initial round. Vitorino then won by acclamation over Costa Rica’s Laura Thompson, an IOM deputy director-general vying to become the first woman to run the organization.
Vitorino, a Portuguese lawyer and socialist, also is an ally of Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister from 1995 to 1992 who began his political career as a socialist.
A 'blueprint for hope'
U.N. General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák said the pact has enormous potential.
“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,” Lajčák, the foreign minister of Slovakia, said in a U.N. statement.
“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. It can provide a new platform for cooperation," he said. "And it can be a resource, in finding the right balance between the rights of people and the sovereignty of states.”
Louise Arbour, the U.N. special representative for global migration, said the pact recognizes that "international migration is inevitably both a matter of state sovereignty and state interdependence," and it also shows how nations' interests can sometimes be best served through international cooperation.
"For migrants, for the communities in which they settle and for the people they leave behind, the Global Compact presents a blueprint for hope," said Arbour, a Canadian lawyer who formerly headed the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"Human mobility will be with us as it has always been," she said in a speech. "Its chaotic, dangerous exploitative aspects cannot be allowed to become a new normal. The implementation of the compact will bring safety, order and economic progress to everyone’s benefit."