A small community around the world is building better ways to regulate migration—not just at the national level but regionally and globally. Migration policymakers from around the world are currently drafting a Global Compact on Migration (GCM) through the United Nations. This Compact is not making headlines, but its effects will certainly ripple around the world and throughout this century.

I’ve been in the room during much of the negotiations so far, and they’ve been tough. Negotiations began in February and will continue through July. The Compact will be non-binding, but it will set out a framework for principles and practices that can work toward safe, orderly, and regular migration. First, countries need to agree on what’s in the text. 

As I’ve listened to the sometimes heated debates, I hear three big issues come up repeatedly as potential sticking points. A predictable issue is how to handle returns and readmissions of migrants. One that is more prominent than anticipated is the debate around securitization, and within that the debate around regular versus irregular migrants. A third one, which surprised me, is settling the relationship between the Global Compact on Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees. How these debates play out have the potential to shape global migration for the next century.

Preoccupation with returns: As expected, but with renewed vigor

Michael Clemens and I have written about the focus on returns—expressed primarily by those countries seeing significant numbers of migrants arriving (i.e., Europe)—before. Countries delivering statements at GCM proceedings prioritizing returns have been heard loud and clear.

This certainly featured heavily in the first round of negotiations. Developed, mostly western migrant receiving countries made clear there will be little discussion of facilitating regular migration—including through new regular pathways—until the question of what to do with those irregular migrants already within their borders is resolved. The origin countries have an international obligation to readmit their nationals when asylum claims fail and developed countries send them home, at least from the perspective of these developed receiving countries.

Yet those developing countries, where migrants originate from, have different views on this purported obligation, and some pushed for the Compact to preference voluntary return. The debate around forced (deportation) versus voluntary return, while just one aspect of the larger preoccupation on returns, was inconclusive at best, and divisive at worst.

As Michael and I laid out in a recent policy brief, the issue of returns does not have to be an all-or-nothing debate. Rather, more and better immigration enforcement (which could include returns) can be an effective migration management tool when paired with new lawful channels for migration.

The clear rift between developing countries not wanting to commit to take back their nationals who emigrated, and the developed countries who do not want those migrants to remain in their territory, is not new. But it was certainly marked and will likely continue to be a stumbling block throughout negotiations.

Louder than anticipated: Is the GCM too security-focused?

Questions from countries over whether the GCM discussions have focused too heavily on the security perspective is also not new, but it featured more centrally in the zero draft and first round of negotiations. The document at the time of negotiations contained language on border management, combating smuggling and trafficking, and general references to security (of migrants and of countries receiving them). While small edits were made to the second iteration of the draft released this morning, the security-focus remains. The discussions that ensued in negotiations featured a number of statements strongly focused on security issues, such as countries insisting border management is a sovereign issue and they alone must decide who enters and who stays in their country. (There were a small handful of the traditionally more hardline countries who even framed migration as a terrorism and/or general security threat more explicitly than others.)

On the flip side, several countries raised concern in their remarks over whether the GCM draft was too focused on security, and whether the debate itself was likewise too preoccupied with the security implications, real and/or perceived, of migration and management of it. The migration debate is far larger than those aspects seen through a security lens, and some countries suggested the draft text should better reflect the positive contributions of migrants (economically and otherwise) rather than oversimplify with a risk-mitigation approach.

One notable example within the security-focused debates was that around regular versus irregular migration. For instance, the draft document called on states not to criminalize migrants who had been smuggled; several of the significant receiving states pushed back on this, citing sovereign rights or asserting that ensuring non-criminalization of smuggled migrants could undermine efforts to combat smuggling networks, as this administrative versus criminal offense could incentivize rather than deter use of smugglers. Even more broadly than the smuggling question was a debate around whether irregular migrants are entitled to access to services, education, and other support and protections in the destination country. Relatedly, a proposed firewall between immigration enforcement and provision of services for migrants (interpreted as a firewall between enforcement authorities and entities providing services to irregular migrants) was hotly debated, with a few countries requesting it be edited or even deleted from the text.

Not as expected: How countries feel about the cloudy relationship between the Global Compact on Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees

For those engaged in the Global Compacts process, the relationship between the GCM and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) has been fairly consistently “TBD.” Two parallel processes, the GCR is built off the New York Declaration, with the new portion being the Programme of Action. Led by the UN Refugee Agency, the GCR features less Member State engagement at the substance level. The two compacts are meant to interact and include points of relevance and crossover, but if there was any expectation that these points of convergence would be more clearly laid out at the time of the zero drafts, that expectation certainly was not met.

During negotiations of the Global Compact on Migration, I was especially surprised by a debate over whether and to what extent the GCM and GCR are related versus totally distinct documents and substantive issues. Some countries called for parallels to be recognized, and non-refoulement—the return principle which applies to refugees—was suggested at one point to be applied to migrants. Other countries insisted the GCM not concern itself with refugee issues at all. This was particularly prominent in the discussion around status determination, and the draft’s recommendation that the UN Refugee Agency be included in protection discussions and practices when responding to mixed migration flows. Some country pushback appears to be aimed at avoiding having to open up discussion around existing refugee protections, which could mean a step backward. At other points, some pushback appears to be more pessimistic, aimed at ensuring new commitments do not arise that could burden or otherwise hold countries accountable to refugee-like protections for migrants.

As increasing research shows, the drivers of migration are far more complex than simply economic aspirations. The parallel processes of the GCM and GCR are an opportunity for countries to adopt ideas and innovations to tackle the challenges that come with mixed movements (whether it is refugees, asylum seekers, and/or migrants on the move for a variety of reasons). These challenges impact people on the move regardless of status—challenges such as harmful smuggling and trafficking, and other safety and protection concerns, including those particular to child migrants. Some countries drew a thick line in the sand between refugee and migrant issues, with a few simplifying the issue to refugees versus economic migrants. Such an oversimplification means some of the most critical issues could be swept under the rug, ultimately watering down the GCM and rendering it more or less useless for answering important questions around mixed migration.

So, what’s next?

The first step of getting countries to the negotiating room and willing at least have the conversation was successful. But now figuring out how to engage countries in productive rather than repetitive discussions focused on common goals and concessions versus short-sighted and contradictory wish lists will likely continue to be a challenge.

The co-facilitators of the GCM have amended the format of the second round of negotiations to allow for three days of discussion on central contradictions and differences in country approaches to issues including irregular versus regular migration, and migrants versus refugees. As Michael has written before, the zero draft of the GCM contained a multitude of contradictions that Member States will need to reconcile and make concessions on if the process is to move forward. This second round of negotiations—happening next week—provides an opportunity to do just that.