Reflections on Adoption of the U.N. Compacts on Migration and Refugees

By Dan Cadman on December 26, 2018

My colleague Nayla Rush, has been penning some interesting Backgrounders and blogs recently on the just-passed U.N. Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and Global Compact on Refugees. (See here, here, and here for some of Rush's work.)

Wisely, the United States walked away from both compacts as self-evident attempts to narrow the window of sovereign actions that any particular nation can take in setting its own course on either mass migration, or what constitutes a viable and meaningful refugee program (as opposed to a global resettlement program lacking both focus and legitimacy, by extending its reach so far that it is difficult to discern those legitimately in fear of persecution from those who simply wish to relocate as a part of the mass movement of humans across the globe).

Even so, our nation was in a significant minority in rejecting the compacts. (See here for a screen shot of each nation's vote on the migration compact: green is a "yes" vote; red a "no"; and yellow is an abstention.) Why, then, would so many others go down the path of signing onto such agreements? At the risk of oversimplification, it seems to me that they can be lumped into three general baskets:

First, you have the well-intended but probably deluded developed nations — such as Germany, France, Belgium, and Canada — whose progressive leaders have predictably gone in directions their own people are beginning to doubt. Certainly that's the case in France, where the "yellow vest" demonstrations have gone far beyond a revolt over gas taxes and into a general protest against President Emanuel Macron's vision for France's future. It is also the case in Belgium, where the prime minister has been obliged to step down after signing onto the compacts against the wishes of large segments of the populace, and thus broke the governing coalition. And it's started to come home to roost in Germany as well, which Chancellor Angela Merkel has discovered to her political disadvantage.

Next, you have the cynical and/or hypocritical nations—such as Laos, Cuba, and Russia, by way of example — which routinely sign onto such declarations with high principles of humanitarian purpose, and then go on about their business with little or no intent to ensure that the principles are in any way meaningfully embedded either into the fabric of life or the statutory framework of law. Thus, they get away with "virtue signaling" to the world their moral bona fides with little belief or expectation that they will actually follow through on their commitments; those are for other people and other nations to follow through.

Finally, you have any number of nations — such as Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and even Mexico, to name just a very few — whose people actually form the wave of humanity-in-motion that constitutes mass migration today, and who do so because their governments have failed them politically, economically, socially, or in any number of other ways. For the elite in those nations, it is often better practice to use migration outflows as a pressure valve than to confront an increasingly restive population that might at some point erupt into action to take down the governing structures. Thus it is in their interest to see unfettered migration accepted as an international principle that they use to ensure remaining on top of the hierarchical pyramid within their countries. Really what they are voting for is for other nations to keep them afloat by being willing to take on the responsibility for those massive outflows.

You may call this a jaded view of the world order; I won't deny it. Sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism goes hand-in-hand with a realpolitik attitude centered around what's best for U.S. national interests. I believe that we owe the less-developed world a helping hand in meaningful ways. But that becomes tricky: Should we be in the routine business of "regime change" where all of the world's dysfunctional governments are concerned? That doesn't usually work out well does it?

Yet on the other hand, why should we permit ourselves to be maneuvered through such global compacts into ceding to others the fate of our nation, or our children's children, by unfettered immigration that serves their purposes but threatens to break our capacity to assimilate and our own values and standard of living?