This week, an Irish delegation joins representatives of some one hundred and sixty nations in Marrakesh, Morocco, to sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Several countries, including the United States, Israel, Australia, Austria, Poland, Hungary, and more, have already opted out, citing concerns that the pact may open the door to mass migration and blur the distinction between refugees and economic migrants.

This agreement is the first ever global cooperative framework on international migration. It specifies an extensive list of ‘commitments’ on migration policy, from non-discriminatory treatment of migrants to a universal right to access ‘basic services.’ It is therefore quite astounding that in many Western countries, including Ireland, it has barely been considered newsworthy, let alone the subject of a national debate.

Opposition to the pact is close to non-existent in Ireland’s political and media establishment. The Marrakesh agreement, insofar as it is discussed at all, is overwhelmingly depicted as a common-sensical affirmation of migrants’ human rights. Defenders of the pact frequently depict dissenters as harpooning an emerging global consensus on sound and humane migration policies for the sake of pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. They dismiss dissenters’ objections by pointing out that the pact is not legally binding, and explicitly acknowledges the right of sovereign nations to set their own migration policies.   

These sorts of arguments are disingenuous. Some dissenters may indeed be tapping into anti-immigrant sentiment, but this does not automatically invalidate their objections to the pact. And while the agreement itself is not legally binding, it is nonetheless a joint commitment to a ‘cooperative framework’ for global migration policy, in which the terms ‘commit’ and ‘commitment’ occur over eighty times.

This agreement is a classic case of ‘soft law’ – a set of principles that policymakers commit themselves to, in a non-legally binding manner, many aspects of which may insinuate themselves into customary practice and gradually become legally binding policy.

For these reasons, the Marrakesh agreement must be taken seriously and examined on its merits.

Certain aspects of the Compact are relatively uncontroversial. For example, signatories undertake a “collective commitment to improving cooperation on international migration,” and commit to “[providing] all…citizens with access to objective, evidence-based…information about the benefits and challenges of migration.”

Taken as a whole, however, this 34-page document does not offer a reasonable and balanced framework for migration policy. While claims that it converts migration into a universal ‘human right’ are overblown, several of the principles it sets out seem designed to erode the very notion of selective intake of migrants, and are liable to generate perverse incentives for illegal migration.

To begin with, the document proposes that we “eliminate all forms of discrimination, including racism, xenophobia and intolerance against migrants and their families.” All forms of discrimination. Not just invidious, unjust, or arbitrary discrimination, but all forms of discrimination.

On its face, this means that any policy that gives special treatment to citizens over immigrants, insofar as it indisputably constitutes a form of “discrimination,” would be unacceptable. So either this document is carelessly written, or it is advocating an end to the privileges of citizenship.   

Similarly, signatories agree “to implement border management policies that…are non-discriminatory,” without qualification. What exactly would a ‘non-discriminatory’ border management policy look like? It could mean avoiding patently offensive and arbitrary forms of discrimination. But it could also mean treating every category of migrant the same, in which case non-European and European citizens ought to have the same rights of admission in EU countries.

Like it or not, a responsible immigration policy must discriminate in favour of those economic migrants whose history and group affiliations make them more likely to take up their place in the host country as contributing members of society, rather than undermining its institutions and way of life. So an unqualified commitment to ‘non-discriminatory’ border policies is either so vague as to be uninformative, or liable to undermine reasonable border control policies.

Signatories commit themselves “to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise their human rights through safe access to basic services.” Since the document does not define what a ‘basic service’ is – education, healthcare, basic income? – it is difficult to know what types of service it is claiming all migrants have a human right to.

In any case, the idea of recognizing a ‘human right’ to access taxpayer-funded services is riddled with difficulties. Welfare systems do not just run on goodwill or humanitarian sentiment, but on the principle that there is a proper balance struck between inward and outward payments.

With many Western welfare services, including Ireland’s, already stretched beyond capacity, attributing an unqualified right to all migrants to access ‘basic services,’ irrespective of their legal status, is reckless, unfair, and unsustainable. It is likely to hurt responsible contributors, and unfairly reward free-riding economic migrants who choose the ‘back door’ into a country in search of a more comfortable life.

Finally, you will find extensive discussion of migrants’ rights throughout the pact, but practically no discussion of the right of host communities to adapt their immigration policies to their own need for civic cohesion, sustainable development, housing, healthcare, and safe streets.

To sum up, the global migration pact concluded this week is fatally undermined by its failure to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable forms of discrimination, its reckless elevation of access to public services to the status of a universal human right, and its overwhelmingly one-sided focus on migrants’ rights, to the neglect of the rights of the citizens of host communities.

It is not a question of denying that migrants have rights: it is a question of acknowledging that these rights must go hand in hand with responsibilities, and be balanced against the rights of host communities, in particular their right to have a reasonable say over their own common life, and their right to selectively incorporate new members in an economically and socially sustainable manner.

Migrants must be treated at all times with humanity and respect, but bolstering their rights without due regard to the legitimate interests and claims of host communities will only lead to bad policy, resentment toward migrant communities, and social unrest. 

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder.

Posted by Professor David Thunder

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. He is a recipient of the prestigious Ramón y Cajal grant awarded by the Spanish government to support outstanding research activities.

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