The Controversial UN Migration Pact

Mahault Bernard is studying for an MA in International Peace and Security. Her latest article highlights the issues and controversies surrounding the UN Global Compact for Migration, signed in Marrakesh earlier this week.

In an interview for the French Radio RTL, Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader said this week of the controversial United Nations Global Compact for Migration: “It (The Migration Pact) was signed without asking the opinion of the French people and without a debate at the Assembly. If it is not binding as we are being told, then why have many countries refused to sign it? Why did it lead to the fall of the Belgian government yesterday? It states that the media should be taught that immigration only has positive impacts. You will be sent to an education camp if you do not repeat that” [1].

But what exactly is the UN Migration Pact, and why is it so controversial?
In September 2016, the UN General Assembly agreed on the urgent need to tackle the issue of migration, particularly in light of the Rise of Islamic State and the 2015-16 European Migrant Crisis. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, aimed at adopting ‘a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration’ in a bid to tackle this escalating crisis was formally endorsed in 2018[2]. Despite the fact that Western states have traditionally been at the forefront of the campaign for Human Rights, Marine Le Pen’s vociferous opposition is illustrative of the rising scepticism towards such norms, and what does such vocal opposition reveal of Western societies?

A closer look at the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration[3] helps to distinguish between empirical evidence of the impacts of Migration and claims of Populists such as Le Pen. The pact takes the recent migration phenomenon as its starting point, stating “there are over 258 million migrants around the world living outside their country of birth[4]. Addressing this issue is, therefore, a question of pragmatism. It is about acknowledging that no country can deal alone with this significant challenge. Moreover, “this figure is expected to grow for a number of reasons including population growth, increasing connectivity, trade, rising inequality, demographic imbalances and climate change[5]. The idea of this compact is thus that well-regulated migration will help avoid and mitigate future crises such as that of 2015-16[6]. However, there exists a widespread belief, especially among far-right parties, that migrants are being given the priority over ordinary citizens. On the one hand, it is true that the compact clearly promotes universal human rights and does much to highlight the positive impacts of migration, stating “refugees and migrants are entitled to the same universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, which must be respected, protected and fulfilled at all times[7]. On the other hand, the compact continues to emphasise the pre-eminence of state sovereignty as a ordering principle for the international community, stipulating that “the Global Compact reaffirms the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law”[8]. The UN Migration Pact also clearly distinguishes refugees and migrants, which results in a significant difference of treatment between these two distinct groups. The third pillar of the agreement aims at providing “accurate, timely, accessible, and transparent information on migration-related aspects for and between States, communities and migrants at all stages of migration[9]. Moreover, this compact is not legally binding and does not stipulate any specific quota for the number of migrants or refugees that should be accepted by any particular country. One could say that such agreements are morally binding rather than legally binding.

Given the fact that Western states have been at the forefront of the struggle for Human and Refugee Rights, why has there been such a significant backlash from these very states surrounding the issue in recent years? The truth is that the answer is manifold, reflecting the diversity of concerns surrounding the migration issue for populations in the West. For Austria and Hungary, “the compact mixes up the rights of asylum-seekers with those of economic migrants”[10] whilst the US resorted to the much-cited argument that “multinational agreements in general, and this one in particular, go against the sovereign power of individual governments”[11]. These two statements, as it has been shown, twist the reality of the UN Migration Pact. The agreement does distinguish between refugees and migrants and does uphold that state sovereignty ultimately prevails. The main problem for these countries may indeed be a domestic one. The resignation of the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel last week following a no-confidence motion triggered primarily by opposition to the UN Migration Pact reveals the existence of “an anti-immigration wave that’s been blowing through Europe since 2015″ and illustrates “the difficulty of holding the political centre in Europe today”[12]. Moreover, Belgium has, as is the case across much of Europe, seen a rise in public dissatisfaction corresponding with rising prices and stagnating wages in light of the 2008 Financial Crash. In this context, the opposition to the UN Migration Pact reveals the desire of many European citizens to feel heard and recognized in light of these inexorable social, economic and political shifts. Indeed “supporters of populist extremism parties are heavily concentrated among the lower middle classes and working-class men, citizens who are economically insecure”[13]. Matthew Goodwin adds that working class ‘concerns about immigration and cultural diversity appear to stem from a belief that immigration, minority groups and diversity are threatening national culture’. It could indeed be said that migration is being used as a convenient scapegoat for deeper structural issues by far-right parties. More generally, the rise of populism is for William A. Galston, “the most important European political development of the 21st century”[14]. In the meantime, the centre-left parties which served as the backbone of the Post-WWII political consensus are collapsing across Europe. The ‘Establishment’ is increasingly being questioned and delegitimised as representatives of a so-called ‘global elite’. This opposition towards elites, in general, does indeed intend to extend to international organisations such as the UN. Many do not consider the institution as a  legitimate actor in global affairs. The controversies surrounding the Global Compact highlight, furthermore, the rising problem of fake news. The compact points out this challenge, stating that “we also must provide all our citizens with access to objective, evidence-based, clear information about the benefits and challenges of migration, with a view to dispelling misleading narratives that generate negative perceptions of migrants”[15].

The apparent rejection of the UN Migration Pact might cause even more serious problems in the long-run. Climate change will undoubtedly lead to increasing immigration in the future. Countries need to be ready for such challenges as soon as possible. Europe has demonstrated during the migration crisis, its incapacity and unwillingness to properly address this issue. European leaders’ behaviour reveals for some authors the EU’s “lack of preparedness for what was a foreseeable outcome[16]. However, this situation is not likely to improve, particularly given global climatic trends which make further waves of migration increasingly likely in coming decades. Climate Change “will undermine livelihoods, increase local resource competition, aggravate pre-existing tensions and destabilize markets, ultimately increasing the risk of social upheaval”[17]. Moreover, “there is some evidence that climate change may already be playing a background role in Europe’s migration crisis. A prolonged drought linked to climate change devastated rural areas in Syria throughout the late 2000s, driving people to overcrowded cities and fuelling discontent in the urban centres where protests first erupted in 2011″[18]. This is why this UN Migration Pact is so important. For Nina Birkeland, NRC’s Senior Adviser on Disaster Displacement and Climate Change, it is essential to acknowledge the increasing impact of climate change on everyday lives and to address the problem of large-scale population displacement effectively. The UN Compact, despite criticism levelled against it, could be the first step in this direction.

To conclude, the United Nation Migration Pact faces numerous challenges from its very inception. Despite criticism, 152 countries approved the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration on Wednesday 19th December 2018. Moreover, it is a landmark as it represents the first agreement of its kind on the issue of migration. According to the German Government, the approval of the UN Compact “is an undeniable success for multilateralism. The international community is strongly committed to ensure humane living conditions to migrants[19].


[1] “Marine Le Pen était L’invitée De RTL.”

[2] “New York Declaration | Refugees and Migrants.” United Nations.

[3] Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, United Nations, 13 July 2018,

[4] “Global Compact for Migration | Refugees and Migrants.” United Nations. Accessed December 21, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, Preamble, §4.

[8] Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, §15, c.

[9] Ibid, §19.

[10] Deutsche Welle. “What Is the UN Migration Pact – and Why Do Some Oppose It? | DW | 02.11.2018.” DW.COM.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Apuzzo, Matt, and Milan Schreuer. “Belgium’s Prime Minister Resigns After Revolt Over Migration.” The New York Times. December 18, 2018.

[13] “New Report: The Rise of Populist Extremism in Europe.” Chatham House. December 07, 2018.

[14] Galston, William A. “The Rise of European Populism and the Collapse of the Center-left.” March 08, 2018.

[15] Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, §10.

[16] “Should Europe Be Concerned About Climate Refugees?” Chatham House. December 07, 2018.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Le « pacte De Marrakech » De L’ONU Sur Les Migrations Largement Approuvé.” Le December 19, 2018. Accessed December 21, 2018.

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