The world has already seen what can happen when economic migration is conflated with the special status given refugees. In summer 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the unprecedented step of declaring her country’s borders open to the massive Syrian diaspora. By late 2016, Merkel’s government had received 1.1 million refugee claimants, almost half the entire European Union’s total. German officials accepted nearly every refugee application, allowing successful applicants to bring their extended family into the country as well. The flood nearly overwhelmed Germany’s ability to process the newcomers and caused enormous social and political turmoil, including fuelling the rise of anti-immigrant parties.
Eventually, political and demographic reality forced Germany to re-establish its borders. By 2017 one in every two refugee applicants were given a lesser, temporary designation that does not enable bringing extended families. Today Merkel takes a much tougher line on refugees – saying things like “the events of 2015 must not be repeated”. Similarly, between 2013 and 2018 more than 640,000 people showed up on Italy’s shores. Some of these were Syrian refugees, but many more were African migrants from Nigeria, Mali and the Ivory Coast seeking a better life. After much political upheaval, Italy’s new national government took a tougher stance on water-borne visitors; as a result, such arrivals have nearly stopped.
The UN Migration Compact’s objectives
In terms of its concrete objectives, the UN’S Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration seeks to place a bigger burden, both monetarily and morally, on developed countries. This includes procuring direct aid for originating countries via programs for job training and relocation that might encourage potential leavers to remain in their homeland. There are also efforts to help poorer, way-station countries and to combat human trafficking and other unsavory aspects of mass population movements.
The UN Migration Compact’s biggest and most obvious presumption is that economic migrants (as distinct from actual refugees under longstanding accepted definitions) be given free rein to seek their own destiny. Western countries are admonished to make these migrants feel welcome when they arrive unbidden at their borders. Rich nations should make their ample social services immediately available by “strengthen[ing] migrant inclusive service delivery systems.” There is another call for the facilitation of remittances back to home countries. And there’s a warning to avoid arresting migrants, regardless of status.
As is typical for such international agreements, the UN Migration Compact also cannot resist the siren call of tangential progressive objectives. Rich countries are urged to “harness the benefits of migration as a source of sustainable development” and “provide newly arrived migrants with targeted, gender-responsive, child-sensitive, accessible and comprehensive information and legal guidance on their rights and obligations.”
In sum, the UN Migration Compact asks wealthy western countries to accept as many migrants as possible while asking as few questions as possible. Large-scale migration is taken to be inevitable and desirable and the role of national sovereignty and borders in curtailing this sort of behaviour is presented as a negative force in the world. As the UN Migration Compact intones, “No State can address migration alone.” Is this a mere call for cooperation, or a declaration that no country is to be sovereign any longer? The document also states that, “We must empower migrants to become full members of our societies, highlight their positive contributions, and promote inclusion and social cohesion.”
At a massive UN conference in Morocco last December, Louise Arbour, a former Supreme Court of Canada Justice and now the UN’s Special Representative for International Migration, presented the final draft of the UN Migration Compact. Giving full voice to the deal’s sweeping intent, Arbour grandly declared: “For the first time in the history of the United Nations, we have been able to tackle an issue that was long seen as out of bounds for a truly concerted global effort.”
Some countries reassert national sovereignty
Even at the UN Migration Compact’s big unveiling, skepticism hung in the air over the implication that national borders were on the verge of becoming irrelevant. For starters, the deal was sold by its promoters as being a harmless “non-binding” statement of principles with no direct implications for any country’s own laws or border policies. Last December, the deal was approved by the UN General Assembly 152-5 with 12 abstentions.
Still, support was not universal. Voting nay were Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland and the United States. Among the abstentions were Australia, Austria, Chile, Italy and Switzerland. The U.S. position was summarized by then-UN Ambassador Nikki Haley: “Decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone. We will decide how best to control our borders and who will be allowed to enter our country.”
This reasonable-sounding position was echoed even by some countries voting in favour. France’s representative stressed that there is “no absolute right to migration.” Norway declared its right to detain any foreign nationals it deemed necessary, including minors. And New Zealand only signed after its federal government obtained a legal opinion that it claimed held the agreement had no force in law regarding the country’s immigration policies or border controls.
Some critics in New Zealand, however, scoffed that this was mere window-dressing. And indeed, the New Zealand Crown Law Office’s opinion actually noted that the agreement will not be legally irrelevant and that “courts may be willing…to refer to the Compact and to take the Compact into account as an aid in interpreting immigration legislation.”
Sociologist Nayla Rush, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based, Center for Immigration Studies in June, describes the UN Migration Compact and the parallel compact on refugees as “nesting dolls” aimed at enabling, over time, “the creation of a new model for international lawmaking, one that will eventually override state laws.” Rush predicts that “civil society groups, human rights advocates, and other defenders of ‘multilateralism’ are likely to use these new global frameworks to pressure states to comply with ostensibly non-binding international commitments versus their own national laws.”
Canadians already have reason to be wary of such non-binding promises. The similarly-styled UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was also presented by the Trudeau government as a series of harmless recommendations with no force of law in this country. And while even former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould once called the potential alignment of the agreement with Canadian legislation to be “unworkable”, in particular regarding the notion of creating a native veto over resource development projects, Trudeau recently promised to heft the entire thing into Canadian law if re-elected in October. The lesson: UN declarations are non-binding only until the point when they become binding.
It does seem reasonable to wonder why such an ambitious and hyped agreement would carry no weight or real meaning and, if it did not, why any country would bother signing it. Interestingly, about one month after the UN vote, newly installed Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro took the further step of withdrawing from the agreement. “We will never withhold help to those in need,” he tweeted, “But immigration cannot be indiscriminate.”
Regaining control over national borders has rapidly become a key political theme around the globe. It is among the main sources of support for U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (as discussed extensively in this and this C2C Journal article), and for the U.K.’s Brexit movement.
In countries where even a portion of the UN Migration Compact’s vision is being realized, people are rebelling. In the recent EU elections, “right wing” or populist parties continued to grow in many countries (as to a lesser extent did the Greens). Even starker evidence came from the success enjoyed by centrist or left-leaning parties that pivoted towards more restrictive immigration policies, such as in Denmark. It would be a brave politician indeed who signed onto a UN deal abdicating control over his or her own country’s borders. The resistance by voters and elected leaders suggests some countries that voted for the Compact “did not really mean it”, while others may back away quietly or simply ignore it when it suits their purposes. Even our own Prime Minister felt compelled to respond to the – for now, quiet – pushback from voters.
The UN Migration Compact’s goal of frictionless migration remains a tough sell in a world increasingly focused on its own borders.
Shaping the way we talk and think about “migration”
Proponents of the UN Migration Compact seem to recognize the enormous difficulties in convincing residents and leaders of rich countries to accept unlimited and unstoppable flows of migrants. Presumably for this reason, the document pursues a significant agenda quite apart from its main thrust. Entirely out of context with efforts to establish new rights for economically-motivated migrants and direct aid to poorer countries shouldering the burden for refugee diaspora, the UN Migration Compact proposes measures meant to ensure all public discussion regarding immigration policy is carried out in a proper, UN-approved manner.
This document has a surprising amount to say about what people can say about immigration. Objective 17 of the UN Migration Compact states that, “We commit to eliminate all forms of discrimination, condemn and counter expressions, acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, violence, xenophobia and related intolerance against all migrants.” A bit later, it further commits to “promote an open and evidence-based public discourse on migration and migrants in partnership with all parts of society, that generates a more realistic, humane and constructive perception in this regard.”
So while the UN claims to approve of “open” debate on migration, it has already created the proviso that anything interfering with its goal of large-scale, frictionless migration ought to be condemned and countered. And not merely racism, but anything “related”. Discussion, in other words, is fine as long as it leads to the proper conclusion. In any case, the UN isn’t fine with the current public discourse, since its goal is to make the discussion “more…humane and constructive”, i.e., pro-migrant. This sort of attitude is likely familiar to any Canadian who has tried to question the country’s national consensus.
A dire threat to freedom of speech and media freedom
The UN Migration Compact claims to “commit to protect freedom of expression in accordance with international law, recognizing that an open and free debate contributes to a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of migration.” A naïve reader might think “international law” protects people’s freedom to say whatever they think about immigration. But the European understanding of free expression is much more restrictive than the Canadian or, especially, the U.S. understanding of the concept. And that is to say nothing of the world’s dozens of one-party states, tyrannies and dictatorships – essentially all of which are UN members. And it is such countries’ practices that are increasingly reflected in UN policies and resolutions on free speech, among them a recent UN resolution to severely restrict criticism of Islam.
The UN Migration Compact also envisions new forms of control over the media by government or quasi-government agencies in regard to public debate on immigration. An unspecified organization is tasked with promoting “quality” reporting by media outlets – opening the door to government censorship and direction. Special training will be required, of course, “sensitizing and educating media professionals on migration-related issues,” and investments will have to be made “in ethical reporting standards.” All this is eerily reminiscent of the Trudeau government’s recent plan to provide tax credits and deductions to private-sector media agencies that can be counted on to tell the “correct” stories (not to mention the dutifully orthodox CBC).
The Compact further proposes to stop “allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants.” This raises an entire boatload of questions. Who is to judge the nature of racism and intolerance? What about outlets that publish occasional critiques or simply a full range of opinion; will they also lose government funding? And why should any news media be government-funded at all? Relatively few media outlets in Canada are government-funded, and fewer still in the U.S. So does “material support” refer to the mere purchasing of government-sponsored ad space outside of direct subsidization? Finally, the biggest question of all: what gives an international effort on “migration” the right to propose restrictions on public speech and media activity in the first place?
The UN Migration Compact claims that all of its speech-threatening measures are presented “in full respect for the freedom of the media.” But if a government agency is to decide what is meant by “systematic promotion” of any form of discrimination against migrants – not merely bigotry and hate, but simply advocacy of reducing the flow of “migrants” – then the media are not free. Nor is a country’s citizenry. This sets the stage for a government not only to cut off financial support to alleged bad actors, but also to de-platform unwelcome voices. Again, we already have a version of this process in Canada. What else can the UN Migration Compact mean, then, but the formalization and intensification of what is already underway?
A Dutch member of the European Parliament, speaking just before the UN vote last December, noted that one “basic element” of the UN Migration Compact is its “extension of the definition of hate speech.” He warned that it aims to “criminalize migration speech. Criticism of migration will become a criminal offence, and media outlets…that give room to criticism of migration can be shut down.” While the overall agreement is officially non-binding, he warned, “It’s still meant to be the legal framework on which the participating countries commit themselves to build new legislation.”
It gets even worse. The document calls on governments to “promote awareness-raising campaigns targeted at communities of origin, transit and destination in order to inform public perceptions regarding the positive contributions of safe, orderly and regular migration, based on evidence and facts.” The demand presupposes the UN Migration Compact’s plan for safe, orderly and regular migration will consistently deliver positive results. But what if the evidence and facts suggest otherwise?
To solve this potential problem, the document seeks to influence academic research in furtherance of its goal to cleanse the world of any discussion contrary to its pro-migrant narrative. Signatories promise to “establish mechanisms to prevent, detect and respond to racial, ethnic and religious profiling of migrants by public authorities.” This will include “tracking and publishing trends analyses, and ensuring access to effective complaint and redress mechanisms.” This might, for example, forbid national governments from gathering statistics on how many sexual assaults were committed by a given demographic – thereby suppressing “evidence and facts” of the wrong sort.
The potential harm to future social science research is disturbing. Statistics Canada, for example, recently published an intriguing study showing how country of origin appears to influence the long-term outcomes of refugees. Refugees from countries including Poland, Colombia, Cambodia and Vietnam appeared to achieve greater economic success than those from Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Should such research be “prevented” to forestall racist conclusions or intolerant policies (or perhaps merely clear-headed choices based on a host nation’s interests)? Perhaps social science will only be supported to the extent it provides “good news” about open borders and all migrants from all places. And, of course, substantial bureaucracies will have to be created to monitor what goes on in all these public forums.
Playing the “long game”
The head swims with the implications of all the aspects of controlled speech, thought and research in the UN Migration Compact – a document promoted by Canada’s Liberals. Some of the loudest voices condemning its critics as racist or intolerant are surprisingly docile regarding its implications for free speech and evidence-based research. After excoriating Scheer, for example, National Post columnist Coyne casually admitted that “the threat to press freedom is obvious.” But it’s a threat he seems willing to live with, since to condemn the document as a whole is, by his definition, to align oneself with right-wing fear-mongers.
Ultimately, the power of balancing the residual freedoms of national populations to speak, write, think and even live as they used to against the new freedom of migrants to live where they wish is likely to reside in the courts rather than in bodies that face democratic accountability. For most “progressives”, that’s more a feature than a bug, however, for they have won so many key battles in that forum.
With its creation of a new protected class of “migrant” and promotion of the concept of a borderless world, the UN Migration Compact presents a long-term threat to national sovereignty and domestic control of immigration policy. This is countered by the current global political climate that is increasingly favouring borders and strict immigration controls. Probably because of this, the document’s authors appear to be playing the long game. Rather than seeking an immediate revolution in cross-border population movements, the agreement instead proposes to exert increasing control over how people think, speak and engage with the topic of immigration.
It’s thus entirely possible that, in the short term, the UN Migration Compact will have a much greater effect in damaging free speech than in furthering the unhindered movement of people around the world. Still, if every immigration critic can be silenced and all research efforts directed to present an unambiguously positive view, then perhaps a beneficent and orderly international consensus can be forged to create a universal right to migration.
Lloyd W. Robertson is a retired government employee living in Burlington, Ontario, with a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Toronto, who taught for many years at the post-secondary level.