Louise Arbour: European migrant crisis ′generated a consciousness′ | Globalization | DW | 13.07.2018
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Louise Arbour: European migrant crisis 'generated a consciousness'

The UN has been working on a new Global Compact which aims to help better coordinate migration regulations, while also protecting migrants themselves. But how will these ambitious goals be met?

Around the world, the number of migrants and refugees are increasing and many countries are currently struggling with illegal migration. To better regulate migration internationally, the United Nations (UN) has been negotiating a new Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). The draft text is expected to be finalized this week with the agreement aiming to help countries better coordinate migration regulations and curb illegal migration while also protecting the rights of migrants. However, critics are already concerned these ambitious goals won't be met, partly because the compact is not legally binding.

To find out more, DW spoke with the UN Special Representative for International Migration, Louise Arbour, who has been part of the compact negotiations from the outset.

DW: Why is a global compact for migration needed?

UN Special Representative for International Migration, Louise Arbour (picture-alliance/dpa)

UN Special Representative for International Migration, Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour: Well I think we just have to look at what happened in Europe, starting around 2015, to realize the fact that the UN had never before seriously, and in a global fashion, addressed human mobility. It produced the kind of chaos that happened then and that is actually happening in lots of other parts of the world but maybe less visibly, with less media coverage. So I think it generated a consciousness that as much as states are very wary of any encroachment on their sovereignty when it comes to migration issues, they've also come to understand that it can only work if there is a better co-operative framework. I think that's the genesis and the impetus for where we are today. 

Some countries see migration as an opportunity for the migrants. Others have stressed that it's a strain on receiving countries. How do you make sense of that? At the same time you have some countries which are probably less willing to adhere to international contracts, so how difficult is it to even agree on new regulations?

Well first let me stress that these are not regulations as such. The Global Compact is, broadly speaking, an agreement by member states to cooperate with each other through a variety of initiatives towards a series of objectives essentially to increase safe, orderly and regular migration and therefore to decrease disorderly, unsafe, chaotic, illegal irregular migration. And in the negotiations I think the member states came to realize that it's in their collective interest to put in place measures that will facilitate human mobility in a safe and orderly fashion and to discourage, if not eliminate altogether, irregular and illegal flows of people who often feel that they have no other means of making a living or accessing a safe country. 

Read more: Where do EU countries stand on migration? 

Young migrants and refugees stand at a fence of the Moria detention center in Greece (Getty Images/AFP/A. Messinis)

Young migrants and refugees stand at a fence of the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos

The US administration pulled out of the negotiations for the migration compact last year, citing concerns over national sovereignty due to migration. This fear of giving up national sovereignty might also be present in other countries and it is also being exploited by populists who stir up fear of migrants. How does the compact address these concerns?

Well actually, the compact itself very explicitly recognizes that member states have the right, the prerogative, and I would say they actually have the responsibility, to control their borders and to determine who is on their territory under what terms and conditions — subject of course to existing international laws. However, I think what the current reality shows us is the best way for states to actually enforce their national policies is through the cooperation of other states. Let's take the example of someone who comes in and claims to be a refugee. In most European countries there are very sophisticated legal processes to determine the validity of that claim. And after that determination is made, in some cases the person will be told your asylum claim is rejected. This return issue is virtually impossible to enforce unless the state of origin cooperates. 

Countries like Nigeria, also other countries, have so far refused to take back their citizens who have not been granted asylum. Does the compact suggest that they should take citizens back?

Well, without pointing to any country in particular, you have to understand all the forces that are at play

People are going to come back who don't want to be there. Most likely they will be unemployed and you will have the net loss of their remittances — the money that they would send home to their village, to their family and so on which in total is three times what the government receives in foreign aid.

There was a lot of debate about what are the best ways to discourage irregular migrants. The only answer should not be to return to the country of origin. Very often it's in everybody's interest to regularize these people for instance by granting them a work permit for a certain period of time. This compact will facilitate countries of destination to opening a variety of legal pathways for people to access the labour market in the formal economy, not in the black market economy. And in contrast we'll expect from their partners elsewhere to be more cooperative when it comes to returning their citizens who no longer have a right to be there. This is the kind of cooperation that the compact is trying to encourage.

African and European leaders meet in Paris in August 2017 to discuss migration (Getty Images/AFP/L. Marin)

African and European leaders meet in Paris in August 2017 to try and develop a 'new relationship' aimed at stemming the flow of migrants into Europe from northern Africa in return for aid

This migration compact will not be legally binding for any of the countries. But if it's not legally binding what can it achieve?

This does not create a set of new legal obligations. It reaffirms existing ones. And there are lots of obligations that already exist under, for instance, international human rights law. But to the extent that there's real political will to make this cooperative framework work it will, in my view, produce a much better result. And you know, we've had about a year of consultation and now about six months of negotiations. And if member states come together and say we agree to pursue these 23 objectives seriously, all together in a global fashion then frankly — not overnight but over time — I think we're going to see better results. 

This is a huge step forward, but it's only one step. This is not the end of the road. In fact, I think in 20 years we'll look back at 2018 as the beginning of a genuine effort to facilitate and harness the benefits of human mobility and to mitigate its negative aspects.

Isn't there a danger that this is just going to be a great idea on paper and not really become reality?

In my opinion, it has already started to change the narrative to come back to reality, not mythology, and address misperceptions about migration. It's not particularly helpful actually to have a debate as to whether migration is a good thing or a bad thing. You know what, it's a thing. It happens. It has always happened. In all likelihood people will continue to move. And it's in everybody's interest.

A lot of developing countries were built on the migratory flows of labor and talent at all skill levels that came to build our economies. And as our populations are ageing in the global north, we're going to need a lot of human resources coming from elsewhere to sustain the kinds of economic growth expectations that we all have. So this has all been part, I think, of the consciousness that we have to move away from ideological debates about identity and so on and take a hard look at the reality of the world we live in.

Louise Arbour is currently the United Nations Special Representative for International Migration. Previously, she served as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, she made history with the first indictment of a sitting head of state, Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. She also brought the first prosecution of sexual assault as part of the articles of crimes against humanity. 

This interview was conducted by Anke Rasper. 

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