Blog post written by Nicolette Busuttil (QMUL) and forms part of a series of blog posts analysing the final draft (objective by objective) of the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.


International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, article 11(1): The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 12(2): Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.




Objective 2 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), builds on States’ commitment in the New York Declaration to address those migration drivers and structural factors which create or exacerbate large movements of people. The stated focus is on minimising irregular migration, with the drivers referred to as ‘adverse’, given their propensity to propel individuals and communities to leave their countries of origin out of necessity rather than choice. The New York Declaration articulated how underdevelopment fuels desperation and deteriorating environments, including through turbulent political, socioeconomic and environmental conditions, which compel people to move in order to survive. These situations, where individuals are driven to move because their livelihood depends on it, are acknowledged in both instruments as undesirable.


Hence, Objective 2 specifies twelve actions which States are to draw from to realise their commitment to addressing and minimising these adverse migration drivers and structural factors. The twelve actions are categorised into two sets, with seven actions explicitly addressing underdevelopment, focusing on the importance of sustainable development. Broadly speaking, these focus on: the need to promote development initiatives and agreements; invest in programmes which deliver on the commitments therein; develop mechanisms which monitor and anticipate risks or threats that contribute to migration movements; invest in sustainable development and human capital development; strengthen collaboration between humanitarian and development actors; and, account for migrants in national emergency responses. The remaining five actions deal exclusively with action to be taken by States in respect of natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change and environmental degradation, so as to minimise the disruptive effect these events pose to individuals’ lives. They call on States to strengthen joint analysis and information-sharing, develop adaptation and resilience strategies to environmental change, integrate displacement considerations when preparing for disaster responses, develop approaches to address the vulnerabilities of those affected by disasters, and to address migration movements in the context of natural disasters.


Comparison and significant changes


Throughout the course of negotiations, the text of Objective 2 was not subject to the controversy reserved for other parts of the GCM, resulting in a Final Draft with limited changes from the proposed wording in the Zero Draft, beyond the reordering and classification of paragraphs. In this post, I refer to the more significant of these changes in addition to the somewhat problematic understanding of migration drivers which seemingly informs the text in Objective 2 and begs the question as to whether the lofty aspirations identified therein are likely to remain at the level of rhetorical flourish.


The changes that have been made serve to further embed the GCM within the framework of other international instruments meant to address development and environmental issues. Notable among these is the inclusion of the reference to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the chapeau to Paragraph 18, with States committing to ensuring its ‘timely and full implementation’. Whilst the importance of promoting the operationalisation of the 2030 Agenda had already been noted in the Zero Draft, its full implementation now becomes a commitment framing the rest of the actions under Objective 2. In so doing, the GCM makes explicit the role played by socioeconomic and environmental conditions in shaping migrants’ decisions to leave their countries, further highlighting how the success and impact of the GCM to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration is dependent on the fulfilment of commitments already made by the international community.


In addition to the 2030 Agenda, the commitment to refer to and implement existing frameworks, specifically the Addis Ababa Action Agenda relating to financing for development, the Nansen Initiative Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change and its follow-up, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster (MCIC Guidelines), the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, anchors the GCM within existing initiatives at international level. This goes a long way towards illustrating that, in addition to its non-binding nature, States are not incurring new obligations in the GCM but consolidating their existing ones, thereby belying the political arguments currently employed to dissuade States from adopting it. In fact, despite a number of States’ fearmongering about a perceived imposition of additional obligations, more than being a migrants’ charter of rights, the GCM clearly illustrates that ‘states’ interests are also front and centre’.


Underdevelopment as an adverse driver of migration


It could be argued that a key change has been a softening of the language in Objective 2. States are now only enjoined to ‘draw from’ the actions identified in Paragraph 18, these being the same actions which were initially considered ‘instrumental’ in realising the commitment to make migration a choice and not a necessity. However, this is offset by the change to the paragraph dealing with the investment in programmes to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. Initially, the foreseen investment had as its aim the minimisation of adverse and structural drivers of migration, whereas it now calls for their elimination altogether. Moreover, the desired programmes initially called for ‘poverty alleviation’ whereas they now call for ‘poverty elimination’, recognise the importance of ‘inclusive economic growth’ and expressly mention the role of food security, health and sanitation unlike previous iterations. The added reference to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is welcome. Given the feminisation of poverty and the pervasiveness of gender inequality it is in line with the commitment to ‘reach the furthest behind first’ (para 18(a)).


This being said, a glaring omission in the GCM is the absence of a definition as to what is meant by the ‘adverse drivers and structural factors’ to be addressed through Objective 2, terms which have generated considerable debate in scholarly works (see, for example, Carling & Collins 2018). The closest the GCM comes to identifying what it seeks to address is by inference, as when it provides an inclusive list of programmes which would go a long way towards meeting States’ SDG commitments. These initiatives would include those focused on ‘‘poverty eradication, food security, health and sanitation, education, inclusive economic growth, infrastructure, urban and rural development, employment creation, decent work, gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, resilience and disaster risk reduction, climate change mitigation and adaptation, addressing the socioeconomic effects of all forms of violence, nondiscrimination, rule of law and good governance, access to justice and protection of human rights’’ (para 18(b)).


The wording used clarifies the role played by underdevelopment and human rights violations in forcing people to leave their countries by indicating that they are among the ‘adverse drivers and structural factors’ which instigate mass movement. As has been noted elsewhere, a more robust identification of these adverse drivers and structural factors would have been welcome, as would the clearer outlining of the relationship between migration and development. The absence of a definition stands in contrast to the New York Declaration which acknowledged the multiple and often compound reasons why people move, specifying ‘poverty, underdevelopment, lack of opportunities, poor governance and environmental factors’ as drivers of migration and the role played by human rights violations in international migration (Annex II para 7).


However, it is here that the logic of increasing development to reduce migration needs to be interrogated. Objective 2 is seemingly based on the assumption that more conducive political, economic, social and environmental conditions would enable people to lead peaceful, productive and sustainable lives in their own country, thereby resulting in less migration. Whilst development and the respect, promotion and fulfilment of rights are certainly laudable aspirations for States to work towards, and which will significantly improve the lives of many, a conclusion that improved conditions will reduce migration is not borne out by the evidence. Development has been shown to lead to higher levels of emigration, at least in the short- to medium-term. Flahaux and De Haas have analysed African migration to point out just how ‘”development” in poor countries … [is]… generally associated to increasing rather than decreasing levels of mobility and migration”. Indeed, conceiving of development and migration in a linear push-pull manner, where underdevelopment fuels migration and development minimises it, tends to overlook the humanity of the migrant, as a person with unique hopes, fears and dreams which can include ‘aspirations’ to migrate for reasons going beyond improving one’s socioeconomic conditions. Of course, in line with de Haas’ ‘aspirations-capabilities framework’ the realisation of these aspirations work in tandem with the capability to do so, with this including sufficient income, given that the migratory process tends to be a financially costly one.


Aspirations are alluded to in Objective 2, with the inclusion in Paragraph 18’s chapeau of a commitment that conditions are put in place for people ‘to fulfil their personal aspirations’. Additionally, Objective 2 purportedly seeks the minimisation of ‘irregular migration’ and not all migration. Nonetheless, in the absence of an articulation of what is meant by ‘irregular migration‘ for the purposes of the GCM, despite calls throughout negotiations to do so, the tenor of the actions outlined in paragraph 18 point towards a desire to reduce migration in general. For example, as has been noted elsewhere, in contrast to the opening statement acknowledging how migration can bring benefits to all, Objective 2’s focus is on tackling drivers of migration exclusively in poor countries. The ‘root causes’ approach advocated for in the New York Declaration (para 30) problematises migration as a phenomenon to be stemmed rather than recognising the opportunities it can bring. Thus, in paragraph 18(d), we see a change from States being called to invest in sustainable development so people can improve their lives and meet their aspirations to an action to create ‘conducive conditions that allow communities and individuals to take advantage of opportunities in their own countries’.


Environmental drivers of migration


As Aleinikoff and Martin have noted, the GCM is ground-breaking for its explicit reference to environmental drivers of migration. It represents a collective effort by States to address the plight of some of those whose lives are uprooted for reasons outside of the international refugee protection regime and for whom there is no immediate prospect of return.


It is pertinent to note the change in paragraph 18(h), which now incorporates a human rights dimension in strengthening joint analysis and sharing of information in the context of understanding and planning for climate change-related migration. States are called to ensure the ‘effective respect, protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all migrants’. A further welcome change introduced in the latter stages of negotiation is the reference to ensuring respect for rights in the delivery of humanitarian assistance provided to those affected by sudden-onset and slow-onset natural disasters.


Yet, despite the inclusion of environmental drivers and their articulation in rights language, States’ preoccupation with containment within national borders is also best exemplified by this set of actions. The actions outlined in Objective 2 stop short of specifying the long-term prospects for those migrants forced to move because of environmental issues. There is no non-refoulement prohibition which precludes their return to the places they fled from. Instead, we see how the initial action calling for the ‘development of tailored migration schemes … including planned temporary and permanent relocation to facilitate migration as an adaptation strategy’ (Zero Draft, para 15(j)) is supplanted by the action to develop adaptation and resilience strategies which omit any reference to relocation and instead set out that ‘adaptation in the country of origin is a priority’ (Final Draft, para 15(i)).


This emphasis on adaptation in the country of origin is exceptionally jarring, as it follows a list of some of the changing realities people are forced to face including ‘desertification, land degradation, drought and sea level rise’. It is not far-fetched to contemplate how these situations could give rise to abysmal living conditions which could constitute rights violations for those involved insofar as they preclude the ability to live a life in dignity. It is paragraph 21(g) under Objective 5 which provides a means through which those affected by ‘sudden-onset natural disasters and other precarious situations’ may find a pathway to move while return to their country is not possible. Nonetheless, as has been noted earlier on in this series, those provisions which initially guaranteed migrants’ rights with a view to establishing safe, legal pathways for migration have disappeared from the final text or become intentionally vague.


In this context, the GCM’s focus on containment is made evident, with the suggested change during negotiations to ‘use practical migration measures’ when adaptation in country of origin is not feasible considered as not going far enough, leading to the final version with its recognition of adaptation in the country of origin as a priority. Additionally, given that the vast majority of migrants displaced by environmental phenomena remain within national borders, the GCM’s omission to refer to internal movements arising from environmental conditions is also of concern.


In this light, the absence of any reference to the human right to leave one’s country assumes greater relevance. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both specify the right of the individual to leave any country, including her own. Yet, the lack of any explicit reference to the right and the use of language in Objective 2 which prioritises non-movement, paints a grim picture where individual rights are sacrificed at the altar of migration control.


The future


In conclusion, there is much to welcome in the GCM’s attempt to improve socioeconomic conditions for individuals and communities and to better prepare for the devastating effects of climate change and other environmental degradation. However, in evaluating the potential success of the GCM’s objectives, it might be worth to pay heed to Audre Lorde’s words referencing the multidimensional aspects of human existence. Her observation that ‘[t]here is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives’ resonates with those for whom the drive to migrate is not reducible to a single factor or factors limited to improved socio-economic conditions.


Thus, in the context of both development and environmental change, the success of Objective 2 to make migration a choice rather than a necessity is beholden to States fulfilling it in the spirit of the principle of shared responsibility outlined in its vision and guiding principles, whilst respecting the migrant’s individual rights in line with their humanity.



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