This week, more than 160 countries gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco at a special Intergovernmental Conference to adopt a first-ever non-binding framework for international cooperation on migration: the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. But in the lead-up to Marrakesh, what had been a highly collaborative process turned into an extremely divisive political issue in one country after another, due in part to the spread of false assumptions through a social-media disinformation campaign.
The Global Compact for Migration, or GCM, was an outcome of a September 2016 United Nations’ Summit on Refugees and Migrants, where 193 countries pledged to work together over a two-year period to produce both the GCM and an analogous Global Compact on Refugees. But the GCM’s origins reach back much further, and include a decade-long series of annual meetings of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), a voluntary intergovernmental (and civil-society) platform aimed at promoting ways of reducing the costs of migration and increasing its benefits to countries of origin, countries of destination, and migrants themselves.
The refugee compact largely reinforces existing international law on refugees and incorporates a noncontroversial refugee response mechanism. The GCM (the migration compact), on the other hand, is more forward-looking. It calls for the voluntary adoption of measures to make migration processes more safe and orderly. It notes that migrants, like all human beings, are entitled to a basic set of universal human rights. The Compact encourages governments to observe the human rights of migrants, make better use of the skills they bring, and develop needed legal pathways for migration in order to reduce pressures for unauthorized movements.
The GCM’s 23 objectives are intentionally broad and nonprescriptive so that each government can adapt the principles to their own contexts and laws. Objectives include improving enforcement of immigration laws, providing migrants with access to basic human services, and discouraging xenophobic responses to migrants. The Compact also points to the need for measures to address displacement related to the impacts of climate change. The full text of the compact is publicly available.
The overall tone of the GCM is positive and optimistic. Although migration is a politically charged topic, the GCM marks a significant acknowledgement of the value of international cooperation to address the impact of global migration-related issues that are too complex for any one country acting alone.
It is important to note that the GCM is not a formal UN treaty. It is a voluntary agreement that establishes no new binding international legal obligations. The text of the compact explicitly respects the sovereign right of each UN member-state to determine its own immigration policies and control who has the legal right to cross its borders.
Still, the GCM has been met with vociferous opposition from certain quarters. At the beginning of the GCM process, some migrant rights advocates tempered overall support with concerns that the compact would remain a toothless declaration of good intentions, or even undermine long-established UN human rights treaties, nearly all provisions of which apply to citizens and non-citizens alike. However, by July 2018, when the text was finalized, most advocates saw the GCM as an imperfect but important and symbolic step forward, even if its high-minded principles would require strong national-level actions to make a meaningful difference in the lives of migrants.
The most significant opposition to the GCM has come from the global political right — with the United States casting the first stone. Under President Obama, the US government had strongly supported the GCM. But in December 2017, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the GCM process, with the disingenuous claim that the Compact compromised US national sovereignty. President Trump reiterated this position in his September 2018 address to the UN General Assembly.
From the standpoint of many GCM insiders, it was just as well that the US withdrew when it did. Few people outside the migration policy community had even heard of the GCM prior to the Trump administration’s withdrawal, and the Compact attracted little attention in the US thereafter. So when governments wrangled over the wording of the Compact during the first six months of 2018, they did so in the absence of rhetorical bomb-throwing from the Trump Administration.
In hindsight, it seems the Compact’s opponents were simply biding their time.
In July 2018, Hungary became the only other country to follow the US lead and withdraw from the GCM— no surprise there, given Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s sharp anti-migrant rhetoric and policies.
But something happened in the last few months before the December conference in Marrakesh. Australia pulled out of the Global Compact — as did Israel, reportedly at the direct request of its ally the United States. Austria announced its withdrawal in late October, triggering a cascade of further withdrawals by other countries in Central and Eastern Europe — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Latvia and Italy. Estonia teetered, and debate over the pact has torn apart the ruling coalition of Belgium, another surprising outcome given Belgium’s leadership in spearheading the GFMD in 2007. Switzerland, which had played an outsized role in co-chairing along with Mexico the preparations for the GCM, announced that it would not approve the compact in Marrakesh but submit it to parliamentary debate.
Then, on December 7, 2018, on the very eve of the Marrakesh Conference, the US Mission to the UN issued a “National Statement” reiterating US opposition to the GCM. Earlier that week, the Dominican Republic withdrew from the compact, reportedly on the request of the US. At the time of writing this piece, Chile became the latest defection.
The timeframe for these withdrawals coincides with a sudden and massive social media campaign, promulgated early on by actors such as Austria’s white nationalist “identitarian” movement and the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland. Twitter hashtags like #Migrationspakt broke out in late October and soon engulfed the German-language internet, associated with fear-mongering misrepresentation of the compact. Anti-GCM YouTube videos appeared in various languages, almost all dating from mid-September onwards — some replete with neofascist iconography. These videos reached a cumulative total of some two million views by December.
The social media campaign amplifies a set of false claims about the GCM: that it erases national sovereignty, supports an unfettered right to migrate, forces nations to regularize their undocumented immigrants, eliminates the distinction between migrants and refugees, and criminalizes anti-migrant speech. None of these claims are true. As the Economist points out, “European governments are in a melt-down over an inoffensive compact.”
The messaging and talking points are extremely consistent across platforms - suspiciously so. Informed observers are convinced of the strong likelihood of a coordinated disinformation campaign, which has leapt from the political fringes to mainstream media and right-wing parties in power in governments across Europe and beyond. Further empirical analysis of anti-GCM social media is likely to yield evidence that will be broadly relevant to understanding the role of specific actors in the intentional spread of divisive messages across the virtual expanses of the Internet.
Despite the strength of the opposition campaign, the majority of the world’s governments remain firmly committed to the GCM. At the Marrakesh Conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly defending the compact, citing trumped-up opposition to it as “nationalism in its purest form,” and defining the accord as central to the UN’s mission of international cooperation.
After the Marrakesh conference, the Compact moves to the UN General Assembly for a formal vote to endorse the pact, scheduled for December 19. Expect an intensification of the media campaign against both the migration and refugee compacts. And consider the source of the agitation.
John Slocum is a nonresident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and an associate senior researcher at CIDOB, the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs. He previously served as program director for migration at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which provided funding for the Global Forum on Migration and Development, and was a member of the Stakeholder Steering Committee for the UN General Assembly Preparatory Process for the Global Compact on Migration.