Migrants' Rights Network

A Rights-Based Approach to Migration on an International Scale?

The UK has pressing migration issues to tackle at the moment, but there are discussions on the topic that go beyond Brexit. States around the world have been discussing the implementation of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants – which provides grounds for optimism about the possibility of a positive, global discourse on migration. The New York Declaration’s Global Compact could even be used as a framework for a rights-based approach to post-Brexit migration.


The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants is a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2016. It led to the drafting of a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This rather progressive initiative engages all States (bar the USA, who have removed themselves from the process) to work towards a migration policy guided by ten principles (to which I return below).

After much discussion and deliberation in Mexico in late 2017, the Compact’s ‘Zero Draft’ document has just been released. As surprising as this may sound to some, the Compact is so far a positive document. Firstly, it is based on human rights principles, a sound foundation on which to build any future framework on migration. Secondly, it is explicit that “international migration unites us rather than divides us” – a sentiment that we would certainly echo.

People-centre principles

A key tenet and starting principle of the Compact is a people-centred approach: “The Global Compact carries a strong human dimension to it, inherent to the migration experience itself. As a result, the Global Compact places individuals at its core.”

Centring policy around migrants and their experiences is refreshing: when migrants feature in government policy in the UK, it tends to be through a set of criteria and conditions they have to meet in order to be considered legitimate. Indeed, recent denunciations of the UK asylum system expose quite clearly how far this system is from centring on individual, human experience.

More broadly, how often do we, in the migration and refugee sector, forget to place migrants themselves at the heart of policy, campaigning and decision-making processes?

The other nine guiding principles for the Global Compact are:

  • International cooperation:  The goal is for migration policies to be consensual, favouring collective ownership and joint implementation.
  • National sovereignty: The reaffirmation of the right of States to exert sovereignty over their national migration policy.
  • Rule of law and due process: The respect for the rule of law and due process is fundamental to all aspects of migration governance.
  • Sustainable development: The Global Compact is guided by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • Human rights: International human rights law and standards ensure that all migrants’ human rights are protected and fulfilled, regardless of their status.
  • Gender-responsive: The human rights of women, men, girls and boys are respected, and all gender groups are empowered as agents of change. In particular, this involves moving away from perspectives that view women through the lens of victimhood.
  • Child-sensitive: The best interests of the child are to be upheld as primary considerations for migration policy.
  • Whole-of-government approach: The development and implementation of effective migration policies and practices should be undertaken in a way that integrates all dimensions and institutions of governance, holistically.  whole-of-government approach
  • Whole-of-society approach: Multi-stakeholder partnerships should be promoted and include migrants, diasporas, local communities, civil society organisations, academia, the private sector, parliamentarians, trade unions, national human rights institutions, the media, and other relevant actors.

Taking notice?

Overall the principles themselves are robust. They could be implemented relatively easily, if States proved willing. The natural concerns about the Global Compact’s principles, and the overall New York Declaration process, are:

  1. The Compact is non-binding, leading to fears that it will be a dud – though arguably, even binding agreements have been happily sidestepped;
  2. The Compact continues to emphasise national sovereignty; the US used this argument to “throw its toys out of the pram” and claim that they were thus entitled to completely ignore the New York Declaration. As the urgency of thinking migration in its totality and on a global level becomes clearer, however, States will have little choice but to look beyond their own backyards. There are thus good reasons to consider this document a momentous step in the migration dialogue.

Maybe it’s time to be slightly more optimistic about migration policy on a global scale. We can hope that the States involved will continue to engage with the Compact’s guiding principles, and champion an approach to migration- in which needs and benefits aren’t just understood in terms of migants’ economic contributions, but rather in terms of their fundamental human rights.

In the pre/post Brexit limbo, with little idea about the kind of migration system we’re heading toward, could we push for this Global Compact to inform any future, national framework? A framework built on migrants’ human rights  would offer some hope and solutions to those without clear immigration status, and anyone else rendered insecure by our arbitrary and harsh immigration controls.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Fabien Cante

Add comment

Follow us

Don't be shy, get in touch. We love meeting interesting people and making new friends.