Foreign Affairs

The global migration agreement causing a stir

Days from the signing of a global migration agreement, the Government is yet to decide whether it will put pen to paper, while National has preemptively pledged to withdraw New Zealand from the deal. Sam Sachdeva reports on the agreement’s origins, and why it is proving so contentious.

It might seem hasty for an opposition party to pledge to withdraw from a global deal its government is yet to sign - but then again, it is equally rare for the same government to have not made up its mind just days out from a major signing ceremony.

Such is the current state of play with the United Nations’ Global Compact for Migration, which will be formally adopted at a conference in Morocco next week.

The Government has not yet decided whether New Zealand will be among the signatories: Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has said he and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters are still considering what to do.

That hasn’t stopped National leader Simon Bridges from announcing his party would pull the country out if it won power, saying New Zealanders “don’t need the UN to tell us what to do”.

Bridges said the party had received objections about the deal from “thousands of people” - but why has an issue which has largely bubbled beneath the surface of mainstream discourse suddenly sparked up?

A 'common understanding' on migration

Francis Collins, the director of New Zealand’s National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, said the compact was just the “most recent and most coordinated iteration” of a worldwide push for greater coordination around migration over the last 10 to 15 years.

“It’s really just an attempt I think to set a number of global norms, or we might even call them aspirations, that countries agreeing to the compact then might try to work towards around migration policy, to sort of get away from both the variations and some of the problematic outcomes of migration policy internationally.”

There has been a growing sense of crisis, most obviously in Europe where an influx of immigrants and asylum seekers in recent years, many from Muslim-majority countries, has created political and public tension.

The 34-page document, the result of intergovernmental consultation and negotiations which began in late 2016, sets out 23 “objectives” for signatories to move towards what is calls a “common understanding, shared responsibilities and unity of purpose regarding migration, making it work for all”.

“It is crucial that the challenges and opportunities of international migration unite us, rather than divide us.”

“Migration policy is often framed as a core component of sovereignty, and so nation states often say, ‘Look, the one thing we control is our borders’."

While that may seem innocuous enough, the agreement has proved controversial to both the UN’s usual critics and a number of major countries.

US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from negotiations shortly after taking office, while Italy, Israel, Poland and Switzerland are among those who will not attend the Morocco conference.

Closer to home, Australia has also opted against signing the compact. The country’s home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said the government was “not going to surrender our sovereignty” - language that has been echoed by National MPs in New Zealand.

“Migration policy is often framed as a core component of sovereignty, and so nation states often say, ‘Look, the one thing we control is our borders’,” Collins said.

That sentiment has been heightened by the growth of populist parties and politicians around the world, he said, placing even more emphasis on the control of borders.

Iain Lees-Galloway says New Zealand's concerns with the UN migration compact include provisions related to the provision of ID documents for migrants, and restrictions on freedom of speech. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

That’s not to say there aren’t specific areas of concern within the agreement itself.

Lees-Galloway said areas where the compact did not “align” with the Government’s policy included a provision requiring all migrants to be given legal proof of identity, as well as what he described as “what we would probably consider regulation of free speech”.

That seems a likely reference to a section calling on governments 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”.

National's foreign affairs spokesman Todd McClay said another concern for the party was a suggestion that legal and illegal migrants be given the same rights, while Collins said other pressure points were likely to be allow migrants to move freely between employers and have their family with them, regardless of their skill level or work visa.

“Thinking of our Pacific neighbours, how is it that we respond to the migration pressures that emerge in the context of climate change?”

Not a “headline issue” in the global debate, but of particular interest for New Zealand, were sections of the compact which covered planning for “slow-onset natural disasters” such as climate change.

“Thinking of our Pacific neighbours, how is it that we respond to the migration pressures that emerge in the context of climate change?”, Collins said.

However, he said New Zealand already complied with much of what was in the agreement, such as reducing the vulnerability of migrants, having safe recruitment practices, and using detention as a last resort.

The larger subtext to the concerns expressed by critics seems to be that the agreement could make nations powerless to stop a flood of migrants entering their borders.

However, Collins said the compact did not address how many migrants countries should be expecting, while the number of people entering a country should be kept distinct from the rights they had when they arrived.

Winston Peters has suggested New Zealand could yet seek changes to the migration agreement. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

“It is possible if you have very large numbers of people arriving in a country that the impacts on infrastructure can be significant, and we have to think about how we’re planning for that.

“But actually, having people who have less rights living in a country I would say is detrimental to everyone as well, because it reduces social cohesion, it increases inequality, and it means areas like the labour market are not operating in an ideal fashion because you’ve got people in a disadvantageous position.”

The compact’s supporters have tried to allay fears by pointing out its non-binding status, meaning countries who sign on can fail to follow through without the threat of sanctions.

With immigration having proved a hot-button topic for politicians keen to win votes on each side of the debate, whichever side of the fence the Government lands on is likely to cause a stir.

However, Peters suggested that “non-binding sometimes means binding”, while Bridges said that UN agreements had “a habit of making their way into law regardless of their status”.

Whether the Government will sign the compact or not seems genuinely up in the air: while Lees-Galloway said it was too late to change any of its concerning language, Peters suggested amendments at the Morocco event were possible - including from New Zealand.

And with immigration having proved a hot-button topic for politicians keen to win votes on each side of the debate, whichever side of the fence it lands on is likely to cause a stir.

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