Representatives from around the globe are gearing up for a major conference in Morocco to endorse a United Nations migration pact, despite a string of countries shunning the accord.
The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was finalised at the UN in July following 18 months of negotiations and will be formally adopted at the two-day gathering in Marrakesh starting on Monday.
The non-binding UN accord, which aims to promote a common approach to growing migrant flows, has become a target for populist politicians who denounce it as an affront to national sovereignty.
The United States quit negotiations last December and was followed by Hungary seven months later. Since then, Australia, Israel, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Latvia and the Dominican Republic have either publicly disavowed the pact or notified the United Nations they are not participating.
Rows over the accord have erupted in several European Union nations, threatening to tear apart Belgium’s coalition government and pushing Slovakia’s foreign minister to tender his resignation. But key backers led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in Morocco to endorse the pact and the UN remains upbeat that it can help the world better cope with the hot-button issue.
“I am very confident: a large number of states continue to keep their word, they reached agreement on 13 July in New York after very serious and very intense negotiations,” UN special representative for migration Louise Arbour told journalists. “The countries dropping out of the process today had after all obtained concessions during the negotiations and I must admit that I find it a little surprising.”
The global pact lays out 23 objectives to open up legal migration and better manage the influx as the number of people on the move worldwide has increased to over 250 million, or just over three percent of the world’s population. The deal had been held up as an example of a UN diplomatic success achieved without the U.S. at a time when President Donald Trump is questioning the relevance of the world body.
After the Marrakesh conference, the General Assembly is set to adopt a resolution formally endorsing the migration deal.
The pact has not only come under fire from right-wing politicians, but has also faced criticism from activists who argue that it does not go far enough on humanitarian aid, services and the rights of migrants.
Gotz Schmidt-Bremme, head of the UN initiative Global Forum on Migration and Development, admitted that the accord had become a “controversial text”, but insisted a common approach was needed. “Maybe the benefits of legal migration were over-emphasised and we forgot about the challenges… we underestimated the need of communities that above all want to see migrants integrate,” he told journalists.
Proponents of the deal have lashed out at what they see as a campaign to discredit the accord and turn it into a domestic political issue that can whip up voters.
“We are witnessing from some political sectors the manipulation, the distortion of the objectives of the pact,” said Antonio Vitorino, head of the International Organisation for Migration. “Certainly there are challenges, irregular immigration is a threat, but we must react to the negative narrative by mobilising politically.”
The leaders of Germany, Spain, Greece and Portugal are set to attend the conference, while French President Emmanuel Macron is sending a junior minister as he deals with the “yellow vest” protests at home.
Belgium’s liberal premier Charles Michel won the support of parliament to head to Morocco and back the accord, but his coalition risks losing the backing of a key Flemish nationalist party over the issue.
From the U.S. to Europe and beyond, right-wing leaders have been taking increasingly draconian measures to shut out migrants in recent years. Trump made curbing immigration and building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border a key election pledge and has focused his recent ire on a migrant caravan from Central America.
In Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment helped push a populist coalition to power in Italy that has clamped down on boats rescuing migrants at sea and Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban has pushed restrictive legislation.