Migrants stopped by Libyan authorities in Zawiya, northwestern Libya | Credit: ANSA/ZUHAIR ABUSREWIL
Migrants stopped by Libyan authorities in Zawiya, northwestern Libya | Credit: ANSA/ZUHAIR ABUSREWIL

December 2018 marked the culmination of two years of hard work by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its member states. Two new compacts, which were designed as roadmaps for managing mass migration, were adopted late last year, addressing an issue that shows no signs of slowing.

More than 25.4 million refugees, over half of them under the age of 18, were living away from their home countries at the end of 2017, according to UN statistics. 

As the two Compacts are taken up by countries around the world, let’s take a moment to cut through the jargon of the two agreements, and make clear what distinguishes one – the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) – from the other – the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR).

First, let’s start with what the compacts have in common. The two agreements both came out of the influx of migrants in 2015, growing out of the New York Declaration that was adopted in September 2016 — one on refugees, and one on migrants. They were both negotiated under the UN and had to be endorsed by members of the UN General Assembly. Both compacts are designed as frameworks for how to improve the lives of refugees and their host communities, both are non-binding, and both emphasize specific objectives.

Where do they differ?

To understand how the compacts differ, we first have to understand the difference between a migrant and a refugee. Refugees, according to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, are people who are outside of their home country because they fear persecution, conflict, or generalized violence, and thus require international protection.

An international migrant, on the other hand, is understood to be anyone who changes their country of residence, regardless of the reason for migration or their legal status. The UN distinguishes between a short-term, or temporary migration, and long-term or permanent migration.

Global Compact for Migration

The UN’s GCM covers all the dimensions of international migration "in a holistic and comprehensive manner," according to the UN. The agreement outlines best practices for managing migration around the world, and paints migrants as an opportunity for host communities, rather than a threat. While it’s not an international treaty, it has the potential to have legal implications in some cases if governments and judiciaries choose to adhere to the compact. 

The GCM, says Louise Arbour, the UN Special Representative for International Migration, is "designed to enhance safety and order in migration management, and reduce recourse to dangerous, chaotic migratory routes." In short, "maximizing all the benefits of human mobility and mitigat[ing] its challenges," she continues.

The Global Compact for Migration covers 258 million migrants worldwide and is rooted in international rights instruments. It includes all types of migrants, including refugees and economic migrants, and is targeted towards economic migrants and those seeking jobs abroad. 

In concrete terms, the GCM contains 23 objectives, which are wide-ranging and encapsulate everything from labor rights, migration detention, human trafficking, access to social services, xenophobia, recognition of skills and qualifications, remittances, repatriation, and climate change as a driver of displacement. For example, it includes the creation of a website that would serve as an information hub on immigration laws, visa requirements, work permit requirements, professional qualification requirements, training and study opportunities; as well as living costs and conditions. The document also calls for the establishment of information points along certain migratory routes.

What also sets the Global Compact for Migration apart is the fraught negotiation process that surrounded the agreement. The Compact has come under fire by right-wing actors in Europe and further afield who have concerns about issues related to sovereignty, with Germany’s Alternative for Germany party (AfD) going so far as to claim that the compact is a "hidden resettlement plan for economic migrants." After a two-year consultation process, 30 countries ended up withdrawing from the agreement, including Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Latvia amongst others.

Global Compact on Refugees

The Global Compact on Refugees encapsulates a set of measures to help host nations deal with migration management while respecting the rights of refugees. It was signed by 170 countries and is also non-binding. The GCR builds on the Refugee Convention, which focuses on the rights of refugees alongside the obligations of states, but not with ‘international cooperation’ per se. 

The Compact for Refugees, then, deals with the ‘how’ of migration management, rather than outlining what the responsibilities of each group are, as the Refugee Convention does. “In the compact, we will for the first time have a practical workable model, a set of tools that translates this principle into action,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The compact emphasizes a stronger, fairer response to large refugee movements and aims to provide more support for those fleeing, and for the countries that take them in, which are often amongst the poorest in the world. Its primary objectives are:

  • To ease pressures on countries that host large numbers of refugees (primarily low- and middle-income countries)
  • To build self-reliance of refugees and help them thrive in exile
  • To expand access to third-country pathways of admission and other resettlement programs; and
  • To support conditions that enable refugees to return to their countries of origin

In concrete terms what that means is that a more coherent, predictable and equitable international response to large refugee situations will be established, according to the UN. The compact contains a set of measures to assist host nations, whose public services and infrastructure are sometimes insufficient to cope with the increased burden of supporting displaced people. At the same time, the compact facilitates refugees to become self-sufficient in their host countries while seeking to improve conditions in their home countries to allow their safe and dignified return.


Both compacts were met with criticism and some hostility from certain member states. Both compacts were characterized by fraught negotiation processes, even as the UN insisted that the agreements don’t force new obligations outside of the 1951 Refugee Convention upon the participating countries. 


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