As COVID-19 Slows Human Mobility, Can the Global Compact for Migration Meet the Test for a Changed Era?

Just as most of the world’s nations were preparing to implement the first-ever comprehensive global agreement on migration, the COVID-19 outbreak fundamentally shifted the way human mobility is managed. Most countries have resorted to migration management tools such as border closures or travel bans to contain the spread of the pandemic, and public-health considerations are now at the heart of policy decisions on mobility. These developments come as a test for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration and international cooperation on migration more broadly: how flexibly can the pact formally approved by 152 governments at the UN General Assembly in late 2018 adjust to these new circumstances?

This year is supposed to be about bringing the compact from paper to reality. For the first time, states will come together in regional review fora in the second half of 2020 to present and share progress on national action plans. These meetings offer a chance to demonstrate the relevance of the compact at a time when the pandemic presents a common challenge to states across the migration continuum. However, governments may have a difficult time bringing attention to the meetings or moving to implementation of tangible compact deliverables at a time they face more pressing domestic concerns. Overhanging all this is the knowledge that the political price to enact the compact was extremely steep for some states and may now have been for naught if the agreement fails to deliver on its ambitions.

As the conversation on the compact’s implementation resumes under a new reality, the ripple effects of the pandemic may be felt at two levels in particular. First, the coronavirus outbreak risks lowering states’ level of ambition precisely at a time when the momentum of the regional review meetings could be used to make the pact’s value more tangible—both for states and for migrants themselves. Following up on national action plans might move lower on the political agenda in light of public health or economic worries. And in a world reshaped by responses to the virus, some countries now face unanticipated constraints in implementing their priority objectives or providing technical assistance and capacity building to partners. Meeting one of the compact’s objectives, the facilitation of safe and dignified return for migrants and asylum seekers ineligible to remain in a country, has become even more difficult in the wake of African bans on the landing of many flights coming from Europe, for example.

Second, financing will be a heightened concern as new competition to fund other priorities could have spinoff effects on the Multi-Partner Trust Fund, a start-up fund intended to help state and nonstate actors implement objectives under the pact. The current fundraising strategy focuses on kickstarting the pact’s implementation quickly to increase the fund’s visibility to potential donors. Yet with palpable progress on the ground likely to materialize more slowly than anticipated, this strategy might not play out as intended. Before the coronavirus outbreak, countries such as Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom had slowly started to pledge contributions to the fund. Given ongoing sensitivities around the compact in Europe, some other EU Member States have so far not made financial commitments to the fund, and the European Union opted to directly support UN Migration Network activities instead. Now, as major donor countries find themselves at the epicenter of the pandemic, governments may be less inclined to free up resources for the trust fund. And while the looming global recession makes it even more important to use the 9.7 million euros pledged so far wisely, including on coronavirus-related projects such as facilitating migrants’ access to health care, it also creates greater uncertainty whether the fund will meet its initial 23 million euro target for 2020 and where the threshold of future funding ambitions should lie.

Does the Global Compact on Migration Matter in this New Era?

The global pandemic is causing many states to look inward and reconsider their interconnectedness and dependency on other countries. At a time when countries are under severe economic strain and the tendency to put national interests first is even more pronounced than usual, international cooperation on an already sensitive topic such as migration will only become more difficult. But the pandemic also offers a chance to make the case for the necessity of the compact by showing how enhanced multilateral engagement helps governments address issues at home. From a public-health perspective, the virus does not distinguish between nationals or migrants, and having a two-tiered system in place to access essential medical service during this health crisis serves no one’s interest. Although travel has become severely restricted, some migration remains critical. For example, securing supply chains and preventing shortages of essential migrant workers—from seasonal agricultural workers to health-care professionals working abroad—is a vital concern in many countries. The safety and working conditions of these workers must be safeguarded. Here, the compact’s objective on fair recruitment and safeguarding decent work, in which states commit themselves to identify best practices in labor mobility at all skills levels, could provide an umbrella framework for guiding governments’ responses within and across regional dialogues.

How exceptional the current circumstances are and how sweeping the changes will be for human mobility going forward depend on how long the pandemic’s repercussions will be felt. Even now, it is clear the guiding principle that set the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in motion in the first place still holds: states need to work together beyond bilateral and regional cooperation to find more effective ways to address migration. The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply underscored the futility of states trying to manage transnational challenges on their own. At the same time, multilateral engagement on migration remains fragile and will continue to come under attack—especially if agreements such as the compact appear toothless in practice in the face of common concerns. The upcoming regional review meetings and the compact process writ large will now need to prove their usefulness in offering a framework to guide conversations and joint responses, and perhaps even become a center of gravity for thinking through what managing human mobility looks like in a post-COVID-19 era. The coming months will be critical to show the compact is up to the challenge.


Published: 28 April 2020

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