Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

UN Pact Doesn’t Define ‘Migrant’

A new agreement to ‘strengthen migrant rights’ doesn’t explain who qualifies.

screen grab from a UN website (click)

Early next week, the governments of Canada, the UK, Germany, France, and many others will gather in Morocco to ratify a comprehensive, historic UN framework called the Global Compact for Migration (GCM).

There are several reasons to be concerned about this 34-page milestone, which seeks to “strengthen migrant rights.” Let’s start with the most obvious: it fails to define who is and is not a migrant.

The agreement enumerates 23 objectives, each of which is accompanied by an average of eight sub-paragraphs (187 in total). Yet who specifically qualifies is never spelled out.

When discussing the importance of good data, a reference is made to “the statistical definition of an international migrant.” That’s it. Nothing more is added or explained. How can this be?

Here’s a clue. According to the UN’s refugee agency:

A uniform legal definition of the term ‘migrant’ does not exist at the international level. [document here, web post here, see point #5]

Excuse me? We’re signing up even though there’s no agreement about basic terminology?

The refugee agency helpfully explains that the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ are not interchangeable because, while the safety of refugees is threatened in their home country,

‘Migration’ is often understood to imply a voluntary process, for example, someone who crosses a border in search of better economic opportunities.

Over at the website of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), we similarly read that

Migrants are people who make choices about when to leave and where to go, even though these choices are sometime extremely constrained.

An additional UN entity, the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, has proposed a three-part description of who should be considered a migrant. This “broad definition”

reflects the current difficulty in distinguishing between migrants who leave their countries because of political persecution, conflicts, economic problems, environmental degradation or a combination of these reasons and those who do so in search of conditions of survival or well-being that does not exist in their place of origin. [source]

In other words: the entire conversation is a minefield.

Let’s be serious. This about-to-be-ratified UN pact contains numerous sentences that begin with “We commit to…” followed shortly thereafter by words such as “guarantee” and “ensure.” It is irresponsible to sign this document without delineating to whom it applies and to whom it doesn’t.

Many countries have a track record of compassion and generosity toward refugees – of welcoming individuals genuinely in trouble. But this new UN pact isn’t about helping refugees.

Instead, it appears to be an utterly naive, open invitation for people born elsewhere to 1) eschew normal immigration channels, 2) just show up at our borders, and 3) start demanding a very long list of services and protections.


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  • download the 34-page Global Compact for Migration here
  • read the UN refugee agency’s FAQ about the differences between refugees and migrants here
  • see UNESCO’s discussion here

EDIT: An earlier version of this post began with: “This coming weekend, the governments of Canada…” I’ve since changed this to “Early next week…” My apologies for the error. November 10-11 fell on a weekend, but December 10-11 are a Monday and a Tuesday.


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This entry was posted on December 3, 2018 by in ethical & philosophical and tagged , .