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The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) was adopted in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh on 10 and 11 December 2018, representing a major milestone in multilateral diplomacy. The urgency to establish the pact was spurred by record numbers of unregulated migration in recent years.
Roughly 258 million people are currently on the move after being forcibly uprooted. Since the year 2000, at least 60,000 people have perished while crossing irregularly by sea, through uninhabitable landscapes or in detention centres.
The pact thus aims to build a consensus on how to protect migrants while protecting sovereignty. Some of the agreed objectives included combating the structural causes of migration and promoting a public discourse that is rooted in facts. Perhaps the most ambitious objective is encouraging international efforts to save lives and find missing migrants.
Supporters of the compact say that these criticisms reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the GCM. They note that the compact is non-binding and voluntary, meaning countries that sign up and then violate its objectives cannot be penalized.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the adoption of the pact. “[The compact] is nothing less than the foundation of our international cooperation,” she told reporters.
Richard Gowen, a senior fellow at the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, wrote that the GCM can pave the way for more progressive policy in the future. Assessing the history of multilateral diplomacy, he argued that activists and governments can now reference the GCM when lobbying for a more humane response to migrants.
For all its compromises, the GCM does enshrine basic human rights considerations for migrants, who unlike refugees are unprotected in international law. For instance, the European contingent was pushing countries that produce the most migrants to readmit their deported citizens. That demand ignited a larger debate around whether the rule of non-refoulement should be applied to migrants.
Non-refoulement is the central principle of international refugee law, which stipulates that nobody can be returned to their country of origin or any country where they have a well-founded fear of torture or persecution. As a compromise, the GCM does not explicitly include the words ‘non-refoulement’ but it does stipulate in Objective 21 ‘the prohibition of collective expulsion and of returning migrants when there is a real and foreseeable risk of death and torture’.
Objective 21 thus signals a breakthrough in redefining international norms toward migration, though most migrants continue to suffer from inhumane treatment across the globe.
Some developing countries are nonetheless trying to implement modest reforms to their immigration system. Morocco, which hosted negotiations for the GCM, is a notable example.
In 2013, King Mohammad VI called for reforms to the country’s migration policy, including establishing a legal pathway to regulate undocumented persons. The king also stipulated that Morocco had to design an asylum law and a law against human trafficking, putting the North African country ahead of its regional neighbours regarding immigration policy.
The king’s decision was a victory for Moroccan and migrant civil society organizations (CSOs) in the country, most of which lobbied for years to end policy brutality against migrants and the exploitation of migrants in the informal labour market.
Kelsey Norman, a doctoral candidate at the department of Political Science at California University, wrote that the local NGO Groupe antiraciste d’Accompagnement et de Defense des Etrangers et Migrants (GADEM) should be particularly credited with advocating on behalf of migrants and foreigners since 2006.
In August 2013, GADEM released a critical report on Morocco’s migration practices. A summary of the report was later presented by the Moroccan Human Rights Council (CNDH) to government officials. The following month, on 9 September, GADEM presented the report during an international forum for human rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The next day, the king announced plans to modify the country’s immigration system.
‘GADEM and other [CSOs] concluded that the primary motivation behind the king’s announcement of reform was international shaming: Morocco despises humiliation on the international stage,’ wrote Norman.
By early 2015, more than 16,000 migrants had received residence permits, although over 10,000 had their requests denied. Many migrants reportedly told CSOs that women were far more likely to receive a residence permit than men, sparking controversy. Nevertheless, the issuance of residence permits was a welcome development since it provides migrants with free education, health care and the right to work.
However, excessive force against migrants trying to reach Europe remains a major concern. Three weeks before the GCM was adopted, Amnesty International blasted Morocco for arresting 5,000 sub-Saharan African migrants in July and bussing them to remote areas close to the Algerian border. Local rights groups also said that Moroccan police routinely use excessive force, which caused the death of two Malians in early 2018.
But Khaled Zerouali, Morocco’s border control chief, told al-Jazeera that allegations of migrant abuse are unfounded. He insists that the border patrol is acting within the limits of the law and that the authorities broke up at least 130 smuggling networks in 2018 alone.
“We used to be a country of origin. Then we became a transit country. Now, because of our efforts, we have become a country of destination,” Zerouali said.
There is some truth to his assertion, but Morocco remains a major point of transit and source of migrants. The repression against Rif protestors has pushed many marginalized Moroccans to apply for asylum in Spain. Sealed borders in Turkey and Lebanon has also made Morocco the least dangerous option for desperate people fleeing their homelands.
Yet despite Morocco’s insistence that it treats migrants humanely, migrants say that they are treated like criminals. A day before the GCM was adopted, a reporter from Associated Press (AP) interviewed migrants languishing in a camp in Casablanca, where hunger and poor sanitation are rife.
Most people in the camp were reportedly caught trying to reach Europe. Many say they are now looking for work, so that they can earn enough money to hire another smuggler.
“The precarious journey is never over. [We live in] constant fear. You walk in the street, you get arrested. You go to the mosque, you are arrested. We feel like criminals,” Jiane Jbrahima, a 22-year-old from Senegal told AP.