The United Nations Migration Compact - In Context

Some member states of the United Nations just adopted the “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.”  The compact is a legally non-binding statement of principles regarding the treatment of non-humanitarian immigrants, the sharing of information, support for the rule of law in adjudicating immigration matters, and international cooperation.  Practically, this compact does not amount to much as it is legally non-binding and doesn’t change any laws.  However, the compact has garnered a lot of international attention since the United States, Austria, Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Slovakia, and the Dominican Republic pulled out of the drafting and negotiation process. 

 

The obvious context of the contentious debate over the compact is the rise of anti-immigration politics in much of the world – especially in the countries that dropped out of drafting the compact.  Additional context comes from the United Nations World Population Policies Database, which was last updated in 2015.  It designated the legal immigration policies of countries in the recent past.  The broad policies are to maintain current levels of immigration, raise them, lower them, no intervention, and no official legal immigration policy.  The database is constructed of answers to multiple choice questions about legal immigration policy by bureaucrats in national immigration departments and bureaus that implement immigration policy. 

 

Of the ten countries that dropped out of the migration compact, seven had a government policy to maintain levels of legal immigration, two had a policy to raise legal immigration, and one had no official policy on the matter as of 2015.  Over the following three years, all ten of these countries dropped out of the migration compact.  Dropping out doesn’t matter for actual policy today as the migration compact doesn’t change any laws, but it does signal how rapidly national policy positions can change in just a short time.  The 2017 responses to these questions have not been released yet, but I suspect that bureaucrats in those countries will have very different answers from what they gave in 2015.

 

Globally, 61 percent of governments in the world had a policy to maintain their current levels of immigration as of 2015 (Figure 1).  Twelve percent had policies to raise their levels of immigration and 13 percent to lower them.  In 1996, 30 percent of governments had policies to maintain levels of immigration, 4 percent had policies to raise the level of immigration, and 40 percent sought to lower the levels.  Worldwide immigration policies changed dramatically from 1996 to 2015 and they are likely to be shifting back somewhat. 

 

Figure 1: National Immigration Policies

 

Figure 2 shows national immigration policies in 2015 controlling for population.  Fifty-five percent of the world’s population lived in a country with a policy to maintain the level of legal immigration in 2015, compared to 29 percent who lived in a country with a policy of raising it, and 10 percent with a country that wanted to lower it.  The results here are quite different relative to Figure 1 where each country is weighted equally.  Many more people lived in countries with policies to raise levels of immigration than in countries to lower them. 

 

Over time, the difference is even starker.  In 1996, 59 percent of people in the world lived in countries with a policy to maintain current levels of legal immigration, 30 percent lived in countries with a policy to lower immigration, and only 0.4 percent lived in countries with a policy to increase legal immigration.  As a percentage of the world population, 74 times as many people lived in countries with more open immigration policies in 2015 than in 1996.

 

Figure 2: National Immigration Policies, Controlled for Population

 

The ten countries that dropped out of the Global Migration Compact show that many governments in the world are turning against legal immigration in symbolic ways.  Their individual national policies have likely shifted in a more restrictive direction as well.  However, countries in the world had much more open immigration policies in 2015 than in 1996.  Although the current global trend is worrying, it would be very difficult to roll back all the global gains over the last several decades.