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The Geopolitics in the Global Compacts: Sovereignty, Emerging Norms, and Hypocrisy in Global Migration Governance

Authors: Nicholas R. Micinski & Camille Lefebvre

Affiliation: University of Maine, Orono, Maine, USA, Université Laval and Leiden University, Quebec, Canada

Organization: Geopolitics Journal

Date/Place: October 9, 2023 / UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 13 



Keywords: Global Compact, Migration, Refugees, Geopolitics, Sovereignty 



After two years of intense discussions following the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the UN finally adopted two major agreements in 2018: the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact for Refugees (GCR). These, along with the declaration itself, put migration and displacement center stage in global conversations and collaborations, even creating dedicated platforms and institutions. But half a decade later, questions are being raised regarding the success of the Global Compacts. This special issue sheds light on the global compacts on migrants and refugees, examining five years of promises, power moves, and practical realities. It digs deep into emerging norms and blind spots, power dynamics and resource disparities, as well as the chasm between state lip service and actual action. At the heart of this exploration lies a critical review of the Compacts’ true impact, as the dominant narrative has been shaped by the policymakers themselves, who often paint an overly positive picture. This issue demands a critical shift, urging scholars to ask critical questions about the assumptions, hidden agendas, and geopolitical forces driving the compacts. Despite considerable research on the compacts’ creation and promises, including dedicated issues in renowned journals, this article argues for a critical five-year review. It aims to go beyond dissecting promises and progress reports, and instead, scrutinize their actual influence on state behavior and international cooperation. 


The global compacts on migrants and refugees sparked both optimism and worry. Hailed as potential game-changers for refugee and migrant protection, they promised to set new standards and rules. Nonetheless, critics fretted that the compacts could either chip away at existing international agreements or be inconsistently applied by different countries. This article tackles the lingering worries that emerged after the adoption of the Global Compacts on migration. It digs into existing hurdles like equipping governments to handle migration, sending asylum seekers elsewhere, holding migrants in detention, using misleading language, employing harmful practices in managing migration, and leaving climate refugees without international protection. By examining progress since the compacts’ implementation, the analysis aims to challenge core beliefs and critically evaluate their effectiveness in global migration governance. It goes beyond superficial assessments, striving for a deeper grasp of their actual impact and the underlying assumptions driving the discussion.


This special issue dives deep into the global compacts on migrants and refugees, asking key questions about how real-world politics and power dynamics are shaping their impact. The contributors examine how geopolitics, regional alliances, and national interests are influencing how states talk about and act on migration and displacement. They also tackle key issues like state sovereignty, delving into how governments and international organizations are navigating the compacts’ demands while safeguarding their own borders. Finally, they expose internal contradictions within the agreements and their potential consequences for how states actually handle migration.


The authors critically deconstruct the global compacts, challenging their underlying assumptions and rhetoric through a geopolitical lens. Authors like Micinski and Bourbeau expose how “capacity building” empowers international organizations instead of strengthening national ones, while Robinson argues that Canada’s “offshoring” of migrant smuggling perpetuates global imbalances. These analyses demand a deeper examination of the compacts’ true impact beyond surface-level narratives. Lefebvre and Cocan analyze the disconnect between state promises and actions, exposing how Canada and France leverage the Compacts to pressure migrant-sending nations on detention reform while largely neglecting their own practices. Campos-Delgado delves into Mexico’s ambiguous rhetoric, illustrating how migrant rights advocacy masks bureaucratic hurdles and spatial restrictions on movement. Woodworth highlights the absence of climate displacement protection in the refugee compact, attributing it to the influence of right-wing narratives, security concerns, and the intricate interplay between climate change, displacement, and geopolitics.


The article tries to shed light on how states use the compacts to advance geopolitical interests. The authors frame these agreements as key platforms for “migration diplomacy,” where states utilize various diplomatic tools, processes, and events to manage cross-border mobility in line with their diverse interests. Throughout the consultations, thematic discussions, formal negotiations, and intergovernmental conferences, states actively pursued their own objectives, shaping these agreements into instruments to serve not only global governance goals but also individual state priorities.


Beyond advancing individual interests, the compacts significantly bolstered the architecture of global migration governance. Key to this framework are institutional bodies like the Global Forum on Refugees and the International Migration Review Forum. These periodic gatherings create an international platform for states to review progress, reaffirm commitments, and forge new agreements. In essence, the compacts and their associated implementation mechanisms function as critical venues for “migration diplomacy.” Within these spaces, states engage in negotiation, compromise, and collective action to address shared challenges in managing migration and displacement.


Micinski and Bourbeau dissect the rise of capacity-building institutions under the Global Compacts, like the UNHCR’s Asylum Support Group. While acknowledging their training efforts, they raise concerns about depoliticizing interventions that ultimately determine resource allocation and policy outcomes. They argue that the geopolitical interests of Global North states heavily influence capacity building, shaping which areas receive support. Robinson shows how Canada, a Global North nation, linked capacity building in Southeast Asia and West Africa in anti-smuggling to the GCM, emphasizing technicality and neutrality. However, Robinson argues this policy reflects political motivations and state-sanctioned violence against migrants, highlighting the Global North’s anxieties about irregular migration in the Global South. Robinson exposes a crucial question: who truly gains power from capacity building? His work shows that Canada empowers certain allies to enforce border control, potentially furthering migrant repression. Similarly, Micinski and Bourbeau argue that interventions often bolster international organizations’ influence, not national capacity. These studies shed light on the political motives and complexities beyond the surface of seemingly neutral capacity-building initiatives.


Amidst global cooperation on migration, the compacts have not shielded against inter-regional rivalries. Campos-Delgado highlights Mexico’s strategic move: capitalizing on the US withdrawal from GCM negotiations to position itself as a regional leader and migrant rights advocate. Mexico actively shaped the Compact on Migrants, even co-facilitating negotiations. This contrasted starkly with the US absence. However, Campos-Delgado exposes a geopolitical paradox: while Mexico champions migrant rights abroad, it concurrently agreed to restrict regional migration flows and act as a border enforcer. This dilemma raises questions about the sincerity of its international advocacy. Similar to Mexico, Global North states like Canada and France face a geopolitical moral dilemma, as highlighted by Lefebvre and Cocan. While publicly endorsing the GCM and upholding migrant rights, they use it as a foreign policy tool to pressure migrant-sending states to manage migration, prioritizing control over improving their own detention practices. The non-binding nature of the compacts facilitates such strategic maneuvering. Micinski strengthens this point, revealing the focus of many receiving states on restriction during negotiations, potentially leading to cooperation on limiting migration rather than enhancing rights. These examples illustrate how the Compacts, intended to address global migration challenges, have become platforms for complex geopolitical dynamics and ethical contradictions among participating states.


The authors expose the evolution of a “responsibility narrative” surrounding migration. From framing migrants as subjects for state management within the “sustainable development goals” (SDGs) to emphasizing state control over borders in the New York Declaration, this narrative culminated in the 2018 compact’s official title: “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.” This framing reveals the embedded power dynamics and raises questions about the potential biases inherent in such norms. 


Micinski and Bourbeau dissect the emerging norm of “well-managed migration,” where international responsibility kicks in if national capacity falters. The global compacts solidified this framing, outlining how responsible states should manage movement. However, they argue, that this notion, especially embedded in restrictionist policies within the compacts, aligns with Global North interests. Despite aiming for mutual benefit, actual implementation prioritizes curbing irregular migration over creating legal pathways, raising concerns about the practical implications of this responsibility narrative.


Examining specific cases, the authors expose how “well-managed migration” manifests on the ground. Robinson reveals Canada’s anti-smuggling policy, which ostensibly promotes responsible management, functions as a geopolitical tool to restrict asylum, despite the potential harm to migrants due to outsourcing responsibilities. Meanwhile, Campos-Delgado shows how Mexico uses euphemistic rhetoric like “well-managed” to mask the negative internal practices of bureaucratic delays, poor detention conditions, and extended wait times. These examples illustrate how the compacts have become instruments for states like Mexico to fulfill geopolitical goals – maintaining control over migration while making rhetorical nods to human rights. Overall, the analysis highlights the complex interplay between norms, rhetoric, and practices in real-world migration management.


The separation of the compacts into two separate documents ignited geopolitical controversy. While officials cited distinct legal regimes for refugees and migrants, critics saw it as a strategic opening for “forum shopping” – choosing the forum most favorable to state priorities. Different negotiation processes, scopes, and procedures in each compact enabled states to prioritize or exclude specific policy areas, raising concerns about the potential for manipulation and unequal benefits. Forum shopping manifested in specific inclusions and exclusions within the compacts. States strategically lobbied, with some excluding internally displaced persons from the refugee compact and others seeking to remove non-refoulement from the migration compact. China, invoking legal distinctions, opposed the inclusion of non-refoulement in the GCM. Consequently, this crucial principle received minimal mention in the GCR and limited recognition in the GCM. Woodworth delves into the absence of climate migration in the GCR and its presence in the GCM. Attributing this to the GCR’s technical nature and the broader scope of the GCM, she further highlights the challenges states faced in addressing climate migration due to rising nationalism, the securitization of migration, and the complex causal relationship between climate change and displacement. Aware of potential political pitfalls, states opted for non-binding “soft law” compacts. This avoided the complexities of ratification and domestic incorporation, appealing to states maneuvering intricate geopolitical goals. Soft law offered a path for migration diplomacy, enabling states to address migration challenges while appeasing domestic constituencies and preserving policy flexibility.


This special issue dissects the geopolitics of the global compacts, particularly concerning their impact on state sovereignty, especially for Global North nations. The authors argue that the agreements have cemented migration management as the sole prerogative of states. This interpretation finds its foundation in what Micinski and Bourbeau label an “absolutist” understanding of sovereignty, which disallows any external interference in domestic policy. While traditional geopolitics presents a uniform view, recent scholarship exposes Westphalian sovereignty’s complexities and contradictions. Krasner terms it “organized hypocrisy,” emphasizing interpretations and practices that vary across regions and times. Furthermore, works like Henderson and Quinton-Brown reveal its entanglement with racial and white supremacist hierarchies, where white European sovereignty enjoys absoluteness while Global South states face vulnerability to colonization and control.


Despite complexities in sovereignty’s interpretation, the Global Compacts solidified an “absolute sovereignty” framework for migration management. Both sending and receiving nations affirmed this, viewing border control and migration management as purely domestic affairs not subject to interference by external actors. The compacts became platforms for states to assert this interpretation, aligning with their geopolitical goals. Micinski and Bourbeau highlight the consent-based nature of the “well-managed migration” norm: international intervention, usually in the form of aid or capacity building, can only occur at the host state’s invitation. This special issue emphasizes the intricate link between the compacts and the reassertion of state sovereignty, exposing how states instrumentalize these agreements to further their geopolitical interests.


As states become increasingly anxious about migration and displacement, examples abound of how they instrumentalize this interpretation. From violent anti-smuggling operations in South Asia and West Africa to deplorable detention conditions in Canada and France, and Mexico’s bureaucratic barriers, states prioritize control over human rights. Woodworth links the geopolitics of climate displacement to broader securitization trends underpinned by this reassertion of absolute sovereignty, highlighting the detrimental consequences for migrants caught in the crossfire. States craftily chose the ambiguous term “compact” for the agreements, to avoid it becoming legally binding hard law. This strategic non-binding format allowed them to circumvent hostile domestic legislatures and dodge implementation of the compacts’ provisions. Lefebvre and Cocan expose the geopolitical cynicism, with Global North states wielding the compacts to pressure migrant-sending countries while shying away from similar policies themselves. This blatant hypocrisy, the article argues, permeates the entire compact framework, revealing the inherent contradictions and complex power dynamics shaping migration governance.


This special issue analyzes the hypocrisies and contradictions woven into the Global Compacts. While discrepancies between policy promises and realities in migration are common, these authors expose how the gap is deliberately geopolitical. Lefebvre and Cocan illustrate this through a nuanced analysis of language. Canada and France, they argue, strategically manipulate terms like “housed” versus “detained” to redefine practices and evade pre-existing human rights obligations. This linguistic maneuvering exemplifies the larger issue: the compacts, despite aiming for progress, are susceptible to manipulation and subversion by states prioritizing geopolitical interests over human rights.


The global compacts offer a paradoxical stage for states. On the international stage, they can champion human rights and mask restrictive domestic practices. Campos-Delgado exposes this geopolitical tactic, citing Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Secretary’s call for “bridges over walls,” followed by increased migrant enforcement. Such discursive strategies, as Campos-Delgado argues, can even be weaponized to amplify negative aspects for political gain. The intended human rights protections within the compacts become subservient to national politics, creating a disconnect between rhetoric and reality. States prioritize national interests over migrant rights, exhibiting not only hypocrisy but also overlooking binding international obligations. This special issue emphasizes how states wield language and discourse to navigate international expectations while manipulating them to pursue their own domestic agendas.


This issue delves deeper, exposing how inherent contradictions within the compacts serve geopolitical agendas. Some contradictions appear in promoting capacity building for both protecting migrants and preventing them from reaching that protection. Similarly, endorsing absolute sovereignty while pushing for its reform through international standards creates an inherent tension. Robinson exposes how Canada frames capacity building as technical for enhanced border control and migrant protection, but ultimately as a tool to monitor and intercept flows remotely. This fulfills obligations while outsourcing protection. Micinski and Bourbeau argue that the compacts both affirm and undermine absolute sovereignty: capacity building becomes a workaround, influencing domestic policies and transforming state structures to fit the desired international order.


Woodworth highlights a specific example of hypocrisy: climate migration. The exclusion of this issue from the refugee compact and the lack of engagement with it serve a geopolitical purpose. States can restrict movement and limit climate migrants without violating legal obligations. This silence reflects their unwillingness to adopt new binding mechanisms for climate displacement. Ultimately, the silences within the compacts are just as telling as the commitments, revealing the strategic and nuanced nature of state actions in managing migration.


While the Global Compacts initially marked progress by putting migration on the world stage and fostering agreement on state responsibility, a deeper look reveals them to be tools used by states to pursue their own geopolitical goals. This special issue critiques the inherent contradictions and power dynamics within the compacts, exposing how states prioritize control over human rights by using rhetorical nods to cooperation while tightening borders and restricting civil society involvement. Ultimately, understanding the compacts as instruments for state power, not humanitarian ideals, offers opportunities for critical engagement and potential changes in how migration is governed.


By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern



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