The Mangere refugee centre. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images

The real reasons we oppose the UN Global Compact on Migration

It is absurd to cast the National Party as appealing to an anti-immigration sentiment – the UN compact is riddled with problems that are ill-suited to New Zealand shaping sensible policy, writes foreign affairs spokesperson Todd McClay.

Yesterday from New York Sam Bookman wrote for the Spinoff defending the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. He should be applauded for putting forward his case, even if we disagree – that’s freedom of the press at its best.

The current Labour-New Zealand First Government has been unable to confirm their stance even as delegates gather in Morocco as we speak. Indeed, following the concerns that have been raised over the agreement, the prime minister has just announced that the government is seeking even more advice on the agreement – an agreement that advice to Winston Peters set the negotiating parameters for as early as March this year.  Let me be clear, this Labour-New Zealand First government have been negotiating this UN migration agreement for almost all of 2018.

We’re absolutely clear on our stance. Last week, we announced our opposition to the Compact on Migration. The motivation for this was simple, having read and considered it we did not believe it was an agreement that helped New Zealand.

Signing up to United Nations protocols (whether they be a declaration, agreement or compact) is a serious decision that affects our country, we should not do so lightly and, in this case, we don’t think we should do it at all.

Fundamentally, countries should only sign up to agreements when they are committed to putting in place the terms of the document they are signing. If they don’t follow through those governments will not only lose face internationally, but they very well may find that our own courts are more willing to uphold the commitments we sign than they are.

As a matter of principle, National does not believe that migration policy should be governed through a United Nations framework. Migration is solely a matter for sovereign states. Each country must respond dynamically to the circumstances it finds itself in. The highly circumstantial nature of migration makes it a difficult policy area to apply a global framework to, outside of the basic tenants of human rights. For that reason alone we felt justified in our position to oppose this agreement, though as I will outline here, we have more specific concerns with this agreement as well.

To get one matter out of the way quickly, I reject what Sam Bookman claims in his article, that this is an example of pandering to an anti-immigration worldview. Kiwis have a good basis to consider ourselves good global citizens, as Bookman himself states. That is especially true when it comes to immigration. New Zealand has an excellent immigration system, we encourage talent to move to our country and welcome people who choose to come here to call our country home. National remains committed to that principle.

National is not, and will not be, the party that goes to an election calling for dramatic reductions of migrants or calling for discriminatory policies of banning people from housing markets based on the sound of their name.

To be successful New Zealand needs to be outward looking and our immigration system helps us do this. But this agreement does not make us a better global citizen or create better migration policies. At best the document is a non-binding non-entity that will have no effect and therefore should not be signed. At worst, it will move us towards a global standard for migration that does not reflect the true circumstances countries find themselves in, and therefore should not be signed.

The Global Compact on migration outlines 23 broad principles of action, calling on countries to commit to policies that uphold these principles. As identified by Bookman, the purpose of the Compact is to ensure that “all forms of migration take place in a humane and coherent framework”. What could be wrong with that?

The first objection is that, unlike issues such as climate change, we believe that migration is not well suited to a United Nations framework. As each country has individual contexts and circumstances, it would be impossible to form principles to suit all of them and would increase the risk of  unintended consequences. For example, it is very easy for New Zealand to talk about how wonderful the world would be if we adopted our immigration policies, but we also do not face the pressures that we are seeing in countries such as Australia, the United States or Europe (all areas which the opposition to this Compact are emerging from).

There are also issues that emerge in this document about the failure to distinguish between illegal and legal migration, specifics around what looks likely to amount to free expression limitations as well as a lack of awareness of the finely tuned immigration settings of individual countries.

For example, objective 17 of the compact calls for a commitment to eliminate discrimination towards migrants. Wonderful, what could be wrong with this? The document then explains types of policies that could be used to do this including “sensitising and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology” and “stopping allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance”, at the same time the document says that we must respect the freedom of the media.

But restricting speech because we don’t like it and refusing support for media based on what they say is a dangerous experiment in the limitations of basic rights. As a member of the National Party, I will regularly read or watch media that I don’t like, disagree with or feel is intolerant towards me and my party’s views and beliefs. My response is to write a column to the Spinoff, not call for the defunding or re-education of media. This is part of the problem, the commitments the document calls for do not match the specific policy settings and values of individual countries.

These are actually all concerns that the current government has also noted. The minister of immigration was reported as being concerned about the potential free expression limitations and requiring the provision of proof of identity papers (likely in the form of a national ID scheme).

The concerns of countries who oppose this deal, and the National Party, come down to how influential this document may be on the domestic policy settings in countries like New Zealand. Now, the proponents of this document and our minister of foreign affairs, Winston Peters have all pointed out that the text is non-binding and indeed affirms national sovereignty.

So what’s the problem? Let’s take this argument at its best. If the compact is simply worth nothing in terms of legal force, why should we engage in it when we don’t believe it recognises the real way immigration affects countries? The reason that countries such as Australia, the United States and European countries are rejecting this deal is that these are often the countries who have been required to face the largest pressures when it comes to migration. Their objection is that the agreement does not provide relief for them and, if anything, calls on them to do more. The agreement simply does not reflect the way migration, especially illegal migration, currently disproportionately affects certain areas.

But the truth is that these agreements are designed in order to have an effect. We agree with Bookman here, countries are expected to uphold their commitments and courts have an obligation to assess the commitment countries make when deciding cases. Other “non-binding” United Nations documents have already been imported into our domestic law as courts rightly point out that the Government committed to acting consistently with these documents. Examples such as the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a declaration we chose to support, was meant to be simply affirming a set of principles but has already crept into the way we interpret the law in New Zealand. Similar cases have emerged across the world with such documents as well.

Finally then, what is National’s solution to the way we manage immigration on a global scale? We accept that the world is facing unprecedented pressures when it comes to migration. Countries are already being forced to work together and negotiate this area. New Zealand, for example, is making overtures to Australia to assist with their asylum numbers and Germany worked with the EU to take on a greater share of migrants following the conflict in Syria. The value of this is in countries working together identifying the specific issues being faced and working to find a solution that works.

Managing migration around the world requires a realistic view of the pressures and motivations of the specific countries involved, we can and should work together to address pressures and concerns as they arise. But establishing a global set of objectives will not help to manage migration around the world and raises problems in how it affects our own ability to set policy.


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