Are the Global Compact for Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees opening a new chapter in the relationship between civil society and governments?

Forum on the Partnership Principle in the UN Global Compact on Refugees

Contribution by Stephane Jaquemet, Director of Policy, ICMC

5 July 2022


Both Compacts, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), adopted in December 2018, have ambitious, though different, objectives. While the GCR mainly aimed at addressing chronic shortcomings in the international responses to refugee crises, the GCM was in many respects much more groundbreaking, since it wanted to address all aspects of migration governance, in a comprehensive manner, with almost no foundation to build on.

Up to 2016, the year of the UN New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, global migration governance was characterized by an almost complete lack of an international cooperation framework, with the notable exception of the important, but informal and non-UN Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). The GCM proposed a new and well-articulated governance framework, while reiterating many of internationally agreed human rights and labour rights standards.

Migration governance was characterized by the long-standing reluctance of destination countries to be bound by international migrant-protection standards. For instance, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, that was adopted on 18 December 1990, entered into force only on 1 July 2003 because of a very slow rate of ratification or accession. In addition, none of the more economically developed countries are party to the Convention to date.

But it was also characterized by the anti-migration (and much worse xenophobic and dehumanizing) rhetoric flourishing in too many countries. In such a context, the adoption of a people-centered, rights-based and mostly principled document, such as the GCM, was good news indeed.

The Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) has been agreed in a parallel process.  Though GCR is different in nature, since refugee protection was codified in a binding treaty, the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, already in 1951. The GCR negotiations/drafting process benefitted from a strong UN leadership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Thus, the GCR focuses on two of the most neglected and politically sensitive issues around refugee operations: how to ensure a more equitable responsibility-sharing among governments given that some countries are much more affected by refugee movements than others, and how chronically ill-funded, protracted refugee crises can be better supported.

Now the big question is whether the innovations brought by both Global Compacts include the recognition of the role played by civil society and whether the Global Compacts introduce new ways of engagement? Has it led to a more open and transparent dialogue with governments and other stakeholders, and a fair and diverse civil society representation? To answer this question we must both analyze the language used in the Global Compacts and take stock of their implementation between the end of 2018 and mid-2022.

‘Whole-of society Approach in the GCM’

Let’s start with the relevant paragraphs in the Global Compacts. The GCM is much more basic and less specific than the GCR, though it includes the ‘whole-of-society approach’ as one of its guiding principles at para. 15. While this is an important and more than symbolic step, the ‘whole-of-society’ paragraph is limited to stating a general principle in general terms, without any details on the modalities, thus leaving the door open to various interpretations and uncertain levels of commitment from States and the UN system. This paragraph reads as follows:

The Global Compact promotes broad multi-stakeholder partnerships to address migration in all its dimensions by including migrants, diasporas, local communities, civil society, academia, the private sector, parliamentarians, trade unions, National Human Rights Institutions, the media and other relevant stakeholders in migration governance.’

In comparison, the GCR is much more detailed and much more concrete about the role each of the non-governmental actors should play. A total of 12 paragraphs and two full pages are dedicated to ‘a multi-stakeholder and partnership approach’, with each of the partners, including refugees and host communities, the UN system, local authorities and local actors, civil society organizations, faith-based actors, private sector, and academics, having their own paragraph with a relatively clear focus on their work and engagement.

The role of civil society in the GCM & GCR

In the GCR, civil society organizations are recognized for their role in planning and programme implementation, as well as being uniquely placed to build bridges with refugee and host communities. Faith-based actors are singled out as playing an important role in ‘conflict prevention, reconciliation and peacebuilding’. Why the role assigned to each actor remained so vague in the GCM while being so clear and detailed in the GCR? Does divergence of language mean a completely different approach to partnership or are there also points of convergence?

First, to a very large extent, the differences reflect the fact that the GCM and the GCR serve different purposes and that migration governance, on one hand, and refugee protection and operations, on the other, are, by far, not at the same level of development and implementation. The GCR is just an additional wall or an extra room – indeed an important one – in an edifice progressively built over the last seventy years. The GCM is nothing more and nothing less than the plans or the design of a building still to be erected.

Second, at this stage, the GCM is mainly about policies and advocacy and not about operational engagement. Well, with the exception of the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund, that is still in its infancy with a very limited budget given the needs, and not directly accessible by civil society. In sharp contrast, the GCR is principally about operational engagement, while civil society advocacy dialogue with governments and UNHCR benefits from well-established procedures, which are not changed or altered by the GCR.

Third – and much to civil society’s regret -, the negotiations of both Global Compacts and their subsequent implementation have eroded some of the bridges between refugee protection and the human rights of migrants that the New York Declaration had built. The combination of State reluctance to expand the concept and meaning of protection to migrants in vulnerable situations, the non-operationalization of migration governance, and parochial vested interests led to a silo approach rather than exploring synergies between the compacts.

Civil society – not the only partner

As to the points of convergence between the GCM and the GCR, I would mention two of them, as far as civil society is concerned. First, while in many UN meetings in the past, civil society was the main, if not the only non-governmental interlocutor of governments. Civil society is now part of a broader ‘multi-stakeholder’ approach, where it is only one among many other partners, including groups that were traditionally broadly considered as civil society, such as academia, trade unions or faith-based organizations.

This new landscape provides both opportunities and challenges for civil society.

Opportunities because it is time to finally better recognize the vital role of some actors, starting with migrants and refugees themselves, but also including cities and local authorities as frontline service providers, and the private sector, the only actor to offer job opportunities to migrants and refugees. Opportunities because civil society has now a platform to build alliances, listen to others and stop preaching to the converted.

Challenges, since, by definition, a space shared with more constituencies is a diminished space. Challenges because civil society has to rethink its role and ways of operating to remain relevant. This is never an easy exercise. Secondly, the GCM follows the steps of the refugee architecture, reconfirmed and validated by the GCR, with a UN entity (UNHCR for the GCR and the UN Network on Migration, coordinated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), for the GCM) becoming the main facilitator, but also intermediary of multi-stakeholder engagement.

Lessons and Challenges four years in the implementation of GCM & GCR…

Where do we stand almost four years later regarding civil society engagement and, I would add, recognition by governments, UN entities and other stakeholders? Do the first years of implementation of both Global Compacts indicate a genuine respect for civil society voices, or are we rather in more formal processes, where civil society messages are de facto calibrated and the result of compromises? Answering this question is not easy, not least because, as already mentioned, the GCM and GCR are different in purposes and have different dynamics.

Regarding the implementation to date of the GCM, I will briefly mention the points very clearly and convincingly made by my civil society colleagues, Colin Rajah and Clara Keller-Skupien in their blog post on ‘the Transnational and Global Civil Society Movement on Migration’, and add one of my own. First, there is indeed still a space for civil society but this space, previously partially self-organized, is now coordinated and organized by the UN Network on Migration.

Secondly, grass-root organizations and migrants themselves are marginally represented at the table: policies are insufficiently informed by the reality on the ground. Thirdly, the clear focus of the GCM and the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) on policies, and not on field operations, broadens the gap between standards and the real lives and needs of migrants. In such a context of tragic disconnect, it is extremely difficult for civil society to fight back against security-oriented migration management approaches and policies wittingly or unwittingly influenced by a permeating anti-migrant narrative.

Though much more limited in scope and built on already existing foundations, the GCR also sees an expansion of key partnerships. One of its objectives is to better reach out to at least two constituencies, the development actors and the private sector, and to finally give its due share of representation to refugee and host communities. Development actors and the private sector are indispensable on the operational side, maximizing long-term solutions for refugees, in particular in protracted situations. As to refugee and host communities, it is a question of basic justice and fairness, as well as practicalities. There are no successful programmes unless refugee and host communities fully participate.


At the end of the day, and in spite of a number of differences, the GCR and the GCM present civil society with a similar dilemma: how to remain relevant, when more actors are invited to the table and previously neglected ones should be given their due share? Lessons can be learned by looking at both sides of the Global Compacts’ coin, the GCR and the GCM: refugee protection and operations on one hand, and rights-based migration governance on the other.

First, for both Global Compacts, the increased number of multi-stakeholders offers civil society the unique opportunity to build alliances, which are crucial to create the critical mass necessary to be heard by governments. The GFMD has amply demonstrated that mayors and local authorities, as well as the private sector, are natural partners for civil society. Activating both the individual and collective leverages of the three groups is in everyone’s interest.

Second, even in this ‘new’ multi-stakeholder configuration, NGOs are by far the largest and better organized constituency. A clear indication of the role played by NGOs is the level of GCR pledges. Civil society made 393 pledges under the GCR. It is six times higher than those by local authorities and three times higher than those by the private sector.

Third, NGOs are often much closer to migrant and refugee communities than UN agencies, and can play a role of building bridges with both the UN system and governments, as well as reinforcing accountability. This is obvious for refugee operations where NGOs, big and small, are not only UNHCR implementing partners but also collectively raise funds which by far surpass UNHCR budget. These funds are primarily invested in health, nutrition and education programs, in consultation with the communities. NGOs are also frontline responders and upholders for migrants’ rights and basic needs, even if budgets are usually much smaller and governments increasingly criminalize such frontline human rights and humanitarian work.

Fourth, both UNHCR and the UN Migration Network are de facto intermediaries between governments and other stakeholders, thus to some extent limiting a direct interface between civil society and governments. This is not entirely negative, given the huge organizational work it implies, including dealing with some governments, mainly undemocratic ones, that are chronic spoilers and allergic to anything resembling civil society.

Beyond that, NGOs must be clear with UN agencies: there are red lines, and some principles are not negotiable. Civil society self-organizing (for instance, on the refugee side, with the legitimacy acquired by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) cannot be compromised or postponed.

After the recent IMRF, the UN Network and civil societythe NGO community working on GCM need to learn lessons and address the current shortcomings, bearing in mind the respective mandates and responsibilities, but also the complexity of some of the issues, like the shrinking space for stakeholders in UN meetings in general and promoting and respecting civil society self-organizing.

In refugee processes, the bilateral UNHCR-NGO consultations are important spaces for real dialogue. However, the civil society role in plenary UN meetings must be enhanced, given the huge imbalance between the speaking time allocated to international organizations, on one hand, and the whole of civil society, on the other.

In conclusion, the Global Compacts on Refugees and for Migration may represent a new era in the relationship between governments and civil society. They offer both challenges and opportunities. For civil society, business as usual would mean a ‘shrinking space’, including for stakeholders at the UN meetings. So, we have no choice but to be creative, build alliances and combine a principled human rights and flexible approaches. Not exactly an easy task, but an exciting one.