The Global Compact for Migration

Card. Michael Czerny, SJ

 Card. Michael Czerny, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:5 September 2019/Last Updated Date:28 July 2020

Free Article

Soon after World War II, the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, a legally binding multilateral treaty, defined who is a refugee, what rights they have, and established the obligations of nations in their regard.[1] In the broader field of migration, however,[2] apart from a convention on migrant workers,[3] until now there has been no comparable international agreement regarding migrants in general.

In 1951, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was established as an intergovernmental organization, working with governmental, intergovernmental and nongovernmental partners to provide a wide variety of services in the field of migration. The IOM joined the U.N. system in September 2016.[4]

In 1952, Pope Pius XII published the apostolic constitution Exsul Familia, the magna carta of the Church’s commitment to migration; it gives the diocesan bishop the leading responsibility for the pastoral care of migrants. A year earlier, in 1951, Pius XII founded the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) as a global network of episcopal conferences, religious congregations and Catholic NGOs.

La Civilta Cattolica

Why the greater attention now to the issue of migration? The large and mixed flows of migrants and refugees into Europe in 2015-2016 proved to be a genuine crisis and turning point. Thanks to this attention, since July 13, 2018, we have the agreed text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM).[5]

This essay describes the recent two-year GCM process, highlighting the involvement of the Holy See, and then considers the main features of the GCM text. With an appreciation of what has been achieved, the conclusion foresees the adoption of the GCM and its implementation.[6]

A declaration for migrants and refugees

Migration has always been a major human phenomenon. Three international efforts to address it, all initiated in 2006, include the Global Migration Group, the Global Forum on Migration and Development, and the U.N.-sponsored High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development. These agencies served governments and other stakeholders for exchanges on migration policies and for sharing information and best practices. Also in 2006, Ban Ki-moon appointed the Irish businessman and diplomat Peter Sutherland as the Secretary General’s Special Representative (SRSG) on Migration.

On the basis of Sutherland’s diligent preparatory work and with the crisis as the catalyst, the United Nations General Assembly dedicated September 19, 2016, to a one-day summit on refugees and migrants. Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin articulated the Holy Father’s message to the Summit as an invitation to “political leaders and lawmakers and the entire International Community to consider the reality of persons forcefully uprooted with effective initiatives and new approaches to protect their dignity, to improve the quality of their life and to address the challenges that emerge in modern forms of persecution, oppression and slavery.”[7]

In order that migration be freely chosen, not the result of coercion, Cardinal Parolin emphasized everyone’s “right to remain in peace and security in their homelands and countries of origin.”[8] The Holy See also insisted on access to health and basic services and on the inclusion of faith-based organizations.

On September 19, 2016, the Holy See Mission held a side event whose title “Responsibility and Solution Sharing” pointed toward the needed solution. Cardinal Parolin emphasized that local faith communities of both Christian and other traditions have generally been attentive to the protection of vulnerable people on the move and often serve as competent and generous first responders.[9]

The Summit unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (NYD). Among its commitments, member states declared: “We reaffirm and will fully protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status; all are rights holders” (NYD §5); and “We acknowledge a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centered manner” (NYD §11).

Most importantly, the NYD launched processes toward the achievement of two new global compacts: one on refugees and the other for safe, orderly and regular migration. These two processes, running at the same time and due to conclude before the end of 2018, were to be “separate, distinct and independent,” although very much related. The one on migration would “set out a range of principles, commitments and understandings among member states regarding international migration in all its dimensions” (NYD, Annex II, §2).

The period after the New York Summit was unfortunately marked by Peter Sutherland’s serious illness. (He died in January 2018). He was succeeded in March 2017 in the important role of SRSG for International Migration by Louise Arbour of Canada.

The two co-facilitators of the process were Juan José Gómez Camacho, Permanent Representative of Mexico, and Jürg Lauber, Permanent Representative of Switzerland, who together deftly handled the unprecedented two-year process and brought it to a successful outcome.

Preparing to participate

Within the Vatican, on January 1, 2017, the new Migrants and Refugees Section (M&R) began its work. The Section forms part of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development with Cardinal Peter Turkson as Prefect. Pope Francis mandated M&R to oversee matters regarding “refugees and migrants” and this includes asylum seekers, refugees, vulnerable migrants and victims of human trafficking. For the time being, he has placed the Section under his own guidance.

Drawing on the worldwide experience of the Church, M&R consulted with various episcopal conferences and Catholic NGOs to identify the real needs of vulnerable people on the move and the Church’s best practices. Pope Francis identified the necessary elements of our response: “to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.”[10] M&R prepared 20 Action Points for the Global Compacts and structured them around these four active verbs. Approved by the Holy Father, the 20 Points provide a concrete instrument of pastoral orientation and priorities at the disposal of the local Church and all other stakeholders in the field.

They have also been expressed in bureaucratic terminology for Catholic leaders and others to use in their dialogue and advocacy with governments. The 20 Action Points were frequently referenced in discussions even before the Holy See formally submitted them to the United Nations in early October 2017 as its input for the intergovernmental consultations and negotiations underway.[11]

The work by representatives of member states on the GCM proceeded in three phases: a year of informal sessions, two months of stocktaking and then six months of negotiations. The Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the U.N., Archbishop Bernardito Auza, and the Holy See Mission in New York, under the guidance of the Secretariat of State, spoke and negotiated on behalf of the Catholic Church, while M&R played a supporting role.

A year of consultations

Six informal thematic sessions or consultations were held between early May and mid-October 2017: three in New York, two in Geneva and one in Vienna. The topics treated are listed here to illustrate the many, varied and interrelated facets of today’s migration:

1. Human rights of all migrants, social inclusion and cohesion, and all forms of discrimination including racism, xenophobia and intolerance.

2. Drivers of migration, which include the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters and human-made crises; also, protection and assistance, sustainable development, poverty eradication, conflict prevention and resolution.

During the second session, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovic, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, underlined the “right of all to remain in dignity, peace and security in their countries of origin.” Just as the Holy See had already done so repeatedly, he emphasized the links between the right to migrate[12] and the “prior” right to remain, arguing that responsibility for irregular migration begins at home but does not end there. All states, not just the country of origin, have a responsibility to assure the right to remain and, if they fail, they must recognize people’s right to leave their homes and support their quest for security and a decent life.

3. International cooperation and governance of migration in all its dimensions, including at borders, transit, entry, return, readmission, integration and reintegration.

4. Contributions of migrants and those in diaspora to all dimensions of sustainable development, including remittances and portability of earned benefits.

5. Smuggling of migrants, trafficking in persons and contemporary forms of slavery, and appropriate identification, protection and assistance to migrants and trafficking victims.

6. Irregular migration and regular pathways, including decent work, labor mobility, recognition of skills and qualifications and other relevant measures.

Each session was introduced by highly qualified panelists. State representatives were urged to participate freely, although interventions usually took the form of prepared statements. Intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations were also given the opportunity to speak. Regional[13] and stakeholder[14] consultations took place as well.

In September 2017, at a meeting of the General Assembly on human trafficking, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, expressed the conviction that U.N.-led Global Compact processes offered “a unique opportunity to respond together to challenges through international cooperation and shared responsibility. In order to achieve the desired outcome, the contribution of political communities, civil societies and all stakeholders is indispensable, each according to their own responsibilities.”[15]


In early December 2017, as two months of stocktaking began, the United States withdrew from the GCM process, arguing that numerous provisions of the New York Declaration were “inconsistent with US immigration policy.”[16]

The stocktaking phase included a three-day international conference in Mexico. Its purpose was to review and consolidate the results of the year’s discussions and link them with the negotiations of the year ahead.

The delegates appreciated the learning opportunity and gained a more thorough and holistic understanding of international migration and its management. On New Year’s Day, Pope Francis expressed his support and hopes: “As shared agreements at a global level, these compacts will provide a framework for policy proposals and practical measures. For this reason, they need to be inspired by compassion, foresight and courage.”[17]

Six months of negotiation

Six rounds of intergovernmental negotiations, from three to five days each, ensued from February through July. The Holy See not only participated actively in the formal sessions and informal discussions, but also co-sponsored several relevant side events on “Ending the Detention of Child Migrants and Refugees,”[18] “Sharing the Journey of Migrants and Refugees: An Interfaith Perspective on the Global Compacts,”[19] and “The Protection and Integration of Migrants in Vulnerable Situations: The Case of Faith-Based Organizations,”[20] all of which may be found echoed in the agreement.

Throughout the process, the Holy See delegation championed a fair process of negotiation. Unfortunately, under pressure from some U.N. agencies, the draft included the promotion of the WHO Framework of Priorities and Guiding Principles and other guidelines that recommend controversial practices like abortion to meet so-called reproductive health needs at the outset of a humanitarian emergency. Unlike the other actions and best practices explicitly included in the text, the WHO Framework and similar guidelines are included without mentioning their content. We also note that such documents were never discussed, let alone formally approved by the member states.

Nature of the agreement

The New York Declaration describes rather than defines the agreement to be reached. “The global compact would set out a range of principles, commitments and understandings among member states regarding international migration in all its dimensions… It would present a framework for comprehensive international cooperation on migrants and human mobility.”[21]

States have the sovereign right to “determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction.” Each state can decide which elements of the GCM to implement and how to codify them, if at all, into its national law.

Not a convention or a treaty, the GCM is rather a political agreement. It is a non-legally binding, cooperative framework that establishes norms based on the current policies and practices of its signatories. Thus, at each stage of negotiations, the draft was carefully scrutinized to avoid any language that a member state might feel itself coerced to alter its policies in directions it found unacceptable.[22]

The GCM can be used as a toolkit to help states manage migration more effectively through international cooperation. It articulates best practices that states already use internally, bilaterally and even regionally, depending on their individual circumstances and policy needs. For the first time, the policies and best practices of states and various regional groups have been summarized in a single document that will serve as a reference point for the entire international community.

Full coverage or complementarity

The two compacts are supposed to be complementary and together form a single, coherent framework, “leaving nobody behind,” to quote the ideal of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. This had to be achieved without creating a new category of refugee or undermining those categories that already exist.

As a minimum, the principle of non-refoulement should apply. This means that, even if individuals are not recognized as refugees, they would still not be returned if their right to life or security would be threatened back home. All individuals, regardless of their migratory status, have their human rights and these must be respected. Throughout the negotiations, Archbishop Auza pressed for non-refoulement to be acknowledged in the GCM, stating that no one should “fall through the cracks.”[23]

Regular and irregular

The challenge for the negotiations was to formulate a GCM that would make migration safer, more orderly and regular, without unwittingly encouraging irregular migration. Thus, some member states wanted to limit the GCM to regular migrants alone. They argued that many of the commitments, such as access to services, would attract irregular migrants.

Every state is obliged to assure a basic or minimum set of services to all migrants regardless of status. As a matter of international law, access to health, justice, education and adequate shelter must be assured. This is a human rights obligation. The state has the sovereign right to determine the level of service, but not to choose which services to provide, though not necessarily free of charge.

The Holy See and other delegations urged that the GCM address both regular and irregular migration, that irregular border-crossing be treated as an administrative offense, that detention and forced return be only used as a last resort, and that family unity remain one of the principal criteria in the individual assessment of each migrant. Finally, the Church advocated that more regular pathways of greater variety and flexibility be opened up to reduce the pressures which generate irregular, dangerous and very costly migration. 

The agreed text

After a preamble that characterizes the GCM as “a milestone in the history of the global dialogue and international cooperation on migration,”[24] the document spells out 10 interdependent principles that run through the agreement: people-centered, international cooperation, national sovereignty, rule of law and due process, sustainable development, human rights, gender-responsive, child-sensitive, whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches (§ 15). The bulk of the document consists of a “cooperative framework” made up of 23 objectives, each with an associated commitment and set of policy options and best practices:

1. Collect and utilize accurate and disaggregated data as a basis for evidence-based policies

2. Minimize the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin[25]

3. Provide accurate and timely information at all stages of migration

4. Ensure that all migrants have proof of legal identity and adequate documentation

5. Enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration

6. Facilitate fair and ethical recruitment and safeguard conditions that ensure decent work

7. Address and reduce vulnerabilities in migration

8. Save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants

9. Strengthen the transnational response to smuggling of migrants

10. Prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons in the context of international migration

11. Manage borders in an integrated, secure and coordinated manner

12. Strengthen certainty and predictability in migration procedures for appropriate screening, assessment and referral

13. Use migration detention only as a measure of last resort and work toward alternatives

14. Enhance consular protection, assistance and cooperation throughout the migration cycle

15. Provide access to basic services for migrants

16. Empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion

17. Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration

18. Invest in skills development and facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications and competences

19. Create conditions for migrants and diasporas to fully contribute to sustainable development in all countries

20. Promote faster, safer and cheaper transfer of remittances and foster financial inclusion of migrants

21. Cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as sustainable reintegration

22. Establish mechanisms for the portability of social security entitlements and earned benefits

23. Strengthen international cooperation and global partnerships for safe, orderly and regular migration

There is clearly a similarity between the 20 Action Points and the GCM’s 23 Objectives. At least 15 of the 20 Points are reflected in the GCM. Moreover, common to both documents is a sound approach: the brief affirmation of a principle or valuable objective, followed by various best practices and options for implementation.

Some achievements

The comprehensive and patient GCM process has thoroughly educated the participants and transformed their understanding of the realities of international migration. The crucial aspects of global migration management are now “exposed.” When the negotiations concluded July 13 in New York, Archbishop Auza stated: “This Global Compact will make it more difficult for anyone – states, civil society or anyone of us – to be unaware of the challenges that people on the move face and to fail to meet our shared responsibilities toward them, in particular toward those most in need of our solidarity.”

A conviction that underlies both the process and the multilateral compact is that no state can address migration on its own. Moreover, it acknowledges the various and interconnected responsibilities of countries of origin, transit and destination and adds the new category of “return” to which the Holy See drew attention.

The GCM encourages enhanced and strengthened protections for migrants regardless of their migration status and protects the human rights of all migrants, particularly children and those in vulnerable situations. It affirms the principle of non-refoulement, even if the term itself is not included (see § 37). It underlines the importance of family reunification. Children should never be detained. The practice should be eliminated because alternatives do exist and should be adopted.

Proposing various concrete actions, the GCM seeks to advance cooperation on labor migration, skills mobility and legal pathways. It pays unprecedented attention to the relationship between climate change and international migration, with both sudden disasters and climate-change onset seen as drivers of migration.

Finally, to support and implement the new global agenda on migration, the GCM institutionalizes an appropriate framework including a dedicated council, periodic reviews and capacity-building mechanisms.

An assessment

The GCM does what the NYD foresaw: to “set out a range of principles, commitments and understandings among member states regarding international migration in all its dimensions” (NYD, Annex II, § 2), and the outcome is, on balance, very positive.

Pope Francis points out eloquently that “the issue of migration is not simply one of numbers, but of persons, each with his or her own history, culture, feelings and aspirations,” with their own names, stories and families.[26] They need responses and actions – and programs – that are appropriate, concrete, local and human.

Thus it is important to underline, as the Holy Father did at the beginning of 2018, that both integration and re-integration are “a two-way process, entailing reciprocal rights and duties. Those who welcome are called to promote the integral human development of those who are welcomed, while the latter must necessarily conform to the laws of the country offering them hospitality.”[27]

The GCM process and the quality of its outcome demonstrate that dialogue and coordination are a necessity and a specific duty for the international community. And dialogue is a precursor to deeper engagement: “A just policy is one at the service of the person, of every person involved; a policy that provides for solutions that can ensure security, respect for the rights and dignity of all; a policy concerned for the good of one’s own country, while taking into account that of others in an ever more interconnected world.”[28]

Throughout the process, the Holy See played a very positive role. Both the structure and the provisions of the GCM text correlate positively with the approach and proposals of the 20 Action Points. From the start, the Church clearly wished “to ground responsibility for the shared global management of international migration in the values of justice, solidarity and compassion. This demands a change in mindset: we must move from considering others as threats to our comfort to valuing them as persons whose life experience and values can contribute greatly to the enrichment of our society.”[29]

Adoption and implementation

On December 10, 2018, the Global Compact was adopted by 164 nations at an intergovernmental conference on international migration in Marrakesh, Morocco. On December 19, 2018, the UN General Assembly voted to endorse the GCM, with 152 in favor, five against, and 12 abstained.

The GCM expresses a mutual, negotiated consensus. It shows the positive willingness of governments to collaborate in resolving the most urgent needs of migrants at every stage, from departure and transit to arrival, settlement and eventual return.

The GCM neither prevents migration nor encourages it; rather, insofar as it is implemented, it will reduce irregular migration and address its negative consequences, increase border security and protect the rights of migrants. Thus, it depends on whether states are willing to use it as a framework and common reference for future international cooperation on migration, share responsibilities and burdens, build political will and speak out against misinformation.

The Church and civil society organizations will be active partners in these efforts. Pope Francis has said, “The work is not over. Together we must encourage countries to coordinate more suitable and effective responses to the challenges posed by issues of migration; and we can do this on the basis of the essential principles of the Church’s social teaching. We must likewise commit ourselves to ensuring that, as a sign of shared global responsibility, concrete engagement follows from the words already codified.”[30]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3 no. 2 article 4 Jan. 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1902.4

[1]The 1967 Protocol withdrew the geographical and temporal restrictions contained in the 1951 Convention.

[2].The estimated global migrant population is 244 million (or 3.3 percent of the world’s population). About 1 in 7 people on the planet resides in a different country than the one of their birth. Some of these are vulnerable migrants, some are asylum seekers, and some are recognized or “convention” refugees (more than 22 million in 2018). There are also over 40 million internally displaced persons.

[3].The 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.



[6].The author expresses gratitude for the assistance of Robert Czerny (Ottawa) and Timothy Herrmann (New York) in research, writing and editing this article.

[7].P. Parolin, Statement at the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants, New York, September 19, 2016, in


[9].Cf. “Cardinal Parolin: The Role of Religious Organizations in Responding to Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants,” September 19, 2016, in

[10].Francis, Speech to the International Forum ‘Migrations and Peace,’ February 21, 2017.

[11].Cf. B. Auza, “Letter from the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations,” October 6, 2017, in

[12].“Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, and everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, No. 13).



[15].P. R. Gallagher, Intervention at the 72nd Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 27, 2017.


[17].Francis, Message for the celebration of the 51st World Day of Peace 2018, Migrants and refugees: men and women in search of peace, January 1, 2018; cf. also Francis, Address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy Sees, January 8, 2018.

[18]. percent20see&sort=date



[21].New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, Annex 2,I.1.

[22].In March 2017, Hungary broke with the EU to negotiate on its own and, after the draft was finalized on July 13, 2018, announced its withdrawal from the Compact.



[25].Along with the economic and social conditions for fair and sustainable development, the detailed actions also focus on natural disasters, climate change and environmental degradation. Actions (h) through (l) of Objective 2 fall under the subtitle, “Natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change, and environmental degradation.”

[26].Francis, Message for the Second Holy See-Mexico Conference on International Migration, June 14, 2018; cf. Francis, Address to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, January 9, 2017.

[27].Francis, Address to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps, January 8, 2018.

[28].Francis, Homily during the Holy Mass for Migrants, Saint Peter’s Basilica, July 6, 2018.

[29].Francis, Message for the Second Holy See-Mexico Conference on International Migration, op. cit.

[30].Francis, Address to the Members of the Plenary Council of the International Catholic Migration Commission, March 8, 2018.