Update: 30.11.2018

Tug-of-war around the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration continues

The Swiss Parliament has provisionally stopped the Federal Council’s decision to accept the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Switzerland was absent when the UN passed the Global Compact on 10 December 2018.

On 10 October 2018, the Federal Council had surprisingly announced that it will accept the “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration” (UN Migration Pact). This decision came as a surprise because Foreign Minister Cassis had – also surprisingly - stated in an interview with the NZZ newspaper on 14 September 2018 that further clarifications were needed on the internal and external policy implications of the pact, even though Switzerland was substantially involved in creating the document.

Numerous parliamentary initiatives have now postponed the final decision. Both chambers of Parliament have called on the Federal Council to allow the Federal Assembly to decide whether or not to support the Global Compact.

Safe, organised and regular migration

The UN General Assembly discussed the pact in 2018. Switzerland took a lead role in the negotiation process leading up to the Global Compact. The head of the Swiss Mission to the UN, Jürg Lauber, conducted the negotiations on the content of the pact as a co-facilitator. The Global Compact was adopted on 10 December 2018 in Marrakesh. Its aim is to strengthen the cooperation between all states regarding migration and by doing so, to contain irregular migration.

Comprehensive measures

A closer look at the document shows that the pact defines a comprehensive set of measures. By applying them, migration can be arranged on a transboundary level - the word “regulation” is not used on purpose. The measures include strengthening on-site assistance, preventing human trafficking, securing borders, upholding human rights, facilitating repatriation and reintegration to the country of origin, as well as integration in the host country. Persons protected by the Geneva Refugee Convention are explicitly excluded from the pact. A separate pact is currently being negotiated for them.

Legally not binding, but an important political commitment

Unlike international treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which state the rights of individuals, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is not a legally binding document. Countries who adopt the Global Compact simply declare they agree with its content, without granting individuals new rights or the possibility of legal recourse.

But the report is still of great political importance. It defines 10 guiding principles and 23 aims. In addition, voluntary implementation instruments were identified for each of these targets. By adopting the Global Compact the countries accept the guiding principles and aims. Every country can decide for itself what instruments to implement. Moreover, the Global Compact clearly states that the countries are still allowed to define their own national migration policy and can regulate migration themselves.

Measures to better protect the human rights of migrants

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated in an informal analysis of the Global Compact that it addresses global migration challenges and therefore helps provide better protection of existing human rights for persons who have left their home country. No new rights are put forward: the countries are simply confirming their commitment to implement existing rights. These include a ban on sending individuals back to a country where they might be torturer or subject to other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment, banning the imprisonment of migrants (except in exceptional cases), protecting migrants in vulnerable situations, and placing a ban on discrimination.

No major adaptions necessary

The Federal Council press release states that the analysis of the interdepartmental IMC structure (international migration cooperation) showed that the Global Compact complies with Swiss interests and Switzerland’s migration policy. In many policy fields, Switzerland is already implementing the recommendations. Clarifications are needed regarding some instruments for the implementation of the Global Compact in order to resolve the political implications. Overall, a strengthening of global cooperation in the area of migration is in Switzerland’s interest.

Head-on opposition by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP)

The announcement on 14 September 2018 drew protest from right-wing politicians in the council. During question hour in the National Council, the Federal Council was bombarded with questions by SVP National Councillors.

Several SVP MPs launched interpellations while the autumn session was still under way asking the Federal Council to provide a detailed analysis on the Compact’s effects on Switzerland. National Councillor Andreas Glarner (SVP), for example, wanted to know “whether or not reporting on migrants by media and internet portals was being monitored and whether or not public funding to media outlets would be cut in case of biased reporting” (18.3842). He also wanted to know if family reunification will be further facilitated and if the criminal code will be revised and if so, to what extent (18.3862). National Councillor Michaël Buffat (SVP) on the other hand wanted to know whether or not “single-parent migration women would receive bank accounts specially created for them.” He was also curious if migrants “would receive loans more easily to help them start new businesses” and if “employment agencies would be barred from requesting brokerage commissions from migrants” (18.3863). National Councillor Albert Rösti asked if “pre-deportation detention would be prohibited” (18.3840).

National Councillor Thomas Aeschi (SVP) and Councillor of States Hannes Germann (SVP) went one step further by submitting to identically phrased motions in which they called for the Federal Council “to stop the signing of the Global Compact for good and to hand over Swiss leadership in the process” (18.3838 and 18.3935). According to Thomas Aeschi, signing the Global Contract would violate Art. 121a, Para. 4 of the Federal Constitution, which states that no international agreements that contradict the regulations on the independent control of migration may be signed.

The parliamentary committees join the debate

The vehement opposition by the SVP has had a cascade effect: the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) and the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) have also begun criticising the Global Compact. Doris Fiala (FDP), for example, stated that “we should not sign the Global Compact in this form.”

The CVP and FDP support allowed various parliamentary committees to submit motions (18.3935, 18.4103, 18.4106 and 18.4093) asking the Federal Council to allow the chamber of parliament to decide on the Global Contract. Their reasoning was that the Global Contract, while not legally binding, is politically compulsory. For this reason, the adoption could lead to legislative adjustments at a later stage and the Federal Parliament therefore must be included in the decision making.

Parliament decided on a temporary solution

In the end, Parliament came up with a temporary solution: while both Councils called for a submission of the approval decision (motions 18.3935, 18.4103, 18.4106 and 18.4093), both rejected the motions to stop the signing of the Global Compact for good (motions 18.3838 and 18.3935).

In view of the continuing debate and open requests, the Federal Council decided before the start to the winter session not to participate in the meeting of Heads of State and Governments in Marrakesh where the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was signed. However, the Federal Council stressed that the decision has only been suspended. What remains to be seen is who will take the stronger position and what role the parties of the political centre will play.

The political left’s reaction is growing clearer

Supporters of the Global Compact were relatively quiet early on in the debate. The Social Democratic Party (SP) and the Green Party (GP) initially were concerned about criticism from the bourgeois parties, as Balthasar Glättli (GP) stated: “The right-wing excitement about the Global Compact is pure shadow boxing.” In his analysis on the SP website, National Councillor Fabian Molina (SP) explained that the Global Compact is not a global permission to move freely nor does it introduce media censorship: “The only measure suggested is to stop state subsidies to media that systematically promote intolerance, racism and other forms of discrimination. This is no different than today.”

Migration is a global reality

The Green Liberal Party (GLP) has also declared its support for the Global Compact: “Migration is one of the great topics of our times and can ultimately only be efficiently addressed on an international level and in mutual cooperation,” said GLP Chair Tiana Moser. She expressed what rationally has always been the main motivation for accepting the Global Compact: "We are living in a globalised world and migration is inevitable and cannot be averted. Countries can only try to ensure that migration is safe, organised, and legal."

Most migration is legal

In an interview with Swiss public radio and TV (SRF), Jürg Lauber, Head of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in New York, stated: “I would like to remind you that around 90% of international migration is organised, regular and safe. People move to other countries for school or work.”

UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration adds no new rights

Eduard Gnesa, migration expert and former Special Ambassador for International Cooperation on Migration Issues of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), emphasised that the Global Compact does not define any new rights for migrants, only possible aims and measures. In an interview with NZZ online he stated that the Global Compact does not include a right to global freedom of movement. All the same, it is now being used by critics to “stir up fear.”


The decision not to participate in the meeting of Heads of State and Governments in Marrakesh and not to join the UN Global Compact yet is a pity. Switzerland is sending a negative signal on both an internal and external policy level and destroying efforts for coordinated international action.

What is surprising is the Federal Council’s position that there is no need for action on an internal policy level. Although the Global Compact is not legally binding and every country can decide for itself which of the proposed instruments it would like to implement, the support of the Global Compact should encourage Swiss authorities to review its own policies and practices, in particular the ones subject to international law. Changes are urgently necessary, especially regarding detention pending deportation of minors under 15 years of age. Improvements regarding victims of human trafficking are also necessary and the Federal Council should not rest on the reservations of the Global Compact.

The allegation that the Global Compact places undue responsibility on the guest states is unjustified as well. Firstly, the community of states cannot be separated into countries of origin, transit and destination, since the states have to perform varying functions towards different types of migrants. Secondly, many of the measures affect the country of origin of the respective migrants. For example, the reintegration of returning refugees, preparatory programmes and the registration of children who were born outside their parents’ country of origin.

Despite its weaknesses, the support for the Global Compact is essential from a human rights perspective, since it has the potential to strengthen existing rights of migrants through proactive measures. The global scale of migratory flows requires a coordinated approach by the community of states, and Switzerland should immediately get involved.

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