The Global Compact on Migration was signed last week in Marrakech by 164 States, after 18 months of negotiation.  It is a non-binding document, but it aims to set the framework for how States will cooperate to manage migration in the years to come.  Detention is a major focus: Objective 13 commits States to prioritising alternatives to detention and ‘working to end the practice of child detention’.  In the aftermath of the sign-off in Marrakech, IDC’s Global Advocacy Coordinator Silvia Gómez, who was involved in the negotiations throughout, discusses her impressions of the Compact process and what happens next.


Jerome Phelps, IDC Director & Silvia Gómez, IDC Advocacy Coordinator


Why did you decide that IDC should prioritise working on the Compact?

It was clear from the beginning that the Compact was going to be a key process linking global migration policy discussions to what happens on the ground at the national level.  We needed to be there, influencing the process, because that process was going to shape the next decades of migration work at the global level.

But a year ago, no one knew what the process would be or what would come out of it.  There was no chance to understand what was going to happen! But I had a gut feeling that we needed to see what this was creating.  We didn’t know at first that there would be such a focus on detention, that it would have an objective of its own.

In the end though, it will only be important if it leads to change on the ground, and less detention.


What was your involvement in the negotiations?

I went to New York for five out of six rounds of the negotiations.  I’d never been to New York before, so I stayed in an AirBnb in a different part of the city every time, to get to know the city.  Until the last two times I stayed in Brooklyn and took the ferry every morning.

Our strategy was to have bilaterals with delegations, developing relationships with them.  They are the State representatives negotiating the Compact, so we needed to engage with them so we could get the best possible language. Civil society and UN agencies were there to support the process, but at the end of the day it was States negotiating.  

Our proposal was to give the text a solutions-based approach, consistent with the nature of the Compact.  So we focused it on alternatives and using alternatives to end child detention.

The idea was to map the different positions to understand how to influence the States to get the best language. It was clear early that the only language at risk in Objective 13 was the child detention language.  The language of the first draft was very strong, it was about ending the detention of children, which was immediately contested by many delegations, mostly European and Western. So the goal was to find a compromise that would be okay for all sides of the negotiations. Which meant having relationships with different groups of States, both the supportive ones and the ones who were opposing. We had to build relationships with them, have informal conversations, understand the way that these negotiations work at the global level, and get ourselves into those spaces. The conversations were never about disagreeing but about finding compromise – they are negotiating, they need to find a compromise too.

I had a conversation with one northern European delegation which strongly opposed the language on ending child detention.  We had an early evening meeting with them, they invited us for wine, it was a relaxed atmosphere. It took us a minute to agree to disagree on the basic principles of non-detention of children, we acknowledged that and talked negotiation. We had been working on language that we could offer to different States if the strong language in the first draft was not going to be accepted.  We discussed with them our proposed language, whether it addressed their concerns. They eventually moved out of a blocking position and did eventually sign the Compact.


What do you think of the language of the final text?

The final language was a diplomatic compromise – ‘working to end’ child immigration detention.  It was a struggle to get that one degree more of commitment than the New York Declaration, which the Compacts are building on.  Taking into account the political context, it was a big win. The language is strong enough to be consistent with the international human rights framework, while addressing States’ concerns.


What happens next? Will this be just another document on the shelves in Geneva?

Implementation of the Compact will be at the national level.  The Compact is a global process, but it’s about national work.  Otherwise it’s just one more document discussed in Geneva and New York.  It is encouraging to see that all actors, with different degrees of commitment, see it as about national plans and actions.  

The tricky thing is how to make that happen.  One of the big added values we as IDC can offer is that we are a network, we can mobilise our members on the ground and our regional offices on the implementation of Objective 13 around development of alternatives to detention.  What we are doing now is engaging with States at national and global level to support them to develop different actions to implement Objective 13.

We need to capitalise on the potential of the Compact as a global process which aims to bring change on the ground.  The Compact opens spaces for States to share and support each other in the process of developing national level solutions.  We are not only supporting national level actions plans and actions, helping States frame work on alternatives as implementing the Compact, but also facilitating the development of space at the global level, where States can come together to share what they are doing, to learn from each other, to discuss the challenges that they are facing.  Supported of course by civil society and UN agencies at the national and global level.


Is the Compact going to be important, if it’s not binding on States?

What the Compact is doing is creating a tool for States to be able to manage migration.  There was never going to be a binding document on migration, particularly in the current political context.  The potential of the Compact is in establishing a framework for cooperation and collaboration that states can use if they want to address migration challenges.  That framework, and the spaces where states can cooperate and talk to each other about migration governance, can be valuable. In terms of detention, it is repeating international human rights standards which are binding already, with or without the Compact.  The point is bringing together standards and encouraging States to implement them.

The negotiations went on for half a year.  During that period, once or twice a month, 192 states would come together in the same room to discuss migration. States were learning from each other and better understanding the processes, by taking a solutions-based and multilateral approach.  If we can repeat that during the implementation phase, the results could be important. Whereas the intergovernmental conference this week was not about that, it was back to a series of speeches. But now we are entering a new phase. The Compact is opening a long-term process.  With all its problems, it is a big success that now there is a text that addresses migration as a whole, which we can use to work with States to actually reduce detention.