The United Nations’ Global Compact for Migration (GCM) was adopted by a great majority of UN members on 10 December 2018 at a conference in Marrakech, Morocco. It was endorsed by the General Assembly on 19 December 2018, where 152 countries voted in favour. Five countries voted against — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland, and the United States of America — while 12 abstained.

An additional 24 Member States were not present to take part in the vote.

Singapore was among the abstentions. A UN report explained Singapore’s abstention:

“The representative of Singapore said that his delegation participated in the Global Compact process in the spirit of international cooperation and multilateralism because the agreement would improve the prospects of migrants and migration.  But his delegation can support it only within the constraints of the country’s capacity.  Singapore is a small and densely populated country, which has unique circumstances.  Every country has the sovereign right to decide how to implement the Global Compact depending on its respective national contexts, levels of development, and national priorities.  His delegation will abstain on the draft resolution.”

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration — to give it its full name — is a non-binding pact that is meant as a basis for countries to cooperate in managing migration. It clearly says that national sovereignty is to be respected, but at the same time, it sets out certain minimum standards as to how States should regulate migration. These standards should be seen as guidelines since the pact is non-binding.

The GCM is sometimes confused with a sister pact, the Global Compact on Refugees. This is partly because they both share the same origin, the UN’s New York Declaration on September 2016. This Declaration envisaged a single document, but as negotiations and drafting proceeded, UN member states felt that it would be better to have two distinct compacts addressing quite separate issues.

Refugees are defined and protected by the UN Refugees Convention 1951, which obliges States to provide asylum for them. To put it simply, a refugee is someone who has left his or her own country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This tight definition would not cover a lot of others who want to move for work, better opportunities or family reasons. For them, there has hitherto been no international instrument.

The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) is the first step. Whilst recognising that States retain the right to decide who they will admit as migrants, how many and on what terms, it seeks to harmonise operational standards in the interest of international cooperation. The pact recognises that smoothly-running regular channels for migration can bring benefits to destination countries that are short of labour or needed skills, and that regular channels that serve such demands are better than irregular migration. The latter often leads to a build-up of undocumented migrants who become vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of their irregular status.

The GCM envisages that signatories will come together every four years “to discuss and share progress on the implementation of all aspects of the Global Compact”. It should “allow for interaction with other relevant stakeholders” which we take to include civil society.

It also calls on States to “develop, as soon as practicable, ambitious national responses for the implementation of the Global Compact, and to conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national level.” This should also “draw on contributions from all relevant stakeholders.”

Marrakech was where the Global Compact on Migration was adopted on 10 December 2018

Transient Workers Count Too does not see Singapore’s abstention as rejection. After all, Singapore could have voted with Israel, Hungary and the United States if it was against the Compact. And Singapore’s representative said that “the agreement would improve the prospects of migrants and migration.” While not clearly spelt out, perhaps Singapore feels that certain standards envisaged by the GCM would be hard to apply to a small state like us, but since the precise area of concern has not been pinpointed, TWC2 cannot say whether we agree with this concern or not.

Abstention is a signal that Singapore would go along with the majority despite some degree of unease. Hence, we would expect Singapore to be making efforts to meet the standards of the Compact now that it has been adopted by the vast majority of countries.

Some parts of the GCM relate to work migration — the area of TWC2’s interest. They touch on cross-border recruitment and how migrant workers should be treated after arrival in the country of destination: employment protections, access to justice, access to healthcare, etc.

TWC2 also notes that the countries of origin of most Work Permit holders in Singapore (Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar, etc) have voted for the Compact. This presents a wonderful opportunity for a more cooperative framework in resolving issues such as high recruitment costs which are transnational in nature.

In many ways, Singapore’s management of migration, particularly work migration, can be said to be unusually well developed: there are many pathways for orderly migration and many pieces of legislation in place meant to offer protection. Nonetheless, there remain gaps and shortcomings. To fully live up to the GCM, these need to be identified and rectified.

Click edit button to change this text.Doing our part, TWC2 has drawn up a “baseline report” noting where Singapore stands at the commencement of the GCM in respect of the various standards set out in relation to work migration. By corollary, it highlights the gaps that will need filling. Overall, our sense is that Singapore is not far off from the aspirations of the GCM, which is why we’ve titled our report “Within reach”.  The report can be downloaded by clicking the icon at right.

TWC2 looks forward to a fuller implementation of this important international accord.