Global Development Institute Blog

Dr Tanja R. Müller, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies

The week that saw the release of Zero Draft of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration also saw multiple protests in front of Rwandan embassies in many countries, including the UK, Germany, Israel.

Under the slogan Tell Rwanda No Refugees4Sale these protests were aimed at the new Israeli Prevention of Infiltration Act that was passed in December 2017, and its policy implementation. Starting on Sunday 4 February, a day before the publication of Zero Draft, expulsion orders were issued to African migrants/refugees mainly from Eritrea and Sudan: the order gives them the choice to be sent to a ‘third country’ by the end of March, or face detention and imprisonment. The ‘third country’ has not been named but it is common knowledge that options are Rwanda and Uganda. The receiving countries reportedly receive US$5000 per refugee they accept, while the refugees themselves receive a plane ticket plus US$3500 each.

These protests go to the heart of what is lacking in the Global Compact, and they ultimately go back to the age-old question of guaranteeing supposedly universal human rights in actual political space. This space is controlled by nation states and based on increasingly exclusionary politics, not only in Israel but the world over, as a brief look at such different settings such as Hungary, Poland and the US among others testifies to.

The Global Compact is unlikely to change that in any fundamental way, as it is a ‘non-legally binding, cooperative framework’ that ‘upholds the sovereignty of States’. And while it does acknowledge that ‘migration has been part of the human experience throughout history’ and recognises the potential of migration to be a source of prosperity and sustainable development, its overall reading of migration and mobility is not one of a core human activity but one that presumes staying put is the norm. Thus it is mainly aimed at combatting the structural factors (Objective 2) that make people leave their country of origin and ‘compel them to seek a future elsewhere’ – not recognising the agency of migrants who might have multiple reasons to leave, nor the value of migrants journeys in themselves, as a core aspirational activity.

It should thus come as no surprise that many of its solutions centre on securitisation wrapped up in a positive spin, such as in Objective 4  (to provide all migrants with proper identification) resting on new registration schemes and the sharing of biometric data – much more a measure of control than of enabling journeys.

Looking in a bit more detail at the Israeli example of dealing with refugees and migrants provides a useful prism to interrogate initiatives like the Global Compact – and raise doubts that it will actually improve the lot of those on the move for different reason and out of different motivations.

Israel has a very small number of African asylum seekers who entered the country from 2005 onwards through its border with Sinai – a route that has been practically closed since 2013 thus almost no newcomers have arrived since. Out of what was once approximately 54,000 African refugees, 35,000 now remain in the country. The majority has lived there for almost a decade; they speak fluent Hebrew, have children born in Israel, have employment and are what one can only call ‘integrated’.

But the Israeli state sees them as a danger to its Jewish character, therefore the new push to get rid of them once and for all. This has triggered the various protests in front of Rwandan embassies, in itself rather odd, as it is Israel that does the deportations and the ‘selling’, if one wants to put it that way. Leaving that issue aside for the moment, the deportation policy – as that is what it really amounts to, has been sanctioned by the Israeli High Court. The Court ruled that indefinite detention in itself was illegal and needed to be reduced to 60 days – but that quasi-deportation to ‘third countries’, as long as it was ‘voluntary’, could go ahead. The refugee-cohort now threatened with deportation is not the first one to be flown to Rwanda from Israel. Researchers who have followed the plight of previous groups have revealed their subsequent plight – an often circular and rather desperate movement from one country to the next. The lucky ones eventually make it to Europe, others are stuck in limbo.

Looking at the provisions of the Global Compact, Israeli behaviour can easily be justified through it. In objective 13 the Compact speaks about using detention as a last resort, and working to create alternatives. Indeed, Israel provides this alternative in the form of a plane ticket to an unsafe destination. The Global Compact also has objective 12 (to strengthen mechanisms for status determination) assumingly based on new biometrical data. In Israel, the system of processing asylum applications for African refugees has been slow and often inaccessible – only 10 African refugees have been given that status.

Ultimately, even if Israeli policy towards this group of African refugees and migrants might contravene the spirit if not the letter of the Global Compact, state sovereignty has the upper hand. And when listening to an Ethiopian born member of the Israeli Knesset in an interview to i24news saying that the deportations are fine because ‘they came from Africa, and they are going back to Africa’ one doubts more generally that initiatives like the Global Compact will succeed in making everyday lives better.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole