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India and the Global Compact for Migration

C S Akhil ( is a doctoral student at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a non-binding agreement for the better management of migration, was adopted by the United Nations member countries in December 2018. The major goal of the compact is to assist nation states to frame well-managed migration policies. India’s decision to sign the compact comes as a real surprise in the face of the country’s historical reluctance to sign international migration laws and treaties. The analysis of the Indian government’s present management of migration in the light of the compacts’ objectives shows the need for a revamp in the state’s approach.

In the second week of December 2018, the United Nations (UN) member countries adopted the first-ever compact for international migration in Marrakech, Morocco. A non-binding agreement, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) aims to better manage migration at local, national, regional, and global levels, including reducing the risks and vulnerabilities that migrants or refugees face at different stages of their journey. Despite its non-binding nature, the adoption of the compact has led to a wide range of discussions within and outside parliaments, especially in receiving states. Out of the 193-member states, 164 countries have adopted the compact. The United States was the first one to withdraw from the negotiations in December 2018 after the stocktaking conference in Mexico, and further criticised the compact for breaching the sovereignty of states (Wintour 2017). But, in the UN General Assembly where the compact was officially accepted as a document, only 152 countries voted for the compact, while 12 countries had abstained from voting and five countries voted against the compact.

In addition, the decision on adopting the GCM led to internal conflicts in many member states. The Belgium government collapsed over the decision to adopt the GCM with right-wing parties withdrawing their support for the minority government after their decision to sign the compact. Major receiving countries in Europe and North America faced opposition internally on their decision to sign it as well. Countries like Russia, Denmark, Slovenia, Croatia and Brazil can be considered as weak signatories since their decision to adopt the GCM was not representative of the majority voice in the respective states. These incidents signal that the debate on feasibility of the compact will be discussed further in the coming months.

The reluctance by major receiving countries was a surprise shock for the rest of the world due to the voluntary nature of the compact unlike many other UN conventions and the preceding two-year-long transparent and, inclusive negotiation process. According to the UN, the non-binding nature and the guiding principles of the GCM are meant to ensure the sovereignty of nation states to determine migration policies and management within their national boundaries with multi-stakeholder participation. The process of framing this compact was made transparent by ensuring the participation of member states, civil society and UN agencies in the two-year-long negotiations (Frouws and Van Selm 2018).

Migration Governance and GCM

The discussion on the need to build a compact on global migration emerged as a result of an increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Other push factors included border crises in developing countries due to large-scale movements of refugees, and the increase of cross-border mobility, especially short-term labour migration between developing and developed countries. Based on these events, the UN unanimously adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants on 19 September 2016. The meeting agreed on two separate tracks for negotiations: one for migrants and the other for refugees. The crux of the declaration was the identification of best practices and solutions to ensure safe migration. Following the New York Declaration, the UN began thematic and regional consultations and in March 2017, and a UN secretary representative was appointed to bridge the cooperation between various stakeholders (both state and non-state).

The next big leap towards the GCM was the resolution adopted by the UN assembly in April 2017 on modalities for the compact. The consultations with stakeholders were completed in six rounds of negotiations and it led to the first draft or the “Zero Draft” of the compact in 2018. The final phase was the period of intergovernmental negotiations from February to July 2018. The global compact based on the final draft was approved by the 164 member countries in Marrakech and is representative of the long-term interventions by the UN and its affiliated agencies in international migration governance.

The history of UN interventions on migration began with the initiation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919 (Betts 2010). Even though there have been several conventions and treaties to protect the rights of migrants and refugees over the years, major intervention by international agencies in managing migration occurred during the neo-liberal era, where short-term mobility of labour is important for global capital to thrive (Likić-Brborić 2018). To match the demand for low- and semi-skilled workers, agencies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank promoted business-friendly migration management approaches, while snubbing worker and migrant rights. The only exception was the rights-based approach promoted by the ILO (Likić-Brborić 2018). Further, the attempts, or lack thereof, by countries in framing policies to manage international migration had necessitated the need for a multilevel global migration governance mechanism. The first key intervention was the Berne Initiative in 2001, followed by the implementation of the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM) in 2003 based on the recommendations from the Doyle Report. Amidst the criticism on the implementation of recommendations by several committees and conferences, the first high-level dialogue on migration and development occurred in 2006.

Then, the most important series of events in the recent history of international migration management began in 2007 with the constitution of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). The GFMD was an informal, non-binding, voluntary, and government-led process that brought together all stakeholders under one umbrella to maximise the development benefits of migration and different migration flows.1 Even though it has a huge role in pushing for a global agreement on international migration, the annual process has been criticised for its business-enhancing themes (except two years) (Likić-Brborić 2018). Simultaneously, the growing influence of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which promotes “migration for growth and development” over the ILO—which promotes right-based approach for labour migrants—has led to it being a major player in developing international migration governance and a key actor in the implementation of the GCM. Despite this leading to a conflict of interest between the migrants and private entities during the implementation, it becomes important to understand how the GCM document will be implemented amidst vested interests from various stakeholders.

The GCM document is divided into four major parts wherein the first section of the compact contains “Vision and Guiding Principles of GCM,” followed by the “Objectives and Commitments.” The 23 objectives can be divided into five sections: (i) enhancing the availability of data and ensure proper documentation and information; (ii) mechanisms to address the drivers of migration; (iii) measures and possibilities to ensure safe and regular migration via right-based approach; (iv) steps to curtail irregular migration and provide border security; and (v) possibilities to use migration for development via reintegrating the diaspora (Frouws and van Selm 2018). The third part discusses “methods of implementation” and the document concludes with “Follow-up and Review Process.”

The 23 objectives will be implemented through state-led action plans with the help of UN funding and expertise (Micinski 2018), which could be in the form of establishing research centres and migration agencies (or revival of existing agencies) at the national level, developing capacity-building mechanisms globally with the help of international agencies and formation of a new migration network. Three major stakeholders who are responsible for effective implementation would be nation states, UN agencies, and civil society. However, in the face of scepticism and reluctance from the member states, it becomes unmanageable to implement the objectives. The IOM assumes the major role in implementation among UN agencies along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ILO. But, the influence of the IOM over the ILO by a certain section of people can reduce the possibilities of implementing important commitments such as labour rights, fair labour migration practices, and safe migration. Civil society as a crucial actor can help the process of implementation by sharing ground-level information and experiences. Academia, trade unions, faith and private organisations, diaspora organisations, etc, can be pivotal.

However, the other two actors, especially several states, are reluctant to recognise the contribution and effectiveness of civil society organisations on many occasions. The follow-up and review process is mainly vested with the International Migration Review Forum, which meets once in every four years. But, a regular review mechanism with the cooperation of member states is necessary at least in the initial years of implementation. The notable challenges for implementation would be the lack of coordination among existing stakeholders, the lack of clarity about the proposed new UN migration network, the difficulty in finding funding sources, convincing member states in implementing several controversial objectives, the lack of a timeline for implementation, and the absence of a comprehensive monitoring mechanism.

Implications for India

Among the emigrant countries, India receives the highest amount of remittance per year.2 The World Bank classifies India as one of the top emigrating countries in the world, and the Indian diaspora is identified as the largest in the world. Simultaneously, India has witnessed immigration to the country over the years, especially from neighbouring countries. Another stream is the internal migration within India. But, the Indian state’s approach towards all three streams of migration is not explicit in nature and the management of migration is ill-developed as compared to other major sending and receiving countries (Rajan and Krishna Kumar 2015).

India’s adoption of the GCM was surprising due to three aspects. First, the national government’s recent unwelcoming approach to refugees and illegal immigrants; second, the government not having signed any law related to migration and refugees in the past and the absence of government-initiated platform for discussing the GCM over the two years of negotiations; and finally, the lack of a migration policy in the country. The Indian government does not have a written, explicit, and comprehensive emigration policy yet as compared to other emigrant countries. Regarding immigration, the country still follows the Foreigners Act of 1946 to regulate the entry and stay of immigrants. Even though India did not sign the Refugee Convention of 1951, the country treated a certain section of refugees with respect, including Tibetan and Afghan refugees (Naujoks 2009). However, Sri Lankan refugees and other migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are treated differently.

Among the 23 objectives of the compact, most are directly applicable to India, except a few that have already been implemented. Here, I will try to elaborate selected objectives in the Indian context.

The first objective “to ensure proper collection of data” is relevant in the Indian context. The country has seldom published data on people who migrate to other countries.3 Even though they have systematically collected data, it has not been shared or analysed with either the public, researchers, or even provincial governments. Understanding data is important for framing a well-managed migration policy. The attempt to collect information about refugees also becomes important in this context.

The next significant objective that could have an impact on India is Objective 5, which demands enhancing the availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration. The major destination for labour migrants from India is West Asia, and the Indian government has made no attempts to sign labour mobility agreements with any of the major destination countries other than Nepal. It is important to frame regional, bilateral, and multilateral mobility agreements—that ensure the rights of labour migrants, including women—with major destinations in a better migration management system.

Regarding objectives related to ensuring proper and safe recruitment practices and other vulnerabilities in host countries (6, 7 and 8), India made certain attempts in the recent past by including the electronic platform called eMigrate,4 which brings all stakeholders of recruitment on to a single platform. This particular mechanism is supposed to ensure certain basic rights for migrants, including salary protection via proper employment contracts and proper living conditions in the host country under monitoring by the Indian missions abroad. The foreign employer should register on the eMigrate platform before recruiting labourers. However, major host countries raised concerns against the scheme by pointing out the violation of sovereignty and foreign employers withdrawing from the Indian labour market.5 Moreover, the lack of effective interventions by Indian missions abroad ruled out the possibility of proper monitoring. The inadequacies of this scheme indicate the need for proper bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding with each country and region. Several GCM objectives suggest various ways to solve this puzzle.

The trafficking of undocumented migrants has been another constant problem for Indian policymakers over the years, especially the trafficking of domestic workers to West Asia. The adoption of the 10th Objective of the GCM may provide some solution to prevent trafficking as well. Objective 13 reminds India of its responsibilities as a receiving country. Even though India has welcomed the immigrants and refugees historically, the recent treatment of Rohingya refugees drew criticism (Chakravarty 2019). It demands for reducing unnecessary immigration detentions and it will be interesting to see the approach of the national government towards this suggestion due to internal political interests. However, the GCM suggests alternative options other than detention, including non-custodial measures and community-based care arrangements, especially in the case of families and children (GCM 2018: 20).

A certain set of suggestions to improve the consular support for emigrants, provision of basic services, and skill upgradation have been included in Objectives 14, 15 and 18. Indian embassies abroad already offer a set of services like open houses for transparent communication, the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) to meet the contingency expenditure, services of the labour attaché, shelter homes for migrants in distress, legal aid, and so on. But, the lack of proper institutional support in terms of personnel and regressive attitude of both host governments and officials in Indian missions are hindrances to the successful implementation of these services. Hence, the adoption of these GCM objectives can improve the present situation.

Regarding skill upgradation, the present schemes like the India Skills competition and various other initiatives by Skill India have not been reaching prospective migrants. According to Objectives 18c and 18g, mutual recognition of skills via agreements with other countries, student exchange programmes, scholarships, professional exchange programmes, and traineeships or apprenticeships with other countries can enhance skill upgradation, which in turn smoothens migration management at all its stages.

Integration of Diaspora

The most noticeable attempt by the Indian government is its initiative to integrate the diaspora and labour migrants into the homeland. Objective 19 of the GCM talks about creating conditions for diaspora and migrants to fully contribute to the sustainable development of the country. The government has decided to attract diasporic investment to the country by inserting Hindu nationalism to improve the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) to the country (Kinnvall and Svensson 2010). The concept of diaspora engagement emerges after this decision. Policy changes include the establishment of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in 2004, the celebration of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas from 2003, the introduction of the Overseas Citizen of India Card and Person of Indian Origin card, and a few other travelling exemptions, which can be seen as an attempt to integrate the diaspora back into their home country. The effectiveness of these policies is questioned, and the expected returns in the form of FDI and knowledge transfer remain the same even after the flurry of policy initiatives since the beginning of 21st century. Furthermore, the country has been criticised for extracting economic benefits without extending any rights for the people abroad (Gamlen 2006). The government can adopt the suggestions by the GCM, including Objectives 19c, 19e and so on.

One recent notable intervention by India that suits the recommendations of the GCM is extending the voting rights for Indian citizens abroad,6 as Objective 19G calls for various methods to extend political rights to migrants. Emulating the national government, certain states are also coming up with initiatives to integrate migrants. The Kerala government constituted an initiative named Global Kerala Assembly, which consists of all elected representatives from the legislative assembly, Parliament, and an equal number of representatives who represent Keralites from all over the world (351). It can be considered an effective intervention to integrate migrants.

Another major recommendation that would bring only positive impact is the promotion of faster, safe, and cheap transfer of remittances (Objective 20). As the largest receiver of remittances, it will further increase the inflow of money to the country. Due to the temporary nature of labour migration to West Asia, migrants will expectedly return permanently at some point of time. But, the government is yet to frame any initiative for proper rehabilitation and reintegration of migrants. Objective 21 of the GCM document would be useful for ensuring better integration and dignified return. Finally, the most important and the last objective (Objective 23) calls for strengthening international cooperation and global partnerships for safe and legal migration. As a vital player in South Asia, India should initiate implementation regionally to smoothen safe mobility in the South Asia–West Asia migration corridor. By adopting the suggestions by the GCM, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, it can negotiate for regional and country-wise bilateral agreements to ensure welfare.

Unaddressed Aspects

There are several important aspects of migration missed out by the GCM objectives that have direct bearing on India. Even if India has one of the largest emigrant population, internal migration within the country is many times higher than international flows. But, the GCM does not address internal migration or internally displaced people in any of the 23 objectives. It becomes imperative to help countries like India manage its internal migration in the near future by ensure migrant workers’ rights. Another aspect missed is the existence of provincial migration governance in the country. Unlike other major emigrant countries, India has a federal system and several provincial states are active in migration management. The document did not identify provincial governments as major stakeholders. But the existing practices and migration management of states like Kerala can be replicated elsewhere. The close linkages of provincial governments with local actors are also important in the effective implementation of objectives.

Keeping all shortcomings aside, proper implementation and monitoring of the GCM objectives in the country can change the migration scenario drastically. For that, the state should continue its recent positive approach towards migration. Existing policy utterances by policy-makers should be converted into well-written policy documents. In addition, the state must reconsider its decision about not signing bilateral/multilateral and regional agreements related to migration. The existing discriminatory approach towards labour migrants compared to diaspora should be strongly engaged with. Only if the Indian state makes relevant, inclusive, and transparent policy changes in the near future, can an effective implementation of the GCM be possible.


1 The definition is drawn from the GFMD website, viewed on 25 December 2018,

2 India tops the recipient of remittance list with $69 billion in 2018 (Economic Times 2018).

3 The published data do not represent the emigrant population. It only provides the details
of emigrants with Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) passports.

4 Migrate is an electronic platform in the form of a website:

5 Ahmed al Banna, United Arab Emirates ambassador to India and Fahd Al-Hammadi, chairman of the contractors committee at the Council of Saudi Chambers criticised the eMigrate scheme for breaching the sovereignty of the host country (Abdi 2017).

6 A bill to allow proxy voting for non-resident Indian citizens has been passed by Lok Sabha on August 2018 as an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill, 2017.


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Wintour, Patrick (2017) : “Donald Trump Pulls US Out of UN Global Compact on Migration,” Guardian, 3 December, ttps://

Updated On : 15th Mar, 2019


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