migration, global compact on migration, un

The Global Compact on Migration and its discontents

7 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

In July 2018, the UN office for Refugees and Migrants, supported by a wide range of other international organizations, drafted a document known as the Global Compact for Migration. The text, presented in Marrakech, Morocco, was the outcome of protracted and complex negotiations involving 190 countries and was widely welcomed as a much-needed instrument for regulating the present worldwide migration crisis. Yet, it did not take long before some governments started raising concerns about it.

The Global compact: facts first

The US had already left the negotiations before reaching the final stage and, logically, did not agree to the terms of the Compact. But then several governments who had initially endorsed the Compact voiced objections, First, Hungary rejected the agreement and invoked reasons of national security to do so. Next, Austria withdrew its support, arguing that signing the Compact (a non-binding multinational agreement) would jeopardize the country's sovereignty and security. Similar reasons were used by Bulgaria and Czech Republic to motivate an exit, soon joined by Poland and Israel. Switzerland started backtracking, and in Belgium, the Secretary for Migration and Asylum (at the behest of his Flemish-Nationalist party N-VA) called for a reconsideration of the terms of the Compact.

The Compact insists on a facts-first public discourse on migration, actively practiced by opinion makers, politicians and mass media alike.

Some of these terms can be found in objective 17 of the Compact:

The objective is further specified in the text, and we will concentrate on this particular specification.


Global Compact on Migration objective 17c

The Compact, we can see, insists on a facts-first public discourse on migration, actively practiced by opinion makers, experts, politicians and mass media alike. The text thus articulates a clear awareness of the hoaxes, moral panics and misrepresentations characterizing much of the public debate on migration worldwide and influencing policies in many countries. And it also recognizes the paramount importance of a robust and factual argument based, for instance, on accurate terminology (think of the term "illegal" immigration) and correct figures or other representations of quantity (think of the "large caravans" of migrants described by president Trump in the run-up to the mid-term elections of late 2018 as "an invasion"). It is safe to assume that the Compact, without being specific about what would constitute evidence in concrete cases, aims at a culture of fact-checking in this domain of public discourse, 

A public discourse based on checked facts rather than on hoaxes and moral panics: who could object to that?

It's just propaganda

Well, quite  a few people did. The requirement - or expectation - to promote an evidence-based public discourse was quickly qualified as a step-up to propaganda because it imposed a specific direction on public discourse and, thus, violated "freedom of speech". Even if this direction is that of rational, fact-based argument, it still remains propaganda. Pro-migration propaganda, to be more precise. People who disagree with such rational facts (and, thus, would prefer to believe that more immigrants enter their countries than what official and double-checked figures say) would be denied their democratic rights - so it is argued.

Evidence-based public discourse was qualified as a step-up to propaganda because it imposed a specific direction on public discourse and violated "freedom of speech".

Naturally, the counterpropaganda forces kicked off an online offensive. As soon as the first elements of the Compact were released, YouTube videos such as this one went live:


Such videos (and torrents of related online messages) flatly deny the "evidence-based public discourse" promoted (and performed) by the UN, and reformulate the UN message in a radically different vocabulary and line of argument. Why? Because the UN, according to the authors of such counterpropaganda, merely performs thought control or brainwashing by means of seemingly objective facts. Such facts, put simply, are just carefully and maliciously constructed lies.

The disqualification of rationality

The rejection of the evidence-based public discourse in the Compact can be seen as one more instance of a format that has established itself firmly at the heart of public debate, as a key metapolitical element of contemporary algorithmic populism. The format is simple and can be glossed as: disqualify rationality itself

The disqualification on rationality itself is a key metapolitical element of contemporary algorithmic populism.

We have grown accustomed to this format since White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway famously qualified an entirely unfounded statement by one of her colleagues as alternative facts rather than lies or falsehoods. The voice of the White House suddenly became a voice declaring counterfactual statements "true", and engaging in never-ending cycles of debate about the evils of "fake news" and the miserable moral constitution of "fake news" perpetrators such as CNN's Jim Acosta

The broader frame for this must be sought in the culture wars of the recent period, in which rational and fact-based discourse has been dismissed as a tool of the "elites".  Such elites are usually defined as left-wing, and they are said to have deliberately constructed and deployed it to oppress the so-called ordinary people, whose voices - constructed here as morally "authentic" and therefore "true" - are suppressed by experts-with-an-agenda. The agenda is invariably "cosmopolitan" or, in Trump's terms, "globalist". Elite globalism is said to be the thing that enables immigration, and it is opposed to a New Right perspective in which "sovereignty" (or even, as in UKIP's name, "independence") is central. Hence the consistent opposition from within the New Right to transnational systems of governance such as the EU, the UN and related organizations, against transnationally operating NGOs and "cosmopolitan" - read: "rootless" - influencers such as George Soros.

Migration is the focal topic onto which different elements of this format converge, certainly when migration is "promoted" by transnational organizations such as the UN.

Migration - an inevitable effect of globalization - is the focal topic onto which different elements of this format converge. Certainly when migration is "promoted" by transnational organizations such as the UN, whose agency might lead to international agreements in which signatory governments would surrender part of their "sovereignty". Various lines of argument converge in debates such as that on the Global Compact for Migration: the refusal to accept any form of immigration and the rejection of diversity; hostility towards international organizations and aversion towards their effects on national "sovereignty"; and the distaste for rational, evidence-based argument and the professionals producing it.

A fact-free open society?

The horrors of mass slaughter in the twentieth century led some of its greatest thinkers to see rational argument as the key to an open society and a better world - Russell, Dewey, Habermas, Popper are examples. In order to counter the antagonisms, lies and propaganda that pervaded societies and led to unprecedented catastrophes, objectively established facts should prevail at all times in the public debate, they all argued at length.

For the essence of the enlightened modern world-view is precisely this: the primordial role of rationality as the arbiter of truth and as the robust foundation of governance. Along it came the responsibility, stressed by e.g. John Dewey, of those who fuel the public debate with knowledge - opinion makers, experts, politicians, media - to hold themselves accountable to the standards of rationality. This would not in any way curtail the freedom of expression; it would safeguard a realistic, that is non-mythological, outcome of democratic deliberation. Not by excluding voices and opinions, but by passing judgments on them in view of their relationship to what could factually be established. Rationality never excluded its supposed negation, ideology; it should guide and inform any ideology.

The essence of the enlightened modern world-view is precisely this: the primordial role of rationality as the arbiter of truth and as the robust foundation of governance.

Objective 17 of the Compact is obviously an echo of these so often expressed views: an open society needs to give pride of place to evidence-based public discourse, not replacing a multitude of opinions but evaluating them in view of their effects in governance. This point was long entirely uncontroversial. But it is exactly the point that causes controversy presently, exactly the wrong button to push in the eyes of those who - as unwittingly consummate postmodernists - hold "alternative facts" to be equivalent, or even superior, to facts rationally established. There are people now who passionately believe that we can be a fact-free open society. 

I hope Karl Popper, wherever he is, doesn't read their tweets.