Refugees and (Other) Migrants: Will the Global Compacts Ensure Safe Flight and Onward Mobility for Refugees?

Cathryn Costello

International Journal of Refugee Law, 2019


The article discusses the delineation between the Migration Compact and the Refugee Compact, and the implications for refugee mobility. The author argues that the suppression of refugee mobility is a serious deficit in the global protection regime. She contends that:

  • Distinction between refugees and migrants in the compacts is problematic. The Migration Compact distinguishes between migrants and refugees on the basis that only refugees are entitled to specific international protection as defined by international refugee law (para 4). This is problematic because many refugees may never receive formal recognition of their status, and neither of the compacts reflect the breadth of the notion of ‘refugee’ under UNHCR’s mandate (e.g. refugees in States that have not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention but have forms of group-based protection etc.). Additionally, the Migration Compact refers to migrants compelled to leave their countries of origin due to “other precarious situations” (para 21), which could overlap with expanded refugee definitions in the OAU Convention and Cartagena Declaration.
  • Migration control policies and practices often bear down particularly heavily on refugees and would-be refugees. The author argues that the distinction in the Refugee Compact between flight (for protection) and onward movement (for a solution) is part of the “problematic framing of onward mobility in the regime tainted by containment”. Since refugee resettlement only benefits a miniscule proportion of refugees, it bolsters refugee containment both practically (by creating an incentive for refugees to endure protracted displacement and human rights violations) and symbolically (refugees who engage in onward movement are skipping a ‘queue’). The Refugee Compact may open up resettlement opportunities and/or promote better resettlement processes, but it may also serve to legitimate refugee containment rather than open up greater mobility opportunities for refugees. Refugees and those in search of protection often have no legal travel routes, and are barred from using regular means of travel due to carrier sanctions, however carrier sanctions are not mentioned in the Compacts.

The author concludes that bifurcated Global Compacts risk endorsing an overly narrow conception of ‘refugee’ and may legitimate refugee containment in the global refugee regime. However, she also offers a more constructive reading of the compacts, emphasizing the overarching concept of international protection, and obligations to avoid harm in migration governance.