Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series.
When the draft of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration was finalized at the United Nations last month, it was considered a major feat by international delegations who have worked the past two years to achieve consensus on an issue where countries around the world struggle to find agreement.
The compact’s finalization is also a victory in which, according to multiple parties involved, the Holy See deserves considerable credit for serving as a mediating force.
Efforts toward the Global Compact date back to a September 2016 U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants, which resulted in the New York Declaration calling for a Global Compact that would “reaffirm, and… fully protect, the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status” to be produced no later than September 2018.
During that same period, the global situation of migrants intensified, at times threatening to unravel the entire process. Yet in the end, heads of states and government representatives from 191 countries managed to agree on broad principles for cooperation as they seek to protect the rights of migrants and their families, to improve their safety, and seek to govern their vulnerable situations.
In interviews with Crux, activists and participating country delegates alike chronicled a diverse, and, at times, unwieldy coalition of nations held together by the moral authority of the Catholic Church, insisting that migrants are individuals with human dignity and deserving of protection regardless of their legal status.
While the two-year process inching toward the final document was divided into two phases - consultation and negotiation - before the official debates could even begin in January 2018, the compact received its largest blitz of media attention when the Trump administration announced last December that it would no longer participate.
Although then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the process would undermine the United States’ sovereignty, Catholic and non-Catholic leaders fired back saying not only had they rushed to judgment on a document that was far from being finalized, but that withdrawal from the compact went against the United States’ own self-interest.
As the exit of the U.S. loomed large over the negotiations phase - and the global situation of migrants continued to underline just what was at stake - various participants told Crux that the Holy See served as a stabilizing presence that sought to build bridges, emphasizing not only areas of agreement amid a background of contention, but also reminding countries of their pre-existing commitments under international law.
According to Kevin Appleby, who participated in the process through the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN), “The Holy See was consistent in upholding the rights of migrants and reminding member states of their obligation for the protection of human life and dignity.”
“They didn’t shy away from that, and they didn’t blink in their advocacy of migrants, so it helped balance out other voices,” he said.
Appleby described an environment of various countries posturing for political attention, in which the Holy See sought to remind participants of the principles at stake.
“The compact was negotiated in a difficult global environment where xenophobia is on the rise, spreading in Europe and other nations around the world. That translated into a more difficult environment in the negotiations room,” he told Crux.
Other delegates, who spoke with Crux on background in order to continue to operate at the United Nations in a neutral and non-partisan manner, said the Holy See’s approach was marked by a person-centered approach and working together with all involved for the sake of the common good.
As a result of its particular status, one delegate noted that for the Holy See, “during the negotiations, they were not positioned in a particular bloc - it wasn’t a matter of north versus south, or developed world versus the developing world. They were right in the middle.”
Monsignor Robert Vitillo, Secretary General of the Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission, told Crux that when the Holy See would address the body, all participating countries would stop to listen.
Not only was such a response rare in his view, he went on to recall one session where he overheard a delegate remark “I could hug the Holy See,” after their intervention.
“You don’t hear that very often,” he added.
A compromise document
Prior to the start of the negotiations, the Vatican’s office of Migrants and Refugees, which is personally directed by Pope Francis, published “20 Action Points for the Global Compacts,” which, according to Father Michael Czerny, S.J., who serves as the under-secretary of the office, was intended to “express the interest of the Catholic Church in the process leading to their adoption and to contribute to the negotiations.”
Multiple delegates and participants praised the 20 Action Points - which were approved by Francis - for serving as a constant touchstone for negotiations, as well as the final compact, which includes 23 objectives and commitments.
While all participants, including that of the Holy See, were ultimately forced to compromise on certain areas, Czerny told Crux that the outcome document is “on balance positive.”
Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the pope’s nuncio to the United Nations, also spoke enthusiastically about the outcome, telling Crux it’s the first of its kind and should “improve the existing international refugee regime by recalling to states and other stakeholders their respective responsibilities and sharing best practices among them to improve the treatment of refugees.”
While neither Auza nor Czerny sought to tout the Church’s role, Appleby was quick to note “there were many voices trying to get more restrictive language into the document that reflected policies they may be pursuing in their own countries.”
“Without the voice of the Church, there certainly could have been a more restrictive compact,” he added.
In terms of clear wins, he said “The Holy See can be credited for defending the right of immigrant families and ensuring that language was included that protected them.”
He also added that the Holy See was a crucial voice in making sure faith-based organizations were specifically recognized as partners in the implementation of the compact - something not always a given in U.N. settings, considering that certain member states can view religious groups as suspect because of other neuralgic issues.
Appleby said that the shift to broaden the language from “civil society” to specifically identity the role faith-based organizations should play was a “heavy lift.”
Lastly, he said that even though the Holy See was forced to compromise on certain language, he believes they deserve credit for insisting that “irregular migrants,” migrants without legal status, are still entitled to basic life-saving services.
“Our Duty Today”
At a preparatory meeting for the Global Compact held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico last December, the Holy See’s delegation showed a video highlighting Francis’s call for a global response to migration.
While the pope’s words were not directly addressed to the international audience gathered in Mexico, the effect was still the same: widespread approval and attention.
“Our shared response may be articulated by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate,” said Francis, adding, “I believe that taking action in these four ways, as individuals and in groups, is our duty today.”
Since his election in 2013, the issue of migration has taken center stage as one of Francis’s “top pastoral priorities,” Auza told Crux.
Given that the compact is a non-legally binding document, as it heads to full adoption in Morocco this coming December, many figures are hoping that the Roman pontiff can once more lend his voice - perhaps this time in person.
Part two of this series will examine the efforts to persuade Francis to travel to Morocco for the compact’s adoption next December.