by Tendayi Bloom

UN Global Compact Leaders Summit. Source: UN Women, Flickr.

In December 2018 the global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration was almost unilaterally adopted by United Nations Member States. It was extraordinary that in the space of just over two years, the first comprehensive document on international migration could have been negotiated and adopted with so much support. And it was extraordinary that for the first time a key international document relating to migration addressed statelessness.

But considering the global compact for migration through the lens of statelessness forces a rethinking of two key concepts. It becomes necessary to interrogate the way in which ‘identity’ is defined and how ‘migrants’ are identified. This piece will address these two concerns and indicate how they intertwine.

Identifying migrants

There is no legal definition of ‘migrant’ and the global compact itself also presents a fluid understanding of the term. This becomes particularly clear when we consider that all over the world, stateless persons, irrespective of whether they have moved (indeed, most haven’t) are subject to migration control.

Technical definitions offered for example by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) suggest that international migration has something to do with a person changing their country of habitual residence. This makes sense. When we talk about migration we usually assume that someone has moved.

However, people are commonly identified as migrants by checking their documents and status. One key way in which migrants are identified in censuses is through questions relating to country of birth and citizenship for example. Being a migrant, which is often assumed to be about physical movement seems to become focused on ‘legal identity’.

Through considering cases of stateless persons it becomes evident that many people are arbitrarily denied citizenship of the country where they were born (e.g. in Myanmar, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, etc). As a result, they may be identified as migrants despite never having changed their country of habitual residence. States claim a right to control access to their citizenship. But this is being used to enable a State to identify people arbitrarily as ‘migrants’.

As the global compact for migration does not offer any definition of migrant nor mechanism for identifying someone as a migrant, there is a risk that its implementation may reinforce such practices.

Stateless persons and identity

It is in its Objective 4 (entitled ‘Ensure that all migrants have proof of legal identity and adequate documentation’) that the global compact for migration sets out most of its provisions relating to ‘identity’. This is also the Objective that explicitly addresses statelessness. This means that whereas the nod to identity in Target 16.9 of the Sustainable Development Goals was not intended to address statelessness, we might suppose that in Objective 4 of the global compact for migration it was.

Earlier revisions certainly gave that impression. In the zero draft of the document, the first intention behind Objective 4 was ‘to end statelessness and avoid other vulnerabilities’. However, after negotiation, the principal intentions were revised. The focus shifted toward the right to a ‘legal identity’ (rather than citizenship, which in the final version comes later) and the need for civil registration in order to exercise human rights.

The intention to address statelessness was relegated to later on in the objective. Furthermore, it was emphasised that legal identity is needed in order to enable effective migration procedures, efficient service provision and public safety.

This is not just cosmetic. The change in underlying intention is also reflected in the change in actions. Rather than ensuring that all migrants have identity documents, the focus became on each State ensuring that their citizens abroad have requisite documents and that these documents would be difficult to forge. The need for a State to offer citizenship to children born in its territory (a provision found in the first Statelessness Convention and included in the zero draft of the compact) had somehow slipped away.

Wider implications of the statelessness lens

The fact that people who have never moved and are not in the process of moving are subject to ‘migration control’ calls into question what contemporary migration governance is about.

And the fact that ‘legal identity’ is in practice being used to avoid recommitting to the existing international law obligations to grant nationality to stateless persons further forces us to interrogate the definition of ‘identity’ being used.

Seeing migration governance through a statelessness lens explodes core assumptions. This suggests that, far from being peripheral to global migration governance, the perspective of stateless persons must in fact be central to it. It is, then, essential that those engaging in migration governance ensure that this perspective is taken into account.

Plans for implementation and monitoring of the global compact for migration are currently being developed, along with the modalities for the new UN Migration Network. This moment of change offers a unique opportunity to address the terminological slippages identified here, along with their real-world implications.

Often the perspective of stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness seems hard to capture. One approach is to ensure that insights from projects like this one [link] into the implications of migration governance for those caught in the gaps in statistical data are used alongside other sources of information. This must come alongside efforts to ensure that stateless persons and their advocates are brought into the planning for implementation and monitoring of the global compact for migration.


Tendayi Bloom is a lecturer in politics and international studies at the Open University in the UK. She is currently in receipt of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship for the project, ‘Noncitizens and the Global Compact for Migration’. She is author of Noncitizenism: Recognising Noncitizen Capabilities in a World of Citizens (Routledge, 2018) and co-editor of Understanding Statelessness (Routledge, 2017, with K Tonkiss and P Cole).

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