The United Nations on Friday completed an agreement on improved ways to handle the global flow of migrants — a pact particularly notable because it was boycotted by a huge and influential member, the United States.
The agreement — the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration — was negotiated at a time that the conversations about migration and refugees have grown increasingly divisive in much of the Western world.
The United States had initially participated in the negotiations, but it abruptly withdrew last December under orders from the Trump administration, which has taken an increasingly hostile view toward cross-border migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It argued that such multinational agreements subverted the power of individual governments to control national borders.
“Of course it’s regrettable when a country like the United States pulls away from a global process,” Switzerland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Valentin Zellweger, said ahead of the announcement on Friday. “But at the same time, the decision has been accepted and the United States are free and also welcome to rejoin discussions at any point.”
Mr. Zellweger said that the American decision to abandon the negotiations had not been felt by the remaining countries. “The resolve of the member states never changed,” he said.
Still, he and other diplomats acknowledged that the American absence was significant and could impact the agreement’s effectiveness.
“We still have 192 countries that agreed on the text of the compact, and we keep the door open for the U.S. to come back,” Miroslav Lajcak, current president of the United Nations General Assembly, said during a Friday news conference after the agreement was announced.
The agreement is expected to be formally adopted in December during a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, but members of the United Nations rose and applauded as the agreement was announced at its New York headquarters.
Louise Arbour, a longtime United Nations diplomat from Canada who is its special representative for international migration, was responsible for leading the process to create the agreement. She said the Marrakesh meeting could be a “launching pad for initiatives and concrete applications” of the agreement.
The goal of the agreement is to preserve the basic human rights of all migrants, António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said during a Thursday news conference.
“This action has immense potential to help the world harness the benefits of regular migration while safeguarding against the dangers of irregular movements that place people at risk,” Mr. Guterres said.
More than 258 million people worldwide are international migrants, according to the United Nations, and that number will only grow in coming years. And migration has proved dangerous and even deadly for those on the move.
At least 60,000 people migrating internationally have died since 2000, while crossing the sea, traveling through inhospitable landscapes, in detention or elsewhere. Often, migrants and refugees are “demonized and attacked,” Mr. Guterres said.
Mr. Guterres applauded the new agreement as a mechanism for change and stressed the need for countries to respect the inherent human rights of migrants.
“Countries have the right and even the responsibility to determine their own migration policies, and to responsibly manage their borders,” Mr. Guterres said. “But they must do so in full respect for human rights.”
Ms. Arbour called the agreement a necessary mechanism for a world where migration was an undeniable reality.
“It’s not helpful to ask whether migration is a good thing or a bad thing,” she said in an interview with The New York Times editorial board earlier this week. “It’s a thing, it’s happening, it’s always happened. It will always happen.”
Others involved in formulating the agreement expressed hope that it would dispel some of the misconceptions and misinformation about migration.
While the push for a global framework on migration came in the wake of the European migration crisis of 2015, when more than a million migrants crossed into Europe, those behind the pact emphasized that migration was a global phenomenon.
“There is a tendency to believe that migration is only south-north, people coming from poorer developing countries and going to wealthier, richer countries, whether that is the United States or Europe,” said Juan José Gómez Camacho, Mexico’s ambassador to the United Nations. “In reality, migration is coming from everywhere, going to everywhere; it’s mostly, in fact, south-south.”
Under the final agreement, signers would commit to 23 objectives, which include “providing basic services for migrants” and using “detention only as a measure of last resort.”
One objective lays out the need for nations to cooperate in “facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission” for those migrants deemed able to return to their home countries, but would prohibit the collective expulsion of migrants who face a “real and foreseeable risk of death, torture, and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment.”
This has been a point of contention for some governments that have called for turning back migrants to their areas of origin.
J. Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York, said the agreement was a positive step forward. Still, he said, given the hostilities facing migrants, “the devil will be in how it is implemented around the world.”
Ms. Arbour said the agreement was not intended to immediately answer the vexing issues created by migration.
“This document is really, in essence, an agreement to cooperate to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration,” she said.
The United States was involved in the original talks that began after a 2016 declaration by all 193 members of the United Nations to create new mechanisms for protecting the rights of migrants and refugees by ensuring their safe resettlement and access to employment and education.
“The administration can try to throw up walls, both virtual and literal, against migration, but the key to managing it effectively and humanely is through global cooperation,” Mr. Appleby said.
The agreement is open for all nations to sign on to, and Mr. Guterres and others at the United Nations are hopeful that the United States may once again become involved in the process and will one day adopt the global compact.
“I strongly hope that the United States sooner or later will also join this process,” Mr. Guterres said Thursday. “Let’s not forget that the United States is in itself a country of immigration.”
Rick Gladstone and Satoshi Sugiyama contributed reporting.