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International Relations

UN chief urges countries to expand legal paths to migration

Guterres backs planned talks to achieve global pact, even as US withdraws

Migrant workers relax on a grass patch during their day off in Singapore.   © Reuters

UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries Thursday to cooperate in negotiating a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration, pushing forward despite the withdrawal of the U.S. -- the world's top destination for migrants -- from the process.

"The adoption of this compact stands as one of our most important collective priorities for 2018," Guterres said at a meeting introducing his report, which will help provide a basis for an initial draft of the document.

"I call for us to focus on the overwhelming positives of migration and to use facts, not prejudice, as the basis for addressing its challenges," Guterres told U.N. member representatives.

The U.N. estimates 258 million international migrants worldwide in 2017 -- comprising 3.4% of the global population -- with 106 million of them originating from Asian countries.

Managing migration poses one of the most "urgent and profound tests" for the international community, Guterres noted in his report, and he advised countries to open new legal pathways to migration. More accessible legal options would lead to fewer irregular migrants working outside the law, the report added.

"Counterproductive policies aimed at restricting migration corrode states' ability to deliver on these priorities and make more migrants more vulnerable," the report said. "I am concerned that such policies have become too common in recent years," it added, citing xenophobic political narratives and pejorative references to "illegal immigrants."

Countries look to begin work on an initial draft of the compact in February, with the signing of the final document expected to take place in Morocco in December. Though the compact would not be legally binding, the negotiations have been overshadowed by the U.S. withdrawal.

"[W]e simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement last month.

Though the U.N. has been reserved in its criticism of the U.S., officials from the global body have taken a few implicit jabs at Washington.

"Authorities that erect major obstacles to migration -- or place severe restrictions on migrants' work opportunities -- inflict needless economic self-harm, as they impose barriers to having their labor needs met in an orderly and legal fashion," Guterres said Thursday, likely a diplomatic reference to rhetoric from President Donald Trump about constructing a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and preventing undocumented immigrants from taking local jobs.

India was the top country of origin for international migrants in 2017, with 16.6 million people living abroad, followed by Mexico's 13 million, the U.N. estimates.

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