Reglobalisation in action- Part 7: Envisioning ‘global migration governance’

There is ample evidence that we need to reform the governance of migration, but we are a long way from agreeing upon how this should be done

Read Part 6 of the blog series on ‘reglobalisation in action’.

In her 1996 book, Losing Control, Saskia Sassen wrote that ‘there is a growing consensus in the community of states to lift border controls for the flow of capital, information, and services and, more broadly, to further globalisation. But when it comes to immigrants and refugees … the national state claims all its old splendour in asserting its sovereign right to control its borders’. In 2019, more than twenty years later, the situation appears – at least at first glance – rather different.

Despite the hostility of certain governments (including the United States), 164 countries adopted in 2018 a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, in which they acknowledge that ‘no State can address migration on its own due to the inherently transnational nature of the phenomenon’ and assert that the proper governance of migration therefore ‘requires international, regional and bilateral cooperation and dialogue’.

Equally, though, this Compact – along with other recent commitments taken by states under UN auspices – is a non-binding document, whose actual effect on immigration policies may prove elusive. Moreover, the discrepancy between the free movement of capital and the unfree movement of people/labour still represents an enduring pillar of how globalisation is governed.

From a functionalist perspective, the relative lack of institutionalised cooperation over a critical transnational issue inevitably yields sub-optimal results. The ongoing migration (or refugee) ‘crisis’ in the Euro-Mediterranean region reminds us of the human cost that stems from the lack of adequate mechanisms to address people’s mobility. So, how should we conceptualise ‘global migration governance’? This post outlines five possible answers to this question.

The first is quite simple and, based on Sassen’s observation, concludes that there is no ‘global migration governance’ to be had whatsoever. The politics of migration remain under the realm of sovereignty and are hardly the object of inter-state cooperation – even in regions, like the EU, where such cooperation is highly advanced. It follows that migration remains a dark hole in the governance of globalisation: it is a global phenomenon governed at the national level, with all the crises that this generates, not only in the Euro-Mediterranean region, but also at the US-Mexico border, for example.

The second answer examines the increasingly complex and sophisticated security apparatuses designed to control borders and argues that there do exist distinct patterns of global migration governance, although these often have the objective of blocking – rather than facilitating – people’s mobility. Indeed, as the 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey to externalise the management of Syrian refugees illustrates, states do ‘cooperate’ across the North/South divide. But this serves to keep unwanted migrants and refugees as far away as possible from developed countries: it takes the form of readmission agreements to expel foreigners, of development aid to alleviate emigration pressure, or of police cooperation to strengthen sending and transit states’ capacity to control their borders. Rather than meaningful ‘global migration governance’, this amounts to ‘forced immobility governance’ and carries often highly problematic consequences, such as the brutal treatment of migrants in Libya.

In light of these abuses, a third answer calls for a human rights-based approach to migration. This is an old story: in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles established the International Labor Organization, whose mission included ‘the protection of the interests of workers when employed in countries other than their own’. The emphasis was placed on the labour rights of migrant workers, which led to international law instruments such as the 1990 UN Convention on Migrant Workers’ Rights – an ambitious human rights convention monitored by the Office of the High-Commissioner for Human Rights. It was hoped that this would make for a strong regime to regulate labour migration worldwide, thereby complementing the refugee regime based on the Geneva Convention and the United Nations High-Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But states proved reluctant: only 55 ratified this Convention, and no major Western receiving country did so. In other words, the norms and institutions for a rights-based governance of (labour) migration exist, but they remain largely unimplemented because of resistance on the part of powerful states.

This political dead-end has prompted international organisations to look for alternatives. A fourth approach to global migration governance has thus developed since the 1990s: centred on the notion of ‘migration management’, it has been pushed forward in particular by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which became, in 2016, the effective ‘UN migration agency’. According to this managerial (or utilitarian) approach, states should cooperate to make the most of migration: the assumption is that all countries share a common interest in it, either as developing states in need of remittances for their development, or as receiving states that face labour shortages – a situation that typically makes ‘win-win’ cooperation possible. The above-mentioned Global Compact fits into this approach, which is nevertheless criticised for being insufficiently concerned with rights and vague enough to accommodate harsh border-control strategies and exploitative labour migration policies.

The fifth and final conceptualisation of ‘global governance migration’ has the free movement of people as its main objective. Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country’. But no right to immigration complements this right to emigration. Moreover, access to mobility has become, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, ‘the most powerful and most coveted stratifying factor’ – to the great advantage of inhabitants of the Global North who, unlike their fellow human beings from the Global South, are less dependent upon the uncertain deliverance of visas and residence permits to venture abroad.

The remedy would consist in a massive democratisation of mobility – no longer understood as a privilege granted by sovereign governments, but rather as a fundamental right. Ethically strong but arguably marginal in political terms, this view sometimes converges with market-friendly arguments about the distortive role of borders in the global economy: in a 1984 editorial, the Wall Street Journal wrote that, ‘If Washington still wants to “do something” about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders’.

Migration is of course high on the political agenda and has become routinely associated with all kinds of abuses. This points to the inadequacy of states’ political strategies. But, even if there is some sort of agreement on the need to change the way in which migration is governed, there is no consensus yet on the direction this should take.

In the short term, there is an urgent need to address the vulnerability and abuses that affect migrants and refugees worldwide: while this should be nothing less than the mere implementation of the human rights standards to which states have committed, it actually runs against their concern with border security and their electoral strategies – thus making for extremely tense dilemmas. The other urgency lies in the recognition of the need for foreign labour in receiving economies, to avoid the systematic reliance on undeclared work by undocumented migrants. This is a matter of social justice for all workers, as the under-protection of some threatens the rights of all. But, again, this runs against the ‘us and them’ divide that has long pervaded immigration policy and public opinions.

Over the long run, however, it may appear that the solution to migration problems does not necessarily lie in migration policy. While people migrate for all sorts of reasons, their mobility is often tied to profound imbalances both between states (trade, development, conflict) and within countries (labour market regulation, social cohesion, discrimination along race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation). As such, ‘global migration governance’ is inseparable from fairer governance of globalisation at large.

All other posts in our series on ‘reglobalisation in action’ are available here