You have a right to leave your country, but you don’t have a right to enter another country. That asymmetry of human rights is a basic axiom of the global international migration system.
Nearly 70 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 13, recognized everyone’s right to leave and to return to his or her own country. It did not include, however, the right for people to enter another country. This internationally recognized and important distinction contributes to the backdrop for the first-ever United Nations high-level summit meeting for refugees and migrants, to occur on Sept. 19 in New York.
The UN General Assembly will devote the day to consideration of migration issues that are challenging governments and populations worldwide. The meeting intends to address the large movements of refugees and migrants to bring countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.
The UN is proposing three components, or pillars, for this approach. First, member states are urged to uphold the safety and dignity of large movements of refugees and migrants. Second, a global compact is proposed for adoption on responsibility sharing for refugees. Third, governments are called on to develop a global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration to be adopted at an intergovernmental conference on international migration in 2018.
Many people are hoping that the September meeting will achieve its lofty goals. Based on past performances of member states in dealing with international migration at the UN, however, prospects for taking a more humane and coordinated global approach to international migration are not encouraging. Recent preparatory negotiations over a draft international agreement are yielding few concrete commitments concerning refugees and migrants.
Although the UN has convened global conferences on aging, children, the environment, population, trade, human settlements and women in the last decades, it has dodged holding a conference on international migration.
Governments of the wealthier, more influential migrant-receiving countries fear that if a global migration conference were to take place, the more numerous migrant-sending nations might set legal norms and pass recommendations incompatible with the national agendas and interests of richer countries, limiting state sovereignty over international migration matters.
Besides the asymmetry of international migration rights, another central factor that could have a critical bearing on the results of the conference is the enormous demographic imbalance between the supply of potential migrants, who are free to leave their homelands, and the demand for migrants, which is set by the receiving countries.
International surveys find that about one of every six of the world’s adults, close to 900 million globally today, would migrate to another country if they could. In contrast, annual numbers of migrants worldwide today are only several million.
A clear illustration of the extent of the demographic imbalance in the supply and demand for migrants is the top destination country, the United States. While more than two hundred million people have said they would like to migrate to the US, the country’s annual number of immigrants that are admitted is a fraction of that figure, approximately one million.
Another striking example of the demographic imbalance between major migration sending-and-receiving regions is the difference in the growth of the populations of Africa and Europe (Figure 1). Whereas in 1950, the population of Europe was more than twice as large as Africa’s, nowadays the population of Africa is about 40 percent larger than Europe’s. By the midcentury, the African population is expected to be more than three times as large as the European population.
A serious complication related to the demographic imbalance is the growing number of fraudulent claims being made among the soaring numbers of legitimate refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries. With comparatively limited possibilities for legal immigration, many people seeking economic opportunities and improved living conditions in wealthier countries are falsely claiming to be refugees seeking asylum from persecution, violence and war in their home countries.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol prohibit the expulsion or forcible return of persons accorded refugee status, called refoulement. Yet with more than a million asylum seekers having reached Europe last year, some government officials have proposed modifying the convention to reduce their obligations, in particular allowing refugees to be sent back to their transit countries.
A third important factor influencing the summit’s negotiations is the gap between government and public views regarding international migration policies. While most governments tend to favor immigration, the public mostly wants policies favoring less immigration.
Opinion polls regularly report that large majorities of the public think there should be greater restriction of immigration and tighter control of their country’s borders. Besides economic uncertainties and unemployment, people are concerned about losing their traditional culture and national identities. Many people migrating today are ethnically, religiously and culturally different from the populations of the receiving countries, increasing anxiety about integration and cultural integrity and fears about ethnic conflict.
In contrast to public opinion, few governments view their immigration levels as too high.
Since the mid-1990s, the proportion of governments with policies to lower immigration has declined in both more-and less-developed regions. At the same time, the proportion of governments with policies to raise immigration has risen sharply in more developed regions, to 22 percent in 2011 from 2 percent in 1996.
Governments, such as Australia, Britain, Germany, Ireland and the United States, tend to stress the economic gains of international migration. In particular, most developed countries are competing globally to recruit and retain talented highly skilled workers, such as high-tech personnel, doctors, nurses and scientists.
Besides the worrisome gap between opinion and policies on international migration, much of the public views law enforcement officials and policy makers as lax in implementing programs and enforcing laws relating to illegal immigration. Estimates for the US, for example, clearly reflect the significant growth in the numbers of unauthorized immigrants and those in the civilian labor force over the last several decades (Figure 2). For many Americans, the presence of millions of unauthorized residents openly participating in the labor force attests to enforcement laxity.
By and large, authorities tend to tolerate those who continue to remain or even work unlawfully in the country, unless they commit a serious crime or can be considered a national security risk. While this tolerance is beneficial for migrants who are unlawfully resident — as well as their supporters, many businesses and organizations, certain politicians and local authorities — such accommodation does not escape public awareness and contributes to undermining civic trust and the rule of law.
Until now, governments and most major political parties have failed to acknowledge, let alone address, the gap between public opinion and official policies on immigration. As played out in many migrant-receiving countries, the results of this neglect are contributing to, among other problems, increased xenophobia, vigilantism, violence and political extremism as well as strengthening radical factions on the left and right.
It is widely recognized that international migration offers large-scale opportunities for socioeconomic development, transfer of technology and new ideas, rebalancing labor markets, remittance flows, societal enrichment and marked improvements in the well-being of millions of migrant men, women and children. But it is naive to ignore the serious challenges posed by international migration, especially illegal immigration.
Given global affairs, including widening conflicts and large refugee flows, rapid population growth in many developing countries, illegal migration, smuggling, human trafficking, frustration with attempts at multiculturalism and heightened concerns about national security and terrorist attacks, international migration may become even more contentious, divisive and problematic to manage in the coming years.
Avoiding this onerous situation will require considerable efforts by the governments of destination, transit and origin countries and relevant international organizations. It will also require improved cooperation and enhanced coordination among countries.
The UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants offers a promising opportunity for countries to adopt better ways to manage international migration and derive its benefits and minimize its shortcomings. Whether the summit meets the desired goals is not up to the migrants, refugees, smugglers or human traffickers. Moving meaningfully ahead on the global issue of international migration in the 21st century is clearly the responsibility of governments.
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Joseph Chamie recently retired as research director of the Center for Migration Studies in New York and as editor of the International Migration Review. He was formerly the director of the United Nations Population Division, having worked at the UN on population and development for more than a quarter century.
Chamie has written numerous population studies for the UN and, under his own name, written studies about population growth, fertility, estimates and projections, international migration and population and development policy. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Migration Policy Institute. He lives in the New York metro area.