People movement: the need for a World Migration Organisation

The world needs a global migration organisation to regulate and supervise the movement of peoples. [Reposted from openDemocracy, May 2003]

Arthur C. Helton
28 September 2015
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People move. This self-evident proposition cannot, of course, capture the almost limitless nuances associated with large numbers of individuals crossing national borders. According to the United Nations, there are more than 180 million international migrants around the world, including refugees – more than the entire population of Brazil.

The international migration mosaic is complex. Displaced persons may be in flight from major infrastructure projects, such as China’s Three Gorges project to dam the Yangtze river, or from creeping desertification in sub-Saharan Africa, or from environmental degradation in places like the environs of the Aral Sea or Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. This is to say nothing about the millions of individuals who leave their homelands because of economic distress, or who are simply seeking better lives.

How governments respond


Governments employ a wide variety of policies, many of them rather crude, to address the transnational movements of people. Indeed, how we label the movements of people says much more about the nature of governmental policy arrangements with respect to the phenomenon of international migration than about the particular motivations and characteristics of the individuals who migrate. These different labels correspond to policies which are imposed on populations who are crossing borders, almost always with highly mixed individual motivations.

Governmental policy responses more often focus on the purpose for travel. The individuals may be considered to be “refugees” in flight from persecution, or “asylum-seekers” knocking at the door of a new country requesting protection. Or they may be “migrants”, either intending short-term or long-term stays, or temporary visitors such as students, business people, or tourists.

Nor are these categories well conceptualised. Refugees may arrive as visitors or as immigrants like those who resettled in the United States before the advent of immigration controls in the first part of the 20th century. Professionals may migrate in the face of persecution, as was the case with movements from Europe in the course of the second world war. Skilled newcomers may enter a country because they have close family members, or they may come on account of their personal and educational attainments. The variations are almost endless.

At bottom we simply do not know with precision how many people are in movement, who they are, from where to where they are moving, and, most particularly of interest to policymakers, with what consequences. Even partial statistics on international travellers indicate that they are several times the numbers of migrants moving each year. Wealthy governments and international organisations count movements of capital and goods around the world. But no one entity compiles comprehensive, reliable information about the movements of people.

At a meeting in July 2002 at the United Nations, a group of experts gathered to discuss the unavailability of data and the uneven quality of information to measure international migration. While those assembled recognized that the issue of migration has achieved greater prominence as a public policy agenda item, leading to greater demands for information, they ruefully acknowledged that answers are few.

There is thus a crucial need for better and more refined information to underpin policy. It is impossible to wish away population movements in the name of sovereignty. Today, there are more people moving, and more people are subject to displacement. International policy needs to catch up to this reality.

Defining a dynamic reality


The many varieties of sources and methods that produce data on international population movements generate different types of statistics which are often distorted by the policy process. Refugee numbers, for example, are reported by governments, which can have an incentive to undercount in order to minimise the problem and avoid political embarrassment, or to overcount in order to maximise international financial assistance. Individuals can be refugees who are to be rescued, migrants who are to be welcomed, or uninvited aliens subject to arrest and removal. Or they may fall into all three categories, simultaneously or in sequence.

The rudimentary nature of the inquiry is reflected by the fact that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of an international migrant. According to the United Nations, for statistical purposes, a long-term migrant should be defined as a person who has moved to a country other than his or her usual residence for a period of at least a year. Short-term migrants are those who move for at least three months, but less than a year. But few countries report in these categories which are far removed from the policy process, and the variety of sources and definitions used by different countries have frustrated efforts to achieve a fine-grained picture of the migration phenomenon.

But even if the UN definition were followed exactly, many policy-relevant questions about migration would remain unanswered. Increasingly, governments view international migration as a problem. According to a recent UN survey, ten governments in the world viewed the level of immigration as too high in 1976. In 2001, thirty governments held this view. While developed countries are inclined to lower immigration, a similar trend can be discerned in developing countries as well.

Regional trends, of course, vary. Concerns with high levels of immigration among developed countries are found mostly among eastern European countries. In Asia and Oceania, the number of governments viewing immigration as too high has increased. In contrast, in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, concerns with high immigration eased in the late 1990s.

In search of a framework


True conundrums are caused when people move internationally, or are forced to move to another country, for economic reasons. Labour migration has been characterised recently by a growing restrictiveness and selectivity in the admission of migrants in developed countries, a significant increase in the number of countries that have become host to foreign workers, and rising expectations that workers and their families need to be protected.

The problem is that labour migration is viewed narrowly as a matter of national or bilateral concern. The adoption of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats) during the latest rounds of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) represents the beginnings of a general framework for trade-related temporary movements of people based on government-to-government agreements. But so far, no such agreements have been negotiated.

At the regional level, the European Union project aspires to regulate the movement of third-country nationals through common asylum and international migration policies. Economic arrangements in South America, the Caribbean and Africa have sought to facilitate the movement of people. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), temporary entry is permitted for highly qualified workers in 61 professions.

Questions of human rights, moreover, imbue population movements. Family-based immigration has become significant in several countries, particularly in Europe. In the late 1990s Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain amended their legislation pertaining to family reunification.

The magnitude of undocumented migration is, by its very nature, difficult to quantify, but it is believed to be on the rise. Harsh enforcement efforts by governments have been justified on this ground.

A maze of fear in a universe of uncertainty


The migration world of the future is impossible to predict with any precision. But there will surely be unpleasant surprises. Humanitarian catastrophes await. More people will be on the move, displaced and presenting themselves at borders seeking new homes for a complex blend of reasons. Imagine the authorities of a relatively prosperous country watching the arrival of an unmanageable mass of asylum seekers and migrants, unable to invoke a transnational policy response.

Notions of decency and tolerance can quickly erode in the face of a community’s fears and insecurity. Indeed, such pressures can ultimately cause severe damage to a system of world order. At root, this is why new forms of international cooperation are needed to address international migration while respecting the human rights of non-citizens.

But far from providing comfort, the fragmented and uncoordinated policy environment relating to international population movements feeds frictions and fears. The myriad of competing interests make a greater degree of international cooperation desirable.

The reactions to population movements in different countries will reflect the precise character of their social, economic, environmental and demographic condition. Some basic components are clear: fear of receiving more than a fair share of uninvited asylum-seekers; worry about being unable to cope with the insecurity caused by displacement; nervousness at the loss of competitive edge that may stem from inability to attractnewcomers; concern at the downgrading of social security systems as a result of demographic trends; fear of population losses.

Meanwhile, the prospect of fundamental changes to societies and identities will worry populations in both sending and receiving countries. Concerted efforts are needed to allay the fears of governments and their peoples. If these are truly comprehensive, then such arrangements would likely consolidate the rights of refugees and migrants.

Time for coherence


A more comprehensive policy umbrella is needed. This would require a better understanding of the costs and benefits, both tangible and intangible, occasioned by the movements of people. Migrants sendremittances comprising many billions of dollars each year in a highly effective form of foreign assistance.

Whether they are political or economic migrants, where newcomers resettle, they change their new societies. And increasingly newcomers continue to participate in their home countries through the modern facilities of communication and international travel. But even though the impacts can be fundamental, transnational migration remains largely peripheral to public policy.

Achieving a comprehensive policy relating to the international movement of people would require new international institutional arrangements capable of serious research leading to the generation of norms in this field – a World Migration Organisation (WMO). Only a deep understanding of the issues will permit policy to be made in an area that is largely governed by narrow political appearances and realities. Comprehensive international arrangements would help to secure the sovereignty of both governments and individuals.

The ultimate objective for a WMO would be to make and arbitrate global migration policy, which should be more effective, generous and humane than is currently the case. The alternative is to muddle along, failing to appreciate both the threats and benefits. But the costs of just muddling along will become increasingly great in terms of insecurity and lost opportunities.

Sooner or later – and the sooner, the better - a WMO-type mechanism will be needed to formulate international migration policy, with an inclusive definition of forced migration. The world needs a comprehensive policy for people who move.

This is an edited version of an article published in the November/December 2002 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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