Heavy Traffic: International Migration in an Era of Globalization

At the start of the new millennium, some 150 million people, or 2.5 percent of the world’s population, live outside their country of birth. That number has doubled since 1965. With poverty, political repression, human rights abuses, and conflict pushing more and more people out of their home countries while economic opportunities, political freedom, physical safety, and security pull both highly skilled and unskilled workers into new lands, the pace of international migration is unlikely to slow any time soon.

Few countries remain untouched by migration. Nations as varied as Haiti, India, and the former Yugoslavia feed international flows. The United States receives by far the most international migrants, but migrants also pour into Germany, France, Canada, Saudia Arabia, and Iran. Some countries, such as Mexico, send emigrants to other lands, but also receive immigrants?both those planning to settle and those on their way elsewhere.

Institutions and laws for achieving cooperation among receiving, source, and transit countries are in their infancy. The World Trade Organization oversees the movement of goods worldwide and the International Monetary Fund monitors the global movement of capital, but no comparable institution regulates the movements of people. Nor does a common understanding exist among states, or experts for that matter, as to the costs and benefits of freer or more restrictive immigration policies.

The surge in international migration, though, is prompting states everywhere to recognize the need for greater harmonization of policies and approaches. Bilateral discussions of migration issues?between the United States and Mexico, for example, over an expanded guestworker program and amnesty for unauthorized Mexican workers?have become more commonplace. During the past decade, regional groups have been set up in the Americas, Europe, East Asia, Africa, and elsewhere to allow receiving, source, and transit countries to address issues of mutual concern.

New Trends

Economic, geopolitical, and demographic trends reinforce the need to consolidate these regional institutions and begin to develop a global regime for managing migration.

Economic trends influence migration patterns in many ways. Multinational corporations, for example, press governments to ease movements of executives, managers, and other key personnel from one country to another. When labor shortages appear, whether in information technology or seasonal agriculture, companies also seek to import foreign workers to fill jobs. Although the rules for admitting foreign workers are largely governed by national legislation, regional and international trade regimes such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Trade in Services include provisions for admitting foreign executives, managers, and professionals. Under NAFTA, for example, U.S., Canadian, and Mexican (as of 2004) professionals in designated occupations may work in the other NAFTA countries without regard to numerical limits imposed on other foreign nationals.

The growth in global trade and investment also affects source countries. Economic development has long been regarded as the best long-term solution to emigration pressures arising from the lack of economic opportunities in developing countries. Almost uniformly, however, experts caution that emigration pressures are likely to remain and, possibly, increase before the long-term benefits accrue. Wayne Cornelius and Philip Martin postulate that as developing countries’ incomes begin to rise and opportunities to leave home increase, emigration first increases and declines only later as wage differentials between emigration and immigration countries fall. Italy and Korea, in moving from emigration to immigration countries, give credence to that theory.

Geopolitical changes since the Cold War era offer both opportunities and challenges for managing international migration, particularly refugee movements. During the Cold War, the United States and other Western countries saw refugee policy as an instrument of foreign policy. The Cold War made it all but impossible to address the roots of refugee movements, which often resulted from surrogate conflicts in Southeast Asia, Central America, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa. Few refugees were able or willing to return to lands still dominated by conflict or Communism. With the end of the Cold War, new opportunities to return emerged as decades-old conflicts came to an end. Democratization and increased respect for human rights took hold in many countries, as witnessed in the formerly Communist countries of East Europe, making repatriation a reality for millions of refugees who had been displaced for years.

At the same time, rabid nationalism fueled new conflicts that have led to massive displacement in places such as the former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes region of Africa. When the displacements spilled over to other countries, or became humanitarian crises that threatened the lives of millions, governments proved willing to intervene?even with military force?on behalf of victims. Faced with crises in northern Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and east Timor, classic notions of sovereignty that would once have precluded such intervention came under considerable pressure. On the positive side, people who once would have had to cross international borders to find aid could now find it at home. On the negative side, however, the so-called safe zones established in Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere often proved far from secure, leaving internal refugees more vulnerable than those able to cross into neighboring countries.

Demographic trends also reinforce arguments for a global regime to manage migration. Worldwide, fertility rates are falling, although developing countries continue to see rapid population growth. In most industrialized countries, fertility levels are well below replacement rates. In Europe, the average number of children born per woman is 1.4; Italy’s fertility rate is 1.2. Countries with declining fertility face the likelihood of a fall in total population, leading some demographers to see a looming population implosion. Such nations can also expect an aging population, with fewer working-age people for each older person. Although immigration will not solve the problem, it will help ease labor shortages and redress somewhat the aging of the society.

Demographic trends also help explain emigration pressures in Africa, Latin America, and some parts of Asia, where fertility rates are high. Rapidly growing societies often cannot generate enough jobs to keep pace with new entries into the labor force. Growth may also cause environmental degradation, particularly when land use policies do not protect fragile ecosystems. Natural disasters also wreak havoc on densely populated areas in poor countries. Recent hurricanes in Honduras and Nicaragua and earthquakes in El Salvador and India displaced huge numbers of people from ravaged homes and communities.

New Responses

In 1997, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan addressed the possibility of convening a conference on international migration and development. Upon consulting with UN member governments, he found insufficient consensus about what such a conference could accomplish and reported: “The disparate experiences of countries or subregions with regard to international migration suggest that, if practical solutions are to be found, they are likely to arise from the consideration of the particular situation of groups of countries sharing similar positions or concerns with the global international migration systemÉ. In the light of this, it may be expedient to pursue regional or subregional approaches whenever possible.”

Since 1997, regional processes have matured. Perhaps most developed is the Regional Migration Conference, the so-called Puebla Group, which brings together all the countries of Central and North America for regular dialogue on migration issues, including an annual session at the vice-ministerial level. The Puebla Group’s Plan of Action calls for cooperation in exchanging information on migration policy, exploring links between development and migration, combating migrant trafficking, returning extra-regional migrants, and ensuring full respect for the human rights of migrants, as well as reintegrating repatriated migrants, equipping and modernizing immigration control systems, and training officials in migration policy and procedures. Discussions have led law enforcement officials of the United States, Mexico, and several Central American countries to cooperate in arresting and prosecuting members of large-scale smuggling and trafficking operations that move migrants illegally across borders and then force them to work in prostitution, sweatshops, and other exploitive activities.

Similar regional groups are working in East and Southeast Asia. The “Manila Process” focuses on unauthorized migration and trafficking in East and Southeast Asia. Since 1996, it has brought together each year 17 countries for regular exchange of information. The Asia-Pacific Consultations include governments in Asia and Oceania and focus on a broad range of population movements in the region. Both ongoing dialogues were strengthened by a 1999 International Symposium on Migration hosted by the Royal Thai government. In the resulting Bangkok Declaration on Irregular Migration, 19 Asian countries agreed to cooperate to combat smuggling and trafficking.

Other such groups are in the making in the Southern Cone of South America, in western and southern Africa, and in the Mediterranean. The intent is to bring together the governments of all countries involved in migration, whether origin, transit, or receiving. At present, the groups are forums for exchanging information and perspectives, although the more developed ones, such as the Puebla Group, are leading to joint action as well. Given the lack of sharedinformation or consensus about migration policies and practices, the discussion stage is a necessary first step in developing the capacity for joint efforts.

Steps Toward a Global Regime

Will these regional processes lead to a global migration regime? It is too early to know. Three issues must first be addressed. First, states must reach a consensus that harmonizing policies will make migration more orderly, safe, and manageable. And in fact signs exist of growing convergence among regional groups in setting out an agenda for harmonization. Many items on regional agendas relate to unauthorized migration?and how best to deter it, consistent with respect for the rule of law and the human rights of migrants. Although source and destination countries may differ still about what causes unauthorized migration, agreement is growing on some approaches to it?for example, that curbing alien smuggling and trafficking (a global enterprise that nets an estimated $7?10 billion a year) requires international cooperation.

Other issues arise in addressing forced migration. How, for example, should states protect people fleeing repression and conflict? When conflicts end and migrants no longer need protection, when and how should they be required to return? The growing use of temporary protection, as in the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo, has led European Union member states to place a high priority on harmonizing temporary protection policies and mechanisms for burden sharing. At the same time, the Puebla Group has focused on temporary protection of victims of natural disasters in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.

More recently, issues involving legal admissions have appeared on regional agendas. When and to whom should visa restrictions apply? Under what circumstances should family reunification be guaranteed? Who should be eligible for work and residence permits? What rights should accrue to those legally admitted for work or family purposes? Answers to these questions will take time because states still differ widely in their attitudes and policies toward legal immigration. But signs of change can be seen even here. The European Union has led the way, with free movement of labor a long-held principle for its own nationals. The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty takes the EU the next step, mandating a common immigration policy for participating states.

Second, a global migration regime will require standards, policies, and new legal frameworks. A legal framework already exists for refugee movements, with most countries now signatories to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Most important, signatories agree that they will not return (refoule) persons to countries where they have a well-founded fear of persecution. International agreements also apply to the rights of migrant workers, but few states ratified the 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, showing that they were unwilling to take on a comprehensive set of obligations toward migrant workers and their families. No body of international law or policy governs responses to other forms of international migration. But with growing economic integration, global trade agreements may become vehicles for formulating such policies. Ongoing negotiations on the General Agreement on Trade in Services involve new agreements?under the rubric of the “movement of natural persons”?to ease the admission of executives, managers, and professionals providing services.

The third issue to be settled before a global migration regime can come into being is organizational responsibilities. At the heart of the refugee regime is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose mandate dates back to 1950. No comparable institution exists for other migration matters. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a Geneva-based intergovernmental body, with 86 member states and 41 observer states, comes closest. Since its founding in1951 to help resettle refugees and displaced persons from World War II and the Cold War, IOM has taken on a broad set of responsibilities, including counter-trafficking programs, migrant health and medical services, technical assistance and capacity building, and assisted return programs. In particular, it serves as the secretariat for some of the regional processes discussing international migration. IOM is not a part of the UN system (although it cooperates with UN agencies), and it represents far fewer states. To become the focal point of a new migration regime, it would need substantial new resources and government support, particularly in helping governments formulate new global migration policies. Its governing board, composed of government representatives, has already requested and provided funds to IOM to strengthen its capacity to advise governments on best practices in migration management. Both source and destination countries recognize the need for improved responses, and IOM’s broad membership helps it devise policies that balance varied governmental interests.

A Multilateral Approach

In an increasingly interconnected world, governments are unlikely to be able to solve the many problems posed by international migration through unilateral approaches only. Source, receiving, and transit countries must all cooperate to manage international migration.

Reaching agreement will be relatively straightforward when countries share similar interests and problems?for example, in combating the most exploitive type of human trafficking. Often, however, interests will diverge. Source countries such as Mexico will press for easier access to the labor markets of wealthier countries. Receiving countries such as the United States will face public concerns about seemingly uncontrolled movements into their territories. Agreement will be difficult. Still, these issues will not go away just because different countries see them differently. Sheer necessity is likely to move governments toward a global migration regime.