Migration – an international phenomenon lacking a global response

Keith Best

An axiom of world federalism is that decisions should be made locally, as close as possible to the people, and reserved upwards to a higher authority only if that is the appropriate level at which they should be taken: the principle of subsidiarity. Migration should be a global candidate. There are some global issues that lend themselves readily to the concept: management of the oceans’ resources, global warming and the environment, abuses of internationally recognised universal human rights and others. All these issues have seen treaties, conventions and summits of world leaders to address them at various stages within the last century.

During the last fifty years the world has developed international UN agencies which have successfully confronted disease, a controversial but global trade organisation, conventions on human, civil and political rights, a Law of the Sea and, at the beginning of this century, a permanent court which can call to account individuals, however elevated they may be, for crimes against humanity. At long last climate change and the environment have taken prominence and Kyoto will not be the last word on the matter. Military intervention on behalf of the international community in Somalia, the Balkans and Indonesia, the major military action in the Gulf and now Afghanistan have eroded the original concept of the inviolability of a state and non-intervention unless by invitation. Sanctions against South Africa, Burma and, almost certainly, Zimbabwe may not have been altogether effective and may, indeed, have had unwelcome side effects (such as developing a domestic armaments industry) but they indicate the global community’s interest in the internal affairs of states. These are welcome developments demonstrating the understanding of global interdependence, the universality of human rights and the need to curb action which can have wider, transnational implications.

Yet there is this one further issue which is dominates the global scene, causes dramatic reaction among the countries of the west and north and tells its own story of human misery but which has escaped the same scrutiny and action: mass migration. In its causes it often encompasses many of the ills which beset the world and arouses views which regard it as both beneficial and devastating. It is poorly understood with insufficient research into cause and effect. There is no UN agency which deals with it. The International Labour Organisation has some interest but more about conditions rather than movement. The International Organisation for Migration is an inter-governmental organisation which looks at integration and repatriation issues but does not have the dynamism of an agency or NGO. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has a limited mandate, as I shall examine, but has room for manoeuvre and might be able to fill this lacuna.

This should be a matter of concern to world federalists. Soren Jessen Petersen (Director, Executive Office and External Relations of UNHCR) in his Foreword to the book “Beyond Borders” by Elizabeth Ferris (World Council of Churches: March 1993) states “Cross-border and internal population movements have assumed dimensions beyond the response capacity of any single governmental or international body.” The author herself identifies the presence of refugees and migrants as being a sign of a troubled world that raises issues of justice and peace. She states “The world is moving beyond borders on many fronts. The movement of people is one of many transnational forces pushing the world, for better or worse, into a global community.”

The issue is far wider than that of those fleeing persecution within the terms of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (those outside their country of origin unable or unwilling to be protected by their own governments by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion). Migration encompasses economic migrants against whom, inexplicably for the interests of their domestic economies, the richer countries are pulling up the drawbridge. This is the predicament of “another kind of uninvited visitor who belongs in the broader category of the “economic migrant”. Illegal “economic migrants” may have no grounds on which to claim asylum, but the hardships they face in their own countries are as severe as the political persecution from which refugees are fleeing.” (1) Is the Marsh Arab an economic migrant or a refugee fleeing from persecution? The reality is that he is probably both, especially if the economic privation is brought about by deliberate or negligent actions by his own government. The UNHCR Handbook, which is regarded as an authoritative exposition of how to interpret the 1951 Convention, advises “The distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee is sometimes blurred… Where economic measures destroy the economic existence of a particular section of the population…the victims may, according to the circumstances, become refugees on leaving the country.”

As Jeremy Harding and many others have pointed out, the use of the term “economic migrant” as one of abuse in much of the western media, the association of migrants with criminality, the labelling of asylum seekers as mendicants who have no contribution to make not only stigmatises migrants collectively in a spine-chilling way reminiscent of what has done to the Jews over centuries (although most horrendously in the last) but it flies in the face of history and current economic needs. The major economies of the world today have been built on the back of successful trade and economic migration and many will be reliant on further immigration in order to sustain their position and growth. The effect of all this is wide-reaching and it seems, if nothing else, anomalous that whereas the international community recognises the need to manage the global economy, development, the environment, criminal activity and abuses of human rights there appears not to be the same understanding of the need to manage migration – which has an impact on all these issues.

It is against this background that a re-examination of the rôle of UNHCR by the new High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers is so welcome and necessary. The renewal of the mandate comes up in 2004. In many respects, UNHCR is the most precarious UN agency of all. Funding has been uncertain and has a narrow base – effectively, only about 15 states (in 1998 14 governments and the European Commission) contribute regularly (95% of UNHCR’s total funds) and in disproportionate ways: in 1994-1998 the USA accounted for 26% (the next being the European Commission at 17%, Japan 13%, then Sweden 7%) of an average overall annual figure of less than $1 billion. Moreover, the annual contributions over than period have declined from just under $1.2 billion to not much more than $800 million. (2) Ruud Lubbers has made it clear that he wants to change the funding base and examine the rôle of UNHCR in the UN family.

The original mandate for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which came into effect on 1 January 1951 was for only three years. Since then its mandate has been extended for five-year periods. Its establishment followed a period of great activity relating to displaced persons who had fled and did not wish to return as a result of the Second World War. The Convention was limited to persons who had become refugees prior to 1 January 1951 (effectively, to Europe) but that was removed by the Protocol in 1967. At its beginning there were an estimated 1.25 million refugees – for many years now that figure has exceeded 20 million.

Over the years several General Assembly resolutions have extended the UNHCR mandate (but with no change to the definition of refugee in the Convention) to include persons outside their country of origin in fear of persecution, armed conflict, foreign aggression etc. and also to internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have not crossed an international border. In 1975, UNHCR was entrusted with certain responsibilities in relation to stateless people. “For the next 15 years, however, the organisation devoted relatively little time, effort or resources to this element of its mandate…the international community’s changing approach to the problem of forced displacement has prompted UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations to address the issue of statelessness in a more urgent and systematic manner.” (3) The persons whom the UN Secretary-General or General Assembly refer to UNHCR for protection, therefore, is changing and fluid. They should include vulnerable economic migrants in fear of economic persecution. The General Assembly could change the mandate in 2004 to include a watching brief for migration generally.

UNHCR has resembled at times an agency largely devoted to administering camps for refugees although an important part of its work is in seeking to influence governments: this continues to be a delicate tightrope to tread between influencing, but not alienating, those who fund it and who could ignore it if pressed too hard. It is arguable that there should be much greater emphasis on research and policy work in order to address the causes of migration.

Asylum applications have risen dramatically over the last decade or so in Europe (from about 4,000 in 1988 to 88,000 in 2000 in the UK alone) but this cannot be dissociated from the repressive measures to control immigration introduced by governments over the same period and the ending of alternative routes (such as the German gästarbeiter scheme). It is commonly alleged by governments that many asylum seekers are economic migrants and masquerade as refugees in order to gain lawful protection in the country to which they come. The British NGO Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) (4) has challenged the British Government to allow economic migrants to enter the UK in search of work and to be allowed to remain if able to find it in a reasonable time (akin to European Union citizens exercising their rights under the Treaty of Rome). IAS believes that this would cut the numbers of asylum seekers as economic migrants would prefer a lawful route to Britain rather than clandestine and in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers. This is at a time when the UK is desperately short of both skilled and unskilled labour with an ageing population which needs incoming labour beyond what can be supplied domestically if it is to sustain its economic position. Although the Government has made tentative moves towards a more liberal work permit immigration scheme it is reluctant to follow this advice as it believes that it would be an incentive for more migration to Britain.

The response of governments to migration has been almost universally hostile, even increasingly from those countries which, born through immigration, have seen its benefits. “Confronted with growing social problems at home, and claiming that many of these asylum seekers are actually economic migrants, the governments of the industrialised states have introduced an array of different measures intended to prevent or deter people from seeking refuge on their territory. Superficially, these measures appear to be having their intended effect; the total number of asylum applications submitted in the wealthier regions of the world has diminished quite significantly in the past few years, even though the global scale of forced displacement has continued to grow.” (5) This, of course, is not true everywhere. Indeed, in the UK, since repressive measures were introduced increasingly from 1996 the number of asylum seekers has grown exponentially: Government deterrence has been a failure although at some terrible human cost in lives of those forced into the hands of traffickers and seeking ever more clandestine ways of entering the UK hanging on to the sides of ferries at night, perilously clinging to the underside of Eurostar trains through the Tunnel and even setting out on inflatable lilos to swim the Channel; 58 Chinese were found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry.

We must set this debate in the context of two trends in modern global polity. The first is a greater fusion of intergovernmental and NGO civil society. Increasingly, governments seek the support of specialised agencies when putting forward their policies. In turn, non-governmental agencies have become more influential with governments and work in a closer relationship with them. That is manifest particularly at the international level whether in aid or other humanitarian work, education and health. The UN and other intergovernmental bodies rely heavily on the support of organised civil society. The rôle of the World Federalist Movement in putting together the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, sponsored financially by, among other donors, the European Commission and working closely with governments is a good example.

Secondly, in its relationships the world is becoming horizontal rather than vertical: there is often greater community between groups at all levels across national borders rather than within them. Whether the common bond is religion, ethnicity, culture or language these groups are being built across national boundaries. This is facilitated by greater knowledge and understanding of other parts of the world through the availability of radio, television and now the internet. It is enhanced by cheaper travel – which also has its effect on increased migration. There is also the coalition of thought and policy which transcends national borders – ideas are now universal. Attempts to solve intractable problems at the international rather than national level may be influenced by the knowledge that national governments cannot have ethical foreign policies – if the responsibility of a national government is to the welfare and perceived interests of its own citizens, rather than to the global commons, it will interpret international instruments to suit its own domestic agenda and foreign policy objectives at whatever cost to the citizens of other states. A failure to appreciate this basic premise has led to much frustration as global civil society has tried to attribute to them more philanthropic motives. In terms of the Convention there are problems of different approaches to interpretation of its provisions: most notable of these is that some states will not accept that persecution at the hands of non-state agents (such as the mafia or other groups) gives rise to refugee status rather than persecution at the hands of the authorities (such as the army and police). This problem is within the European Union and is a bar to harmonisation of asylum policy. There is jurisprudence from different jurisdictions on the same Convention but with different conclusions. There are disparate definitions of what constitutes a “social group”. This is an area in which UNHCR should be taking a more pro-active rôle.

It is time for the international community and the General Assembly to look hard at a hole in the UN family – one that needs to be filled. Migration issues will dominate this century and will have a dramatic impact on global development. It is beyond the capacity of the nation states to manage individually or even collectively regionally (as is being addressed in the European Union with moves towards a common immigration policy after the Treaty of Amsterdam has brought such matters within its central jurisdiction). The implications are global and the response must be commensurate. It is time to extend the mandate of UNHCR or create another organisation which can help to manage this phenomenon.

(1) “The Uninvited – Refugees at the Rich Man’s Gate” by Jeremy Harding (Profile Books Ltd with London Review of Books, 2000) p.6.

(2) UNHCR 2000 Global Appeal p.16 et seq.

(3) “The State of the World’s Refugees – A Humanitarian Agenda” (UNHCR 1997: Oxford University Press) p.227

(4) the largest national charity giving a free legal advice and representation service to immigrants and asylum seekers with 16 offices throughout the UK and abroad, more than 300 staff and a history going back more than 30 years

(5) “The State of the World’s Refugees – A Humanitarian Agenda” (UNHCR 1997: Oxford University Press) p.183

This article was written by Keith Best, Chief Executive of the Immigration Advisory Service and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the World Federalist Movement. he may be contacted at keithbest@hotmail.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

About the Author