We Need a Brand New Architecture To Cover The Whole Scope of Mobility

Migration is polarizing societies around the globe and has become one of the most important political cleavages of our times. We spoke with Michael Doyle, the Director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and co-director of its International Migration project, about the challenges of migration in current times. In 2015, Doyle helped develop the Model International Mobility Convention which represents a shared framework among over 40 academics. It serves the ambitious goal of creating a holistic, rights- respecting governance regime for all aspects of international migration.

Michael Doyle
December 20, 2018

Journal of International Affairs: Let’s start with your own work. Which effective policies have you identified since 2013 when you started with the project of International Migration?

Michael Doyle: In summary, what most of us here at Columbia have been working on is the Model of International Mobility Convention. What we have learned from it is twofold. On the one hand, the world of migration and refugees from a legal viewpoint is incoherent. The existing model, Migrant Workers Convention, which is designed to protect migrants in countries of destination, has no real ratifications from those countries of destination. The only ratifications come for countries of origin, so it is not functional. Also, the Refugee Convention of 1951 is a landmark of international law, but if you take it literally its definition of refugee is so narrow that it does not apply to most refugees today. According to it, one must be persecuted by the state on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, or social group. But if your life is being threatened by something else, like a civil war as in Syria, or generalized violence as in Honduras, or climate change through drought or flooding, and you have to flee for your life, you don’t qualify as a refugee. Decent countries provide temporary protection for such people, but they don’t have the rights to claim the Refugee Convention. Thus, if it depends on governmental will, President Trump can send the Haitians and the Salvadorans back. The existing legal architecture is radically limited, and it’s way too narrow. We need a regime that covers everyone: tourists, students, labor migrants, investors, forced migrants and refugees. We need a brand new legal architecture to cover the whole scope of mobility and fill in the gaps of those two conventions.

On the other hand, in the process of doing this, we have found some low-hanging fruits and policy ideas that could be adopted today, even for those who regard the Model of International Mobility Convention a bit too radical.

JIA: Could you provide an example?

MD: For example, the idea of circular migration: people don’t just move to some country and want to become citizens there. A lot of people would prefer to stay in their country of origin and go to a foreign country two or three years, then come back, then four years later go abroad again, and go back and forth. But the existing laws are not friendly enough.

First, they are too generous, in that they give these temporary workers just about all the rights of green card holders to settle in a country. However, there are countries who want to recruit temporary workers but do not want to give them all the rights of people that could become citizens. For example, the rights of social housing or college education. So it’s too gen- erous in some of these things. You do need healthcare, schooling for young children who come with their parents, access to housing... but not the rest of these benefits, which most citizens regard themselves as having earned by paying taxes throughout their lives.

And in contrast, it is too stingy. Many of the regimes for temporary workers do not provide multiple visas. Which means they need to bring their family or lose contact with them. When you become a temporary worker you should have multiple visas to use at your discretion, but that is not often available. Also often you don’t have the right to bring your pension benefits that you earn by working to your home country when you go back. This disincentivizes people to engage in temporary work, which a lot of people would like to do and a lot of countries would like to offer. That’s a low-hanging fruit that could be accessed in different ways.

Another is to create a more regular set of pathways for people who want to work in other countries. The US needs plenty of foreign labor to fill in gaps in our system. Right now we don’t provide easy ways to access that, so a lot of people come without documents, they are subject to exploitation, and they compete with domestic labor, driving down wages for them. Much better would be to identify the kinds of jobs that we are unable to fill through domestic labor market. So if we created more legal pathways, a website in which we say ‘we need this amount of people to work in California or New York’, people could apply and we can pick the numbers that we need. The incentive for people to cross borders illegally would go down somewhat.

JIA: However, this would take too much time, and right now we need an urgent response. What legal changes would you prioritize in the case of refugees?

MD: We need a more general definition of forced migrants. A forced migrant is anybody who has to flee due to an external threat to their lives or arbi- trary incarceration. It is important to share the burden for more refugees. Eighty-four percent of the world’s refugees stay in developing countries, and that’s not long-term sustainable because they are not wealthy, nor it is fair for them to provide asylum for these people. Why should the Lebanese, the Jordanians and the Turks have to bear the indirect costs of a crisis? I would like to see a responsibility sharing scheme, modeled in the Paris Climate Agreement. Every year countries would go to a meeting, where UNHCR would say: ‘we have this number of migrants and refugees in the world’, and we should pledge based on our capability to support them. Countries voluntarily would pledge to meet that share, by giving a check or by taking refugees that come from Lebanon to Europe or America or anywhere else. And at the end of the year UNHCR would report the correlation between the pledges and the results.

JIA: And, what happens where there is a failed state and there is no country of origin one can talk to?

MD: A failed state generally generates forced migration, and it will often disenfranchise its own citizens. This leaves people in a limbo, and here the UN needs to step in and give them a UN passport to identify them. It is not easy, but governments should be pressured to accept the basic principles of human rights: all persons have a right to nationality, usually in the country where they are born.

JIA: What is the role of other actors, for example NGOs, in migration?

MD: They play a huge role in the humanitarian side, they serve as lobbies, and they are great sources of expertise. NGOs are vital, they are the foot soldiers of humanitarian work. But they also serve governance roles, as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which set the agenda through their reports and advocacy. Another role is played by corporations. They actually can do a lot in providing direct assistance, and they too can lobby to change public perception. They do that because it helps their cor- porate reputation and makes their workers happy.

JIA: Some people have talked about a borderless world. What do you think about it?

MD: In ideas, goods and investments, maybe. But for people, borders are getting somewhat higher than they used to be. In the 19th century, there were very few restrictions. To come to the US you only had to get in a boat, and survive when you arrived. In the 20th century, border restrictions changed.

JIA: Borders are getting higher because there is a negative narrative around migra- tion. How can we influence this narrative to highlight the positive effects of migration?

MD: First, professors and students should get out accurate information on refugees. There’s a huge mythology out there that can be combated. The second thing is to acknowledge that not every migration is an absolute win-win for everyone, and find things to cushion the effects of migration so they do become a win-win. Overall for most countries it is either zero effect or positive effect. For a few people, there could be some economic harm. If you have a high school education, and work in a slow industry, immigrants may be in direct competition with you and we need to find some ways to compensate them. For example, providing education to prepare them for different jobs. 

Michael Doyle is a University Professor at Columbia University, formerly the Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy, which is a three-fold appointment in the School of International and Public Affairs, the Department of Political Science, and the Law School. His research interests include international relations theory, international law, and international history; civil wars and inter- national peace-building; and the United Nations. Since 2006, Doyle has been an individual member of the UN Democracy Fund, which was established in 2005 by the UN General Assembly to promote grass-roots democratization around the world. Doyle currently serves as the organization’s chairperson. He also co-directs the Center on Global Governance at Columbia Law School.