Migration: updated March 2018


Drivers of Migration

Modern communications not only drive the forces of globalisation but also ensure that awareness of widening global inequality is ever more intense. The dream of relocating from a poorer to a richer country is a natural and inevitable human response.

Demand for migrant labour is determined by the extent to which a domestic workforce is unable or unwilling to meet the needs of its national economy. There may be shortages of skills or, more typically, vacancies arise in jobs rejected by the local population, often described as “3D” (dirty, dangerous and difficult).

Globalisation has commoditised labour migration, notably in many Middle Eastern countries which are almost totally dependent on Asian migrants for 3D jobs rejected by nationals. The hosting of the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar has boosted this demand. Airlines construct their schedules to serve the routes taken by migrants; the receiving countries build infrastructure not just to house foreign labour but also to accommodate cultural needs.

However, these formal channels of migration can never provide an adequate match with the global supply of labour. Ideological passion for free movement of goods, capital and information is not extended to people. Many aspiring workers choose to take their chance as “undocumented” migrants, entering a country by overstaying a visa or by crossing an unprotected border.

Work is often to be found thanks to opportunist employers who ask no questions in return for a pliant labour force, unable to demand the protection of minimum standards of pay and conditions. The UN estimates that there are over 30 million undocumented global migrants, including 11.3 million in the US.

Migrant Workers

Accurate data on global migration is difficult to obtain because many migrant workers lack official status. There were 223 million international migrants in 2015, of which about two-thirds could be classed as workers. This figure excludes 21 million refugees, whose movement is regarded as forced rather than voluntary. This statistic for total migrants predates the 2016 European crisis, despite being published by the International Organization for Migration towards the end of 2017.

Many migrant workers have greatly improved their fortunes, especially in accessing higher standards of health and education for their children. However, too many experience the unacceptable face of international migration, the undercurrent of populist xenophobic rhetoric that springs from perception that migrants compete for scarce jobs and housing, whilst undermining national cultural identity.

The International Organization for Migration, the leading UN agency working in this field, has criticised politicians and media for their widespread failure to communicate either the benefits of migrant labour or the relevance of multicultural societies in the modern era of globalisation.

Nonetheless, many nation states tend to pursue policies which treat migrant labour as economic cannon fodder, often downgrading social protection and indulging discriminatory practices of unscrupulous employers. Immigration policy ebbs and flows in response to perceived signals from domestic labour markets, a far cry from altruistic concerns for individual rights or global poverty reduction.

International tensions over migration reached a crescendo in 2016 when mass movements from war-torn Middle East and poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa headed for European destinations. Amidst Europe’s failure to respond to the influx of over a million refugees and migrant workers, over 5,000 people met their deaths in that year whilst attempting sea crossings in conditions that echoed horrors of the slave trade.

The global political reverberations have not yet been resolved. Responses inspired by the Trump administration envisage the construction of border fences of unimaginable length and expense. The mainstream Europeans prefer to lavish unprecedented packages of foreign aid on countries in key locations who might be able to dissuade migrants from moving further; these EU Partnership Frameworks include €6 billion for Turkey, €1.9 billion for an Africa Trust Fund, the price of securing limits to migration.

However potent the influence of migration on the US Presidential election and on the UK vote to withdraw from the European Union, global leaders recognise the powerful long term drivers of supply of migrant labour – global inequality, climate change and the needs of ageing populations in richer countries. They have been persuaded by these contrasting realities to commit to a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration by 2018. Preliminary negotiations have not yet yielded any significant breakthrough.

Rights of Migrant Workers
Migrant workers have little recourse to international law to enforce their rights. Human rights campaigners acknowledge that the right to work in a foreign country does not equate with immediate access to the full benefits of citizenship. Their efforts focus on establishing minimum standards of working and living conditions, consistent with the principles of non-discrimination.

The initial step towards this goal was achieved in 1990 with the adoption by the UN of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, also known as the Migrant Workers’ Convention. It tackles every stage of the migration process and also stipulates that some rights should be extended to undocumented migrants.

Although the Convention entered into force in 2003, not one of the major destination states has ratified it. In consequence, migrant workers remain at the mercy of national immigration and labour laws which often provide little defence against discrimination and exploitation. Human rights scandals such as the abuse of female domestic workers in the Middle East are commonplace.

An important informal source of finance for the poorest countries is the value of remittance payments sent by migrant workers to their families. According to the World Bank, this value reached $574 billion in 2016, over four times the total amount of foreign aid for that year.

For many of the world’s poorest countries, remittances sent by migrant workers represent a significant percentage of GDP and the greatest source of foreign currency. In Nepal, the world’s most remittance-dependent country, a large proportion of the work force is absent, sending remittances amounting to 31% of GDP.

Remittances have the advantage over foreign aid of reaching households directly, cutting out any losses through corruption or unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. On the other hand, remittances cannot be channelled into strategic national development projects.


Refugee Statistics
At the end of 2016, 22.5 million people were classified as refugees, alongside a further 2.8 million who were registered asylum-seekers. The refugee figure includes 5.3 million Palestinians, the people displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, together with their descendants. These Palestinian refugees are under the protection of a dedicated agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

The three largest host countries at the end of 2016 were the “front line states” of Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon, each accommodating more than one million refugees. The figure in Turkey was 2.9 million, more than the whole of the European Union.

It is therefore a myth that the majority of refugees are located in developed countries. Few have the means to travel further than the nearest country and 84% of the burden of hosting refugees falls on low or middle-income countries which are least able to cope.

Statistics for refugees reflect only the narrowest definition of forced displacement. A much larger category relates to people who have been forced out of their homes by violent conflict but who remain within their national boundaries.

There were 40.3 million IDPs at the end of 2016, almost double the number of refugees. However, refugee status for the purposes of the 1951 Convention cannot be granted unless a border is crossed. No protection under international law is available to IDPs.

The UN Refugee Agency is alarmed at the trend in aggregate numbers for these various categories of forced displacement brought about by conflict, political oppression and ethnic persecution. The total of 65.6 million at the end of 2016 for refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs is the highest since records began.

Rights of Refugees

A successful claim for asylum fulfils the applicant’s desire to become a refugee, a status which is greatly valued for the rights that it bestows under international law. A refugee is entitled to reside, at least temporarily, in the host country and is protected by the principle of non-refoulement. This prohibits the deportation of refugees to places where their lives or freedoms could be in danger.

Host states are also obliged to offer civil and economic rights, in particular the right to work. The rights of refugees also extend to access to social services and protection of national laws.

Respect for these basic rights and obligations is seriously degraded, due in part to overwhelming logistical difficulties. The reality of forced displacement typically compels families to cross borders at short notice, with few possessions, in distress and in large numbers. For example, by the end of 2017, almost 700,000 Rohingya refugees had arrived in a poor region of Bangladesh in the space of only 4 months.

In such circumstances, immediate protection may be offered in refugee camps, the current fate of about 25% of global refugees. Conceived as short-term emergency solutions, many refugee camps quickly become overwhelmed with numbers, prone to disease and violence. Opportunities to work in the formal economy are invariably denied.

International law also requires all parties to work towards a long term solution for each refugee, either through a permanent right to stay in the host country, resettlement to a third country, or repatriation, provided that safety can be guaranteed.

This obligation is currently honoured more in the breach than the observance. Resettlement is stifled by the chronic reluctance of richer countries to accept adequate quotas of refugees. There are currently an estimated 1.2 million refugees for whom the alternatives of repatriation or remaining with their host country are considered unviable. The actual global rate of resettlement in recent years has been less than 10% of that demand.

A closer look at resettlement figures reveals a dispiriting prospect. In 2016 the total was 120,000 of which no fewer than 85,000 were resettled in the US. But the Trump administration has slashed the US quota to 45,000, a number further challenged by multiple hurdles of security clearance.

An alternative to resettlement of refugees is repatriation, the long term solution preferred by the UN Refugee Agency. But a trend towards casual interpretation of the non-refoulement rule is discrediting this option. Amnesty International records that “in 2016, 36 countries violated international law by illegally sending refugees back to a country where they would face torture, violence, death penalty and where their rights were at risk.”

A weakness of the current framework of international law is that a small number of crucial countries have not signed the Refugee Convention. A significant area of South and Southeast Asia is void of refugee protection, restricting UN access to camps and government authorities. Concerns about the fate of the Rohingya refugees are heightened by knowledge that Bangladesh is not a signatory.

Compacts for Refugees and Migration

Refugee or Migrant?
Human migration presents the most controversial contemporary challenge for principles of human rights. Its scale and volatility have overwhelmed international response mechanisms and reshaped the landscape of national politics.

People moving across national borders with no immediate intention of returning are classified either as migrant workers, voluntarily abandoning their homes to earn a better wage, or as political refugees forced to leave for their own safety.

This crucial distinction is the focus of international human rights law. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines refugees as people who have left their place of habitual residence, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Originally confined to refugees from war-torn Europe, the Refugee Convention was extended by a 1967 Protocol. Migrants from any country are now entitled to seek asylum in one of the 148 countries which have signed either the Convention or the Protocol. “Asylum seekers” are entitled to expect fair and prompt consideration of their claims for refugee status.

The European refugee crisis of 2016 shone an unfavourable light on both politicians and media for their poor understanding of the distinction between refugees and migrant workers. Casual use of language inflamed the situation, pushing the European Union into a transactional settlement with Greece and Turkey. This trend towards prioritising political expediency over individual migrant rights has continued in other aid packages for countries beyond European borders.

However, assessing claims for asylum has unquestionably become problematic. Political persecution and economic deprivation are often connected, rather than distinct, drivers of migration, and likely to impact entire communities as much as prominent individuals. Civil wars render living conditions impossible for families by virtue of geography, as much as political or economic status. The impact of climate change on migration will also loom large in the 21st century, bringing yet more ambiguity to the task of classifying displacement.

New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants
Recent years have highlighted the fault lines of the global architecture for managing migration – confusion over definitions, failure to respect treaty obligations, recourse by migrants to unscrupulous traffickers for travel arrangements, and recourse by politicians to populist vilification of refugees and migrant workers.

Most of these problems have been long familiar to governments in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The sudden ascent of human migration to the top of the international political agenda during 2016 occurred because the richer countries of Europe found themselves in the front line.

The UN’s response in calling a summit in September 2016 raised hopes that innovative solutions might be found. But the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, whilst unanimously adopted, offered little more than a stepping stone to more detailed negotiations.

An annex to the Declaration outlines a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, essentially a wish list, resolving to reduce pressures on host countries, to move refugees out of camps into local economies with work opportunities, supported by expanded resettlement quotas and greater endeavour for repatriation. The intention is to gain international agreement for a non-binding Global Compact for Refugees by the end of 2018.

The process is being led by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR or “The UN Refugee Agency”). The agency combines a humanitarian role with mediation with the countries involved, seeking practical solutions to the difficult situations that often prevail.

A parallel process seeks approval for a Global Compact for Migration, aiming to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration through international coordination. This will be led by the International Organization for Migration. The IOM was elevated to the status of UN agency in 2016, strengthening its role in logistical support for movements of migrant workers.

The choice of this dual track response to the New York Declaration conveys the intention to sustain a clear distinction between refugees and migrant workers. However, it remains possible that the conditions for obtaining refugee status will be reviewed.

There can be no satisfactory outcome for these Compacts unless the richer countries agree to enhance significantly the financial and hosting burden that underpins all the potential solutions. There is no sign of the political leadership necessary to step into this sensitive territory.

Indeed, there are signs of trouble in Europe where Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have refused to implement modest resettlement quotas agreed by virtue of their membership of the European Union. And the US decision to withdraw from the Compact for Migration represents a significant setback.