Look closely at the globalisation debate and you will be
astonished at how few of the participants, except for right-wingers
such as Patrick Buchanan, talk about international migration. The
buzz is all about trade, multinationals, and short-term capital
flows. Yet international migration has become one of the central
issues of our time.
Historically, countries felt they had the right to treat
immigrants as aliens, without rights and barely deserving of our
But national sensibilities have shifted. Greater respect for the
rights of people moving across borders, whether they are skilled or
unskilled, legal or illegal, voluntary or forced, reflects the
remarkable surge in the human rights movement in the last quarter of
the 20th century and the associated growth of lobby groups such as
Human Rights Watch that fight to extend the rights of migrants.
When oil prices quadrupled in 1973, west European economies went
into a tailspin and experienced significant pressure on employment.
But even the tough-minded Germans could not bring themselves to
expel the foreign workers, the Gastarbeiter, despite their
contractual right to do so. As Max Frisch, the Swiss novelist,
remarked of the phenomenon: "(They) imported workers but got men
Similarly, last year, when Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, his
Spanish counterpart, proposed that the European Union should
withhold aid from countries that did not effectively stem the
outflow of illegal migrants and asylum-seekers to the Union, they
were greeted by outrage.
Clare Short, then Mr Blair's outspoken minister for development,
joined the chorus of condemnation, describing the proposal as
"morally repugnant" and ensuring it was swiftly buried.
The political mood has also changed dramatically in favour of
accommodating, rather than rejecting, the claims of migrants to
better treatment. As the size of different ethnic groups in various
countries has grown, they have increasingly provided protective
cover to new, illegal immigrants. And as immigrants have changed
nationality and got the vote, they have acquired increased political
clout. This and the changing popular sensibility have helped rein in
nationalist politicians' instinct to take strong action against
President George W. Bush, prior to the September 11 tragedy,
offered an amnesty to illegal Mexican immigrants, in a transparent
attempt to win over the Hispanic vote. The fact that his offer was
confined to Mexicans broke the principle of non-discrimination
enshrined in the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Similarly,
California has accepted the demand by the Hispanic community to
allow illegal immigrants, who are largely Mexican, to get driving
licences: a humane grant of a right, dictated by ethnic politics,
that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago.
International migration still looks small in scale: approximately
175m people, amounting to only 3 per cent of the world's population,
have moved across borders to live for more than a year. Historians
argue that migration was more common during the 19th century, when
as much as 10 per cent of the world's population moved. However, the
bulk of that migration was from the old countries into areas of new
settlement like Australia.
These movements were seen at the time as benign (though they
created massive adversity for the indigenous populations who had no
voice then). Today much of the migration is from the poor to the
rich countries, which has created its own tensions and problems.
This pattern of migration from poor countries today consists,
first, of unskilled people, often migrating illegally, and, second,
of legal skilled migrants. Rich countries are busy changing their
immigration policies to weight them in favour of skilled immigrants,
even as they try to restrict the inflows of the unskilled. This has
led to an asymmetry. The supply of unskilled immigrants currently
exceeds demand in the rich countries. This feeds illegal immigration
and a flood of false asy lum claims. By contrast, rich countries'
demand for skilled immigrants exceeds supply - and in the US
businesses are even calling for increased quotas for skilled
immigrant workers - and the poorest countries worry about losing
their relatively small number of skilled nationals. The flood of
illegal unskilled migrants into rich countries and the "brain drain"
of skilled citizens from the poorest countries are two of the most
critical current issues in international migration today.
These problems, as well as issues such as international
trafficking in women and children, have highlighted a gaping hole in
the international institutional architecture. We have only a
fragmented set of institutions to deal with flows of humanity. The
International Labour Organisation looks after workers' rights. The
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees deals with forced
migrants. The World Trade Organisation, under its services
agreement, manages the temporary access of professional and
semi-professional workers - from builders to doctors - to other
countries. The International Organisation for Migration is a cross
between a consulting body and an altruistic group. Besides, its
status is not defined by a treaty. Indeed, we do not have a
treaty-defined "World Migration Organisation" (WMO) that could
oversee the whole phenomenon, according to internationally agreed
objectives and procedures.
It would have been hard to justify a WMO when migration issues
barely made it on to the charts. But today they are a central issue
for many countries. Despite growing bilateral and regional treaties,
and some multilateral norms governing migration - such as the 1990
UN convention on the protection of the rights of migrant workers and
their families - it would be overambitious for a WMO to start by
defining rules for member countries. It could, however, begin by
consolidating the different protocols and norms that have emerged to
govern the migration question. Over time, these could be turned into
ratified conventions. A new WMO could also carry out impartial
reviews of the migration policies of member countries, nudging the
not-so- enlightened states towards better practice by juxtaposing
their records against those of more progressive countries, the way
the WTO uses its trade policy review mechanism to influence member
countries' trade policies.
In this way, we might realistically begin to fill the last
remaining gap in the institutional architecture that covers our
The writer is a professor of economics at Columbia University and
senior fellow at the Council on Foreign