In praise of migration

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Chile and the Dominican Republic are the only Latin American countries to declare that they will not sign up to the UN's migration pact agreed in Marrakech this month, although Brazil's incoming government of Jair Bolsonaro has indicated it will withdraw from the agreement.

The United States, Australia and several East European countries are among the others not signing up to the agreement, officially called the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. One reason cited by those opposing the pact is that it somehow erodes, or potentially erodes, national sovereignty and the right of every country to decide its own immigration policy. This is a strange argument, as for one the agreement is not binding under international law, and secondly the document states quite clearly:

"The Global Compact reaffirms the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law."

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Another issue that has emerged in Chile, and again is based on an unfounded concept, is that the pact somehow treats the right to immigrate as a human right. It doesn't. In what took some by surprise, Chile's foreign minister, Roberto Ampuero, declared that he believes the right to migrate is indeed a human right, but unless one is referring to the small number of nations like Cuba and North Korea that restrict the right of citizens to leave their country, having the right to migrate but not the right to go anywhere is pretty meaningless.

Ideally, one could argue, everyone should have the right to migrate to anywhere, and not just those fleeing war, famine, political persecution or natural disasters. After all, if we believe in free movement of goods, services and capital, why not labor? Of course, in reality, a total free-for-all is not practical, but the principle of free movement of people is not one to be shunned.

Another criticism of the UN pact is that it fails to distinguish clearly between legal and illegal migrants, and even confuses the latter with refugees. In fact, it merely calls on the human rights of all, regular and irregular migrants, to be respected. And it does not attempt to deal with the question of refugees, focusing on making migration safe, orderly and regular, and stating:

"Migrants and refugees are distinct groups governed by separate legal frameworks. Only refugees are entitled to the specific international protection as defined by international refugee law."

There is a danger, however, in pigeonholing people into distinct groups. In many cases, people may be fleeing not persecution or natural disasters, but economic misery – as in the exodus of millions of Venezuelans in recent years – and violence, such as the case of many Central Americans heading to Mexico and the US. Are these people migrants or refugees? What about Eritreans, many of whom may have left for economic reasons but have a well-founded fear of persecution – and indefinite military service, along with grossly inhumane treatment – if forcibly returned?

It is perfectly understandable that people wish to migrate to a better life, thereby enriching the host nation socially, culturally and economically. We should, after all, remember that we are all migrants or descendants of migrants as people have been seeking greener pastures for as long as humanity has existed.