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Why Isn’t There More International Cooperation Around Migration?

March 06, 2020
Jeannette Money


Governments cooperate on trade and capital flows—so why not on migration? In this interview, IGCC-affiliated researcher Jeannette Money, a professor in the political science department at the University of California, Davis, discusses her new book, “Migration Crises and the Structure of International Cooperation” (with Sarah Lockhart). She explores the limitations of existing international agreements, where migrants travel from and to, and why the international cooperation that does exist tends to restrict rather than facilitate flows. She also talks about her next projects looking at why some countries make it easier for migrants to become citizens while others don’t.

What makes this a particularly salient time for a book on international cooperation on migration?

The picture of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed ashore in a failed attempt by his parents to reach Europe in the fall of 2015, presents a powerful message about the conditions of refugees and migrants globally.

Despite the challenges, international cooperation on migration has been limited. Activists successfully pushed the United Nations to adopt the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in 2016, and two Global Compacts—one for safe, orderly and regular migration, the second for a comprehensive refugee response framework—were negotiated and adopted in 2019. Yet these documents are not international treaties and signatories are not obligated under international law to abide by them.

Moreover, three binding international treaties already exist to protect international migrants—ILO Convention No. 97, ILO Convention No. 143 and a core human rights convention, the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Yet these treaties are poorly ratified.

Migrants at Vienna West Railway Station, 2015

Our research seeks to understand why international cooperation on migration is not ubiquitous, especially since many other international flows—for example, trade and capital flows—are subject to intensive international cooperation. We focus on voluntary international migration, which covers individuals living in a country other than their country of origin for more than one year.

What are the key takeaways of the book? Was there anything that you found surprising as you dug deeper?

When many people think about migration, they tend to think about migrants moving from poor countries to the United States and Europe, but we’ve found that almost half of international migrants move among countries of the Global South, an acknowledgement that there is large variation in the wealth and stability of these countries.

Although individual migrants move in every direction, unlike many other international flows, international migration is primarily a one-way flow, from poorer, less stable countries to wealthier, more stable countries. This reduces the prospects for international cooperation because there is little reciprocity, an acknowledged facilitator of international cooperation.

We also find that the international legal status quo privileges “receiving states” (states that host migrants), and not “sending states” (countries of origin). Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protect the right of an individual to leave his or her country of origin and requires states to readmit their citizens, international law grants sovereignty to states to govern the admission of non-citizens. The international community also acknowledges that states have the right to prevent illegal entry into their territory. The absence of symmetry between the rules governing exit and entry allows receiving states to control the number of individuals admitted to their territory and to screen and sort potential migrants for desired characteristics. Sending states have few resources to bring receiving states to the bargaining table to modify the distribution of benefits arising from international migration, so little international cooperation exists.

Are there any examples of successful international cooperation related to migration?

Yes. We find that international cooperation arises under three conditions. The first is when receiving states experience increased costs associated with the status quo. One example of this is from the European migrant crisis. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey wanted to move from Turkey to Europe because of the better living conditions and opportunities. This onward movement was widely publicized and many other migrants followed the route exploited initially primarily by Syrians. The public backlash to this influx of migrants was significant politically for the parties in power in European countries. In response, the European Union (EU) negotiated an agreement with Turkey to halt the flow and, in exchange, provided €6 billion to help cover the costs of Syrian refugees housed in Turkey. Another example was the caravans of Central American migrants destined for the United States. In light of the public backlash, the U.S. negotiated agreements with Mexico and Guatemala to restrict migrant flows through their territories.

So these examples of cooperation aim to restrict rather than promote migration?

That’s right. In both cases, receiving states had bargaining leverage because of their wealth and power, but sending states had bargaining leverage through their ability to modify the size of migratory flows, even if this has meant non-adherence to international legal norms. And for the most part, this type of international cooperation has served to reduce rather than facilitate international migration and fails to protect migrant rights. This is why we recommend advocating for migrant rights at the national and/or local levels, rather than in the international arena.

International cooperation may also take place when sending states leverage an international forum such as the ILO or U.N. where their numerical superiority allows them to adopt international conventions. The ILO treaties are poorly ratified in part because the nature of decision making in the ILO allows wealthy receiving states to incorporate their priorities, in addition to the priorities of the sending states. So, neither group of states is eager to sign on. The move to the U.N. General Assembly allowed sending states to craft a treaty that reflected their priorities but excluded those of receiving states. It is not surprising that all 54 signatories of the U.N. Convention are sending states. Likewise, the most recent negotiations on the Global Compacts have not even attempted treaty negotiations. An aspirational compact is the only mechanism that would be able to find support among a large group of states.

The other instance where we see states cooperate is when states with similar levels of development, that are also experiencing labor market shortages, negotiate reciprocal migration rights. In practice, this is rare, with the most prominent example being the European Union.

However, the fact that “old” EU member states like the United Kingdom still allowed reciprocal migration from newer member states, like those in central Europe, isn’t a result of similar levels of development. Rather, it’s a result of the “stickiness” of institutional structures that have forced the “old” EU member states to retain open labor markets despite large differences in wealth. This generated large flows of migrants from east to west that have provoked an anti-EU backlash and triggered, in part, the British exit from the European Union.

Brexit protestors near the Houses of Parliament, London, 2018

In the current international climate, we have grown accustomed to thinking about the cross-border movement of people as an antecedent to political tension and violence. Is that necessarily the case?

A frequent response to the cross-border movement of people is increased political tension and, sometimes, violence, which may be aggravated by elite and media framing of immigration issues. But there are certainly conditions in which migration does not generate these negative externalities. The significant flows of migrants and guest workers to many European countries following World War II, for example, did not initially provoke an anti-immigrant backlash because unemployment rates were low, migrant workers filled jobs that the local population did not want and migrants, for the most part, were isolated from the local population.

However, we should be more optimistic about the ability of societies to accommodate the newcomers over time. California, for example, passed Proposition 187 in 1994, anti-immigrant legislation that withdrew access to many social services from undocumented immigrants (although many of the proposition’s restrictions were ultimately voided by the courts). The initiative was also known as the “Save our State” initiative, echoing anti-immigrant rhetoric. As the local population and the immigrant population adjusted to each other, however, and as the children of immigrants who gained citizenship by birth in the U.S. became a significant voting bloc in California politics, the mood changed. In 2017, 23 years after the passage of Prop 187, California became a “sanctuary state,” extending protections to the undocumented migrant population.

You have been associated with IGCC for a number of years. How does your work align with IGCC’s mission?

Research on global security often focuses on traditional areas such as nuclear nonproliferation, great power competition and political violence; however, IGCC also explores “non-traditional threats” to security including climate change, advanced technologies and global health threats. Migration is now often seen by states as a non-traditional threat to security—whether that means state security or “societal security”—including human rights and migrant rights. Our research illuminates why international cooperation on migration is so difficult to achieve even though policy entrepreneurs press for greater cooperation among states.

What is your next project?

We are working on a textbook on international migration in which all chapter contributions are from women scholars, to highlight women’s contributions to the discipline and to bring new perspectives to the research agenda. A second project explores the determinants of nationality legislation—why some states make it easier for migrants to become full-fledged citizens of their host state and why some states restrict access. There is a rich research agenda on wealthy western democracies, but citizenship is an issue central to all states in the international system. We have collected and coded the nationality laws of 193 member states of the United Nations and are in the process of evaluating our theoretical claims.