Migrants’ Rights Network: When single markets and the inequalities of global trade provide the basis of a ‘right to migrate’ (Part 3)

by , under Don Flynn

Don Flynn*





This is the final blog in a three part series which sets the reasons why we need a clearer and more precise idea of the rights which migrants need if they are to prosper in the modern world. Here we argue that the assertion of a ‘right to migrate’ is the touchstone for all the other types of security and protection which migrants should be able to rely on. 


The Oxford University economist, Martin Ruhs, has drawn attention to the dilemma faced by groups and networks supporting migrants, arguing that, the more rights that are claimed for people who move the less national governments appeared to be prepared to admit them into their jurisdictions in the first place. Ruhs regrets this fact, on the grounds that it undermines the role that migration plays in the global economy in promoting welfare and redistributing wealth. Because he would like to see more welfare and higher levels of wealth redistribution he calls on migrants to be less fussy in asking for rights and accept the fact that the opportunity on almost any terms to live and work for a period in jobs in the developed economies is too good to give up.

More or less the same proposition of a trade off between rights and the opportunity to migrate is accepted by others participating in this discussion, most recently another Oxford academic, Paul Collier. Colier calls for stronger rights for those migrants who have managed to establish themselves abroad, on the basis that this will have the effect of reducing the volume of migration which host countries are prepared to tolerate. Collier thinks there’s too much migration going on in the modern world and an insistence it be permitted only on the grounds that full equality of treatment with citizens was granted would be a good way to choke it off.

In practice both of these approaches, if they were ever to be applied in their pure form, would give rise to a vicious spiral that would likely result in highly levels of irregular migration and the diminution of the rights of those who had achieved a legal status. Ruhs’s proposal, which is applied  in a number of rich but labour-scarce countries, imposes high costs but limits the returns that come from decent wages for migrants using the permitted short-term labour schemes and thereby forces many towards rule-breaking activity in order to re-coup their losses. The national authorities of the host country invariably counter this by increasing their surveillance of all migrant communities and restricting the social space in which rights can be exercised to an even greater degree.

Collier’s stance is ignorant of the fact that the rights which are of most importance to migrants are those which increase their capacity to act transnationally, engaging both with matters concerning the welfare of family and compatriots in regions of origin as well as the ability to leverage an optimum earning capacity in the host country.  As anyone who works closely with migrant communities knows, what internationally mobile people want and is security in their of residence status and, at the same time, the assurance that they can respond to changing needs within their personal support networks by either travelling abroad themselves or sponsoring the admission of others.  The right that would be of most use is one which, ironically, most citizens of the charmed circle of high income countries think they already have, which is the firm assurance that their travel across borders will be subject to the very minimum of personal inconvenience.  For brevities sake, let’s call it a right to migrate.

EU free movement as a ‘right to migrate’

Could an officially acknowledged right to migrate be made to operate on a wider basis?  The important example of free movement within the EU to gives us some ideas on the principles that would be involved.

The right to migrate, which is effectively what free movement is all about, has emerged in Europe as a consequence of the efforts to create a single market covering goods, services, capital and labour.  Its unique feature, being a project undertaken during a time when recovery from the cataclysmic events of the first half of the 20th century, lay in the fact that it was fundamentally driven by the political objective of resolving the tensions which had driven the continent to devastating war twice within the space of fifty years.

The emergence of single markets gives us good idea when the time might be right to accede to a right to migrate.  There are certainly many who would criticise the NAFTA agreement, which created a single market for goods and capital between Canada, the US and Mexico in 1994.  The flood of investment into the northern region of Mexico that came about under the agreement combined with the ruinous effect on large sectors of agriculture in that country caused by the dumping of cheap US products, forced a huge wave of movement on the population of the central American country, some of which was absorbed into the low-cost manufacturing maquiladora programmes which operated close to the US border, and a large part of the rest continuing their movement as irregular, undocumented migrants in the US. A properly instituted free movement of people chapter in NAFTA would have averted what has turned into two decades of often anarchic and violent labour trafficking.

But the fact is the need for clearer and more definite rights to migrate is prompted even before fully fledged single markets come into existence.  The evidence of more mundane interpenetration of commerce between countries is often sufficient to trigger the practical need for freer movement, particular when uneven economic development leads to inequalities in trading outcomes.  As long as the much-desired ‘level playing field’ is unreached then the terms of trade favour the interests of already dominant parties, making the task of catching up much more difficult  for the less developed.

This is the reason why, unlike the case of the formation of the European single market, the issue of the free movement of labour is seldom addressed when free trade agreements are drafted at the global level.  Preventing workers from moving to places where they could get the best terms for the sale of their labour is one of the ways in which rich countries can gain even more of an advantage, by bottling up the down-side of free markets in territories where they don’t have to address its social and economic problems.

The refusal of the policy makers of the Global North to consider the implications of their commercial systems  – the wiping out of trade sectors of trade and industry, the drift of the under-employed into the urban centres which are attracting foreign direct investment, the turbulence and insecurity of the new labour markets that come into existence, the sharper polarisation of populations into the new rich and the new poor – all this sets out the moral basis for a right to migrate.

Old rallying cry

In the 1960s and 70s Commonwealth migrants arriving in the UK challenged the racism they confronted with by proclaiming “We are here because you were there.”  We are here because your country entered ours and radically altered ways of life, enriching some but also plunging others in new forms of poverty, and putting an unsustainable strain of the social structures which had provided for the security and well-being of local populations in the past.

“We are here because you were there”, applies with equal force for the people of any country which has been brought into the mainstream of market globalisation, whether they are the post-colonial nations of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean region, of the post-Soviet societies of Eastern and Central Europe.  Supporting the moral right to “be here” is the basic reason why the migrants’ rights movement is bound to support, not just equal treatment and non-discrimination for those who have managed to fit in with the rules proscribed by official migration management, but also to test and stretch these systems by pushing harder to widen and extend the channels through which people migrate.  For many this earns them the status of being ‘illegal’ migrants, but the opprobrium attached to that title carries ought to be regarded as on a par with the term ‘runaway slaves’ in the years before abolition. In both cases the breaking of the law takes place as a consequence of a class struggle between labour and capital at a global level, with labour struggling to obtain better terms for itself by changing the ways in which markets operate.

When a right to migrate is in place the ability of migrants to obtain the other rights due to them and spelt out in international conventions will be hugely enhanced.  Without the fear of arrest and deportation, migrants will have the confidence to press for better terms and conditions of employment.  As the rights gap between themselves and other tax-payers is diminished they will be able to claim a proper stake in the benefits and public services which exist to promote the welfare and security of the community.

Finally, the ultimate genius of proclaiming a right to migrate lies in the fact that it does not depend, in its early stages at least, on the action of any government to bring it into being.  The eminent historian of human rights, Lynn Hunt, has described how the struggle for change is not initiated by government authority, but ordinary people who feel a lack of something important in their lives: “You know the meaning of human rights”, she argues, “because you feel distressed when they are violated.”  It is the action which arises from this feeling of distress, the determination to obtain redress and push against all the forces that deny relief, that drives our societies towards reform.

The distress that is acute for many people across the world today comes from the fact that, whilst they are obliged to live in the world create and ordered by the rise of the global economy, the right to make at least a part of that world work better in their interests is denied to them.  The assertion of a right to migrate through the direction action of migrants, combined with solidarity action on the part of others who recognise the legitimacy of the claim for that right, is the core logic of what we mean today by “migrants’ rights”.  So, how we organise ourselves for the campaigns that will be needed to make this right a reality?

Read original story here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.