International Migrants’ Day – Putting Things In Perspective

Highly educated immigrants are a huge asset for the U.S. economy, which attracts scientists and engineers from all over the world. One-quarter of the U.S.-based Nobel laureates of the last 50 years were foreign-born, and highly educated immigrants account for about one-third of U.S.

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Jul. 1972: Young migrant worker (Bill Gillette / Documerica)

Our immigration system is a broken system that needs to be fixed. We need reform that provides hardworking people of good character with a real path towards citizenship.” ― Joe Baca

On 18 December of each year, the world joins the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in celebrating International Migrants’ Day. The theme for this year is “I Am a Migrant”, and IOM most appropriately conveys the message that the organization will focus on sharing the message that “migration is a universal phenomenon that has taken place in all cultures and societies since time immemorial”. The United Nations estimates there are 281 million migrants across the world. A migrant is “any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of: the person’s legal status; whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; what the causes for the movement are; or  what the length of the stay is”. As Maxine Alleyne-Esprit, Communications Assistant for IOM Dominica (where celebrations are held this year) said:  “This year, on International Migrants Day, we choose to focus not only on the needs of migrants, but also on their values and active contributions to change, social progress, and resilience.  We at IOM are making a global call to end all forms of discrimination against migrants”.

On 18 December 1990 the United Nations General Assembly adopted The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) that is intended to ensure equality and dignity of all migrant workers now spread across the world.  ICRMW was adopted by the UN General Assembly through Resolution 45/158 without a vote on December 18, 1990 and entered into force on 1 July 2003.  It is the most recent UN human rights treaty to come into force. A migrant worker has been defined as “a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national”.

Of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 11 are said to be relevant to the recognition of equitable and dignified treatment for migrants of which direct reference can be seen in SDG 10.7: “to facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies. Other targets directly related to migration mention trafficking, remittances, international student mobility and more. Moreover, migration is indirectly relevant to many more cross-cutting targets”.

In December 2020 193 States who are signatory to the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) saw the official publication of the  GCM containing 23 objectives, all of which resonated the central theme of the right of human mobility with dignity, in a safe, regular and an orderly manner . The GCM is non-binding on States and is respectful of States’ exercise of sovereignty over their territories and the sovereign right to determine who enters and stays in their territory. However, it remains persuasive by demonstrating commitment to international cooperation on migration. The GCM offers guidance on governance of migration and the various challenges that are faced by States in allowing migrants into their territories.  More notably, the 23 objectives of GCM are calculated to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development. The Global Compact is designed to: “support international cooperation on the governance of international migration; provide a comprehensive menu of options for States from which they can select policy options to address some of the most pressing issues around international migration; and give States the space and flexibility to pursue implementation based on their own migration realities and capacities”.

International Migrants’ Day should make us aware that  the story of migration goes back 1.75 million years when Homo Erectus began moving from Africa to Australia, Asia and the Americas. This essential activity has been continued by Homo Sapiens for whom migration has been an essential human activity that helped populate the world in its entirety.

In the present context, migration has become a complex issue, as Yuval Noah Harari says in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: “As more and more humans cross more and more borders in search of jobs, security, and a better future, the need to confront, assimilate or expel strangers strains political systems and collective identities that were shaped in less fluid times”. Professor Harari views migration as a bilateral and reciprocal “deal” between the people of a recipient State and the migrant, which has three conditions: the host country allows the immigrants in; in return the immigrants must embrace core norms and values of the recipient or host State, even if that entails giving up some of the migrants’ values and norms; and if the immigrants succeed in assimilating into their host societies and communities at least to a sufficient degree, they would be eventually be recognized as equal and full members of the host country.  In his words “they become us”.

This having been said, the often heard protestations against migration have been based on the fact that migrants do not fully integrate; they overburden the labor market and steal jobs that are the rightful claims of the natives; they muddy or corrupt long established local values; and create instability in local society and communities.  Whatever the merits of these fears are, the benefits brought in by migrants are claimed to override the concerns.  Giovanni Peri writing in Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies (Fall 2013) says:   “In the United States — and in many European countries — the foreign born have become a large and growing presence in the home services sector. Home services include cleaning, food preparation, and gardening, as well as personal services such as child and elderly care. These jobs are often characterized as “household production” services. The increased presence of immigrants in this sector has made home services more affordable, which in turn has allowed more native-born women — especially highly educated women — to join the labor force or to increase their hours worked…

Highly educated immigrants are a huge asset for the U.S. economy, which attracts scientists and engineers from all over the world. One-quarter of the U.S.-based Nobel laureates of the last 50 years were foreign-born, and highly educated immigrants account for about one-third of U.S. innovation. In 2006, immigrants founded 25 percent of new high-tech companies with more than $1 million in sales, generating income and employment for the whole country. Innovation and technological growth are the engines of economic growth in technologically advanced countries like the United States, where attracting and training new scientists and engineers is key to continued economic success”.

In a world that is currently over sensitive to human rights and human safety, the overriding consideration should be human dignity, which is the key driver for ensuring equal rights for migrants, most of whom migrate from repressive and destructive war zones, famine driven and drought affected countries, and places where employment opportunities are non-existent.  In this perspective the IOM has to be lauded in its dedication of this year’s International Migrants’ Day to   not only focusing on the needs of migrants, but also on their values and active contributions to change, social progress, and resilience.  The IOM’s global call to end all forms of discrimination against migrants is therefore both appropriate and justified.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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