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Why working together on global migration is vital to pandemic recovery

‘As curves flatten in some places while death rates rise in others, we need cooperation on human mobility as badly as on vaccines and trade.’

Louise O'Brien/TNH

When the Charter of the United Nations was being drafted 75 years ago, delegates from the 50 countries involved made a small but mighty edit, adding the “promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights” as one of the UN’s four central purposes.

As we struggle with the greatest global challenge in recent history – a pandemic the UN secretary-general says has “brought us to our knees” – multilateral cooperation and human rights are of greater consequence than at any time since 1945. Nowhere will the need for multilateralism be clearer in the coming months than as it relates to migration and migrants’ rights.

The number of international migrants around the globe surpassed 271 million last year (including 28 million refugees), but many borders today are closed. The United States has recently trumpeted expelling more than 20,000 people at its southern border – including unaccompanied children seeking asylum – and has effectively closed its land borders to asylum seekers indefinitely while continuing to deport migrants with the coronavirus, likely contributing to its global spread. 

Malta has dispatched merchant vessels in the Mediterranean to intercept and expel asylum seekers to Libya, a practice linked to multiple deaths. Countries have refused disembarkation to Rohingya asylum seekers in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, leaving them adrift

Even as migrants are a significant percentage of essential workers, keeping people healthy and economies going, they are often forgotten in pandemic responses. Or worse: many who are perceived to be of East Asian descent have been targeted for racist or xenophobic attacks. The UN has warned of a tsunami of xenophobia.

As curves flatten in some places while death rates rise in others, we need cooperation on human mobility as badly as on vaccines and trade. Yet, the point of departure for structuring national migration policies cannot be dictated by the xenophobes. 

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Migrants are already a vital part of our communities. Mayors have realised this and, mirroring the leadership of cities in the area of global climate change, have supported more global action on migration for some years. A network of mayors has sprung into the pandemic fight, seeking to help cities ensure that no one is left behind in the response.

The current ‘pause’ in the permeability of borders will not last. A global recession may temporarily reduce the demand for migrant labour (though perhaps not in all sectors). But other drivers of migration – economic dislocation (especially as remittances plummet), climate change, and the need to reunite with family – will only increase after the pandemic subsides. It is not a question of whether we want to open our societies to migrants, but how we can ensure that our response to human mobility conforms to human rights principles when we do.

Yes, a patchwork of treaties enshrine key rights for all in what, gathered together, I and others have called an international migrants’ bill of rights. But governments have long failed to cooperate on migration and apply these rights to migrants in practice: there is no binding, widely ratified, migration treaty or global bureaucracy to coordinate human mobility.

To address the rights gap in the pandemic response, experts recently developed 14 Principles of protection for migrants, refugees, and other displaced persons. These Principles (which I co-authored) have been endorsed by over 1,000 scholars worldwide. They affirm how rights – to non-discrimination, to health, to privacy and to not be returned to harm, among others – apply to migrants. They also make clear that human rights treaty provisions ensuring basic guarantees in times of crisis apply to migrants’ rights, even in this pandemic.

Whatever populist nationalists say now, preventing conflict and promoting development and global health (not to mention responding to climate change) all require – in an interconnected world – coordination to facilitate human mobility. Mass displacement is a consequence of war (itself a focus of calls for more, and better, multilateralism) and can also lead to the spread of conflict. At the same time, research shows that migration can significantly contribute to positive development outcomes; well-managed migration policies are a key target for the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Rights in the pandemic response are all the more important because changes introduced now are likely to endure.

And, in a world trying to avoid further waves of coronavirus infections, officials simply cannot afford to ignore migrants. Indeed, global public health and human rights require migrants’ access to services and medical care – and to vaccination.

Rights also dictate limits, for example, on immigration enforcement, including returns of migrants, as governments must not enforce their laws in ways that increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19. The communicability of the virus also fundamentally changes the calculus for detention decisions, many of which were already suspect under human rights law. The pandemic response simply cannot expose migrants to serious risks to health and life.    

Rights are key, too, as governments consider whether to develop immunity passports and new screenings for arriving travellers. Officials must not use these tools in a way that is disproportionate or ignores scientific evidence, that perpetuates racism or xenophobia, or that closes borders to asylum seekers. 

There is also an important role for rights as governments weigh how to safeguard privacy when contact tracing, even as digital tools make new forms of health surveillance possible, or how to ensure humanitarian assistance to camps of migrants or refugees (including those queued at border areas). Rights in the pandemic response are all the more important because changes introduced now are likely to endure.

Co-operation on new and expanded safe, orderly, and rights-respecting pathways for migration will prevent the post-pandemic world from becoming one in which mobility is profoundly unequal, dependent on health or economic status, or in which borders are unmanageable, militarised and ‘externalised’. Both would be a boon for smugglers and traffickers and make busy migration corridors even more deadly.

The UN secretary-general recently released an important Policy Brief on COVID-19 and People on the Move. Citing our 14 Principles, the Brief recognises that rights and protections have not been sufficiently taken into account in the global response to the current pandemic.

The secretary-general rightly lauds a short list of good practices, most notably in Portugal (where those with pending applications have been granted full access to social security systems, including to healthcare) and Panama (where stranded migrants have been sheltered). The Brief calls on countries to recognise that responding to the pandemic and protecting the human rights of people on the move are not mutually exclusive, echoing recent guidance by other UN experts. Both require multilateral cooperation. “No country can fight the pandemic or manage migration alone,” the Secretary-General said when releasing the Brief.

Some of the architecture needed to facilitate migration while implementing rights is already in place. In recent years, governments have negotiated two – non-binding – Global Compacts to promote coordination on migration and on refugee protection. The UN made the International Organisation for Migration a part of the UN system and launched a Network on Migration to support governments cooperating and meeting their obligations, including on rights.

While governments were unwilling to formalise rights or mobility commitments in a treaty, these moves created a roadmap for action, with scores of specific, achievable goals and brought the issue fully within the UN system, with all the key UN players at the same table. In the context of COVID-19, the Network has already called for a suspension of forced returns and provided guidance on detention, calling for migrants’ release.

Unfortunately, such efforts will not bear fruit until governments invest more deeply in multilateral cooperation to promote human mobility in a manner that reflects one of the UN’s core purposes: the protection of human rights. Unilateral or exploitative efforts to restrictively manage migration will be too little, too late.

As we plan for life after the pandemic, governments must affirm that the rights of all migrants – alongside the facilitation of human mobility – are a vital component of any discussion about our interconnected world.

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