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"An International Perspective on Migration,"

by Cathi Tactaquin March/April 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

There are over 100 million migrants (immigrants and refugees) in the world today. This unprecedented level has prompted widespread concern about the causes and consequences of international migration. Although the United Nations General Assembly recently has taken steps to convene an international conference on migration and development, migrant-receiving countries such as the United States are developing national immigration policies that may seriously jeopardize the basic human rights and economic survival of this growing population.

The United States receives less than 1% of the world's migrants on an annual basis. Nonetheless, it has responded to the international crisis in migration by cracking down on undocumented immigrants, tightening border controls, restricting access to political asylum, and threatening immigrant access to public assistance programs. Most policy makers are quick to pander to racist and xenophobic fears and claims that immigration has become a primary source of this country's economic instability.

Despite the ever-increasing volume of restrictions and resources devoted to immigration, these measures have had little, if any, impact on the sources and patterns of international migration.

Sources of
International Migration


Historically, some factors have consistently influenced migration flows, but dramatic political and economic changes over the last decade have produced new migrant populations and patterns that defy "traditional" immigration controls and have led to a widespread belief that international migration has indeed reached crisis proportions. Many experts consider it one of the mast significant global issues of our time, reflecting economic and societal failures to provide adequate jobs and shelter, environmental protection and the preservation of basic human rights.

The root causes of international migration are several and often intertwined, so that traditional categories, such as labor migration, family reunification or asylum-seeking, are no longer clear-cut:

Economic: While economics is a major cause of displacement, migrants who come from impoverished condi-tions are likely to have been affected by other factors, including political and social unrest not formally acknowledged as endangering human rights conditions.

Political: Most of today's refugees are fleeing conditions of generalized violence and hostilities rather than individual persecution. Most current conflicts are taking place within countries rather than between them.

Environmental: Millions of people have been displaced because the land they live on has become toxic or is unable to support them. While some conditions are the result of natural disasters, much environmental degradation is caused by humans-national and multinational business interests that disregard protections or purposely ravage natural resources.

Ethnic tensions: Many of the highly publicized refugee flows today have been traced to ethnic tensions unleashed by national instabilities and conflicts or fomented by political adversaries. In the process of national
consolidation, some minority groups may be viewed as obstacles, breaking up a country's national identity or dividing political loyalties.

The destinations of migrants have also significantly shifted over the last 30 years. Migration patterns have always been affected by such factors as geographic proximity, historical and political ties, culture, language and so forth. But the dominant flow is South to North, a trend that has significantly increased in the last few decades, and with the United States as a particular magnet for migrants from developing countries. However, there is still considerable migration among Northern countries, and more so among countries in the South. Obviously, 99% of the world's migrants do not come to the United States, despite current national fears that the country is being overrun by "hordes" of the foreign-born.

Who Are the Migrants?

The International Organization for Migration estimates there may be about 30 million "irregular" migrant workers-those who are undocumented or without legal permission to remain in countries where they live. The United States receives an estimated 200,000-300,000 undocumented immigrants annually.
About 20 million migrants are displaced within their own countries and have not crossed international boundaries.

The refugee population has more than doubled over the last decade and a half: over 20 million today, compared with an estimated 8.5 million in 1980. Seventy-five percent of these refugees have moved to bordering countries in developing regions, which are most hard-pressed to accept new and often rapid increases in population. Refugees are the most numerous within Asia- about 10 million people-with about
5.5 million in Africa and 4.5 million in Europe. By contrast, advanced countries such as the United States and Canada together receive just over 1 million refugees.

Because migration has become such an important issue, recent international fora, such as the U.N'S International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo last September, have been strongly criticized for their insufficient treatment of the migration question.

Sending countries were especially frustrated at the ICPD by the attitudes of Western nations, typically the receiving countries. A particularly heated debate broke out over the issue of family reunification, which sending countries felt should be preserved in the official conference document as a "right" of migrant people. However, Canada, the United States and European nations opposed the language, offering a com-promise that merely "encouraged" nations to consider family reunification in determining their immigration policies-an action which the sending countries, predominantly composed of people of color, felt was just one more example of the racial hostility of the predominantly white receiving nations.

While the conference made gains in asserting the centrality of the empowerment of women in addressing resolutions to rapidly escalating population growth, the ICPD did not make any headway in confronting the impact of international development policies on population and consequent pressures towards increased migration. Of course, such gross omissions served the political and economic interests of the Western nations that continue to dominate such international gatherings and which resist fetters on their development policies and practices. The debacle over family reunification, however, stirred sending country delegates to press for an international conference on migration and development, a controversial proposal now under consideration at the United Nations.

Such a conference would likely address long-range measures to alleviate migration pressures, including: economic growth, investment and cooperative aid programs; easing the developing countries' tremendous debt burdens; promoting fair trade policies; education, health care access and economic opportunities, especially for women in developing countries; and generally, developing more stable economic environments.

Migration, Development
and Trade


There is strong feeling among developing countries that as trade and development policies and agreements are forged, the question of migration must also be put on the table. This was an especially sore point in the negotiations over NAFTA, which essentially redefined the international border between the United States and Mexico by allowing for the free flow of goods, resources and capital, but which omitted discussion of the obvious flow of labor across borders-a permanent and essential element of the global economy.

In the meantime, as the scope of international migration in the new global economy continues to broaden, considerable concern has arisen for rights protections for migrants-and for foreign nationals residing temporarily in new countries. Most receiving countries are taking steps to restrict immigration in ways that have little impact on migration pressures, but which will severely limit the rights and mobility of immigrants already residing in those countries.
Many countries around the world- not just the major receiving nations- have growing percentages of foreign nationals living within their boundaries, and in many instances, migrants, whether documented or undocumented, have few, if any, rights protections.

Pursuing International
Protections


The U.N.'s 1990 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families was created to augment existing covenants, further delineating the growing classes of people not residing in their countries of origin. The Convention faces an uphill battle before it comes into force" (it requires full ratification by 20 countries, and only a few have ratified it thus far). Even when it gains recognition, its provisions are still subject to the civil laws of each country. However, it does set the basis for promoting international rights standards in this era of the global workforce, and provides a framework for evaluating national proposals dealing with immigration. California's anti-immigrant initiative, Proposition 187, for example, certainly violates the spirit and intent of international migrants' rights protections.

The tendency of countries to build higher walls in an attempt to block immigration in no way addresses the complexities of migration, but is a simplistic response to heightening ignorance, racial intolerance and xenophobia. Migration-not just immigration into any one country-is an international issue, a manifestation of uneven social, political and economic development and conflict that requires cooperation and collective action among countries and regions.

Cathi Tactaquin is Senior Research Associate at the Applied Research Center, 25 Embarcadero Cove, Oakland, CA 94606 (510/534-1769). She is also a member of the International Migrant Rights Watch Committee, headquartered in Geneva. She attended last September's UN Cairo Conference on Population & Development. nnirr@igc.org
 
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