UN Secretary General’s report on migration highlights the need for government action and cooperation, but lacks key guidance on labor migration

The United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) released a report in January 2018 titled Making migration work for all, that laid out four “considerations” to guide governments negotiating a Global Compact for Migration, an agreement to promote more “safe, orderly, and regular” international migration. The four considerations focus on how to maximize migration’s benefits, increase labor migration, address the legitimate security concerns of unauthorized migration, and address issues arising as a result of mixed flows of migrants and refugees.

The report is aimed primarily at governments that are major destination countries for migrants, urging them to open doors wider to legal migrant workers, protect migrant workers during recruitment and employment abroad, and during their return to their home countries or re-integration there, and to offer protection to vulnerable migrants who are not refugees but nevertheless require some form of protection.

While the report offers many thoughtful and useful recommendations, there are no priorities among the long list of “shoulds” and no analysis of the trade-offs between competing recommendations. For example, is there competition or are there trade-offs that must be balanced between opening doors wider to migrant workers and protecting the rights and labor standards of local, destination country workers? Can both be done while ensuring that migrant workers are fully protected?

The first consideration in the report, on the economic and social benefits of migration, concludes that migration’s benefits exceed its costs and thus urges governments to increase labor migration while being “attentive to the needs of local communities and labor forces” who may be impacted by new arrivals of migrant workers. However, there is no mention of how migration’s benefits should be shared. Do they mostly go to employers, or towards development in countries of origin? An important aspect of this calculus is the percentage that goes to the migrants themselves; in other words, how much of the economic gains do migrant workers keep? Much of the economic gains from migration currently go to employers and “merchants of labor” that recruit migrant workers for jobs abroad. Therefore it’s no surprise that most of the economic recommendations in the report deal with protecting migrants from high recruitment fees during their move and from exploitation while abroad. The report also calls on host governments to allow migrants to benefit from the social programs to which they contribute—something that is clearly desirable but which states may consider a trade-off, because migrants receiving benefits can reduce the economic rationale for accepting more.

The second consideration in the report calls on destination country governments to open doors wider to migrants in order to satisfy “demand for labor that domestic workers cannot satisfy, but [for which there are] insufficient legal pathways” for migrant workers. The report attributes irregular (i.e. unauthorized or undocumented) migration to demand for workers exceeding supply in destination countries, and “poverty and lack of work at home” in countries of origin. Countries of destination are asked to anticipate their demographic and labor needs in order to justify expanding pathways for regular labor migration and family unification.

The report then urges countries of origin to cooperate with countries of destination to accept the return of irregular migrants in order to “ensure public faith” that countries have the “capacity to manage borders.” However, the reality is that deported migrants may migrate again to the same place without authorization because of employment and family ties—and for many who have long been established in a country or where it would violate their human rights to deport them, the report urges destination countries to consider regularizing those unauthorized migrants.

The third consideration in the report is security (including border security) in destination countries. The report recognizes that governments must protect their borders and regulate what goes on within them, but also criticizes governments that aid in the interception of migrants in transit countries and that detain migrants who arrive without authorization—especially children—as a deterrent rather than when absolutely necessary. The poor conditions in migrant detention centers are highlighted, a major concern in many countries including the United States. The report also calls for inter-governmental cooperation against traffickers, and warns against xenophobic policies and the demonization of migrants, which makes migrants more vulnerable and makes it harder to govern the process of migration.

The fourth consideration observes that many people who cross borders without authorization are vulnerable and in need of protection, but do not meet the legal standard for “refugee” as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. It notes the lack of a framework for dealing with and protecting such migrants, and applauds governments that give vulnerable non-refugees such as those displaced by conflict and climate change a form of temporary protection—something akin to temporary protected status (TPS) in the United States. The report urges governments to lay out paths by which those who have had TPS for years can stay in the country or be allowed to move to a third country.

The report then shifts to discussing the implementation of the UN Global Compact for Migration and how the UN system should deal with and cooperate on the issue of global migration in the future. The report calls for a whole-of-government approach to migration plans, subnational migration policies, a framework for “fair and accessible legal access by migrants at all skill levels to meet labor market needs everywhere,” and for bilateral agreements between states to manage labor migration and reduce recruitment fees. There are calls for gender-sensitive migration policies, special protections for child migrants, and respecting human rights.

Like many UN migration reports, the UNSG’s report is a laundry list of what governments should do, with no real prioritization in terms of which recommendations are fundamental and which are desirable but less urgent. For example, shouldn’t the recommendation to increase pathways for migrant workers logically begin with governments tackling the fundamental question of whether new migrant workers truly needed in their national labor markets? The report seems to assume that there are labor shortages everywhere migrant workers are present, which is surely not the case.

In fact, no UN agency has developed a methodology to determine if there are labor shortages and whether admitting migrant workers is the best way to remedy those labor shortages, in part because making such a determination requires weighing competing goods and considering trade-offs. In market economies, price and wage adjustments bring supply and demand into balance. Employers who cannot find workers are expected to raise wages, which reduces the demand for, and increases the supply of, labor. Adding migrant workers to the labor force is a market intervention, and one that can constrain wage growth if done without proper regulations and if no labor shortages exist. As a result, using migration to fill labor shortages will make sense in some countries and not in others, but it is ultimately a political question that must be dealt with by parliaments and congresses. The one-size-fits-all approach suggested by the UNSG is therefore overly simplistic about a sensitive subject. Governments already grappling with a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment are unlikely to follow the report’s recommendations and announce that more migrant workers are needed.

While some migration is inevitable—particularly flows of humanitarian migrants in response to conflict and disasters—when it coms to labor migration, governments may have valid reasons not to allow normal market adjustments to occur. This happened in the U.K. for example, when the government considered brining in new migrant workers after it did not raise the wages of some health care workers, in order to avoid raising taxes on the public. But such trade-offs underlie many migration policy dilemmas, and unfortunately the UNSG report provides no guidance on how to resolve them. Instead, it asks governments to ignore trade-offs and admit migrant workers—and ensure that both local and migrant workers are fully protected under domestic and international law— without even calling on states to adhere to core international labor standards. Admitting migrant workers and protecting them is a noble goal, and it is essential that migrant workers have equal rights and full protection under the law whenever they enter a new country—but it’s much easier said than done, and many countries fail to achieve this.

Finally and unfortunately, the UNSG’s report also fails to call explicitly for all labor migration to advance opportunities for decent work and for states to adhere to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) core labor standards which all countries have agreed to through social dialogue between employers, governments, and worker organizations. The report also fails to call for a follow-up mechanism to assess how and whether this is happening in countries of origin and destination. Any global accord on migration that is worth agreeing to should be transparent and allow for monitoring by labor unions and migrant worker advocacy organizations, and national and international human rights monitoring entities—and these efforts should be led by the ILO—which has technical expertise in labor migration and a commitment to human rights. The Global Compact’s follow-up processes and mechanisms should also provide for regular opportunities for input and negotiation at the national level by worker organizations, employers, and ministries and departments of labor, to ensure that states adopt policies that can make migration “work for all”, not just governments and businesses.