When people who haven’t moved are called ‘migrants’: Considerations for implementing Objective 4 of the Global Compact for Migration

Tendayi Bloom (@TendayiB)

In December 2018, the Global Compact for Migration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The headline of the fourth of its 23 objectives is as follows: ‘Ensure that all migrants have proof of legal identity and adequate documentation’. Considering this objective in detail indicates that it is often documents (or lack of them) which define people as migrants rather than whether or not they have moved. This raises four key challenges for implementation of the GCM.

Challenge One: Are migration policies really about migration?

There is a presumption in the text of the global compact for migration that everyone knows what makes someone a ‘migrant’. However, no definition is provided. In practice, many people who do move do not experience the sharp end of migration policies, while many people who have never moved are directly targeted.

An important working paper emerging from the DEMIG project which analysed the changing migration policies of 45 countries indicated that in the 70 years leading to 2014, overwhelmingly changes were toward less restrictive migration policies (with exceptions like the UK  for example). However, this has come alongside greater selection among who should be able to migrate. This selection has moved from explicitly racialized policies in the early part of the 20th century to an increasingly complex array of points and selection criteria, along with linking migration conceptually to questions of security. This suggests that the development of migration policies has not focused on whether people are migrating, but on who should be allowed to do so.

People who have no citizenship at all are often targeted by ‘migration policies’ irrespective of whether they have ever crossed a border. A person without any functional citizenship is generally referred to as ‘stateless’. This includes members of large well-known communities like the Rohingya or the Roma. It also includes individuals left without status for a variety of reasons relating to discrimination and administrative problems for example. As observed by the organisation United Stateless, such a person ‘will be seen and treated as a foreigner by every country in the world.’ Consequently, policies defended on the basis of managing migration may block such individuals from regular work, education, healthcare, legal redress, property ownership, and identity documents for example. People without citizenship anywhere may also end up in immigration detention. With nowhere to which to be deported, this detention risks being indefinite.

This suggests that the logic of migration management is being used to justify policies that are actually about selection – selecting both who can participate in international mobility and who can be a member of a national community. Even when such policies target people who are moving or have recently moved, they might not be targeting them in virtue of that movement.

Challenge Two: Will this be resolved by ‘proof of legal identity and adequate documentation’?

The Global Compact for Migration promotes access to proof of legal identity and documentation. It also advocates that States give access to citizenship to children born to citizens abroad. These things are worth pursuing, but they fall short of existing international legal commitments and do not resolve the concerns raised above. I’ll focus on the latter.

For a start, there are already populations around the world who have a proof of legal identity which excludes them from rights and from citizenship. For example, the Bidoon reference card in Kuwait, the grey passport of non-citizens of Estonia, and the Refugee Travel Document held by Palestinians in Lebanon and other countries, all provide proof of a legal identity and documentation, but in doing this they block people from membership and rights.

People need access to an appropriate citizenship, but citizenship alone does not fix the situation if someone is identified as ‘foreign’. For example, the United Arab Emirates set out to end statelessness in the country by allocating Comoros citizenship to all those without any citizenship. This did not address the problems of discrimination and exclusion.

Someone without any citizenship needs access to the citizenship of the country where they live. They also need access to the civil registration and documentation required to avoid the risk of statelessness. However, civil registration, legal identity, and citizenship alone are not enough to avoid the difficulties often associated with statelessness, and may even exacerbate them if not combined with addressing discrimination and exclusion.

Challenge Three: Are Human Rights Universal?

In practice, migration policies can make it difficult for some people – irrespective of whether they have moved – to realise even the most basic of human rights.  The Global Compact for Migration commits to ‘[r]eview and revise requirements to prove nationality at service delivery centres to ensure that migrants without proof of nationality or legal identity are not precluded from accessing basic services nor denied their human rights’. This seems to support the idea that access to human rights should be dependent on status – and that they could be withheld from people without any citizenship.

This is troubling. First, it undermines the universality of human rights. It suggests that there are two international communities: the one made up of all people, and the one made up of those people who are citizens and so able to access rights (presented for example by Conklin).

Second, it undermines the logic of citizenship. Countries set citizenship criteria based on ethnicity, language, origin, cultural values, and other factors. This is defended on the basis that citizenship reflects membership of the political community of a State. However, if citizenship is also an organisational principle for human rights, then these arguments cannot get off the ground.

Challenge Four: Are the implications of migration policy for those who cannot move understood?

Many of the impacts of migration policies are hidden from those who are not affected. The only way to address this is to include affected persons and their advocates wherever migration policies are discussed. Crucially, not only includes migrant communities, but also those who are identified as migrants by others, irrespective of whether they have moved.

* * *

Implementation of the Global Compact for Migration must, then, address these challenges:

  1. Ensure that policies that are justified through the logic of managing the movement of people are not being used instead to define people as ‘foreign’.
  • Ensure that everyone has access to civil registration, with a view to citizenship, but audit legal identity documents to ensure that they do not cement exclusions.
  • Access to citizenship and to proof of legal identity must be combined with work to address underlying systems of exclusion and discrimination.
  • Human rights are universal. To protect the universality of human rights, access to them must be separated from immigration control measures and status checks.
  • Crucially, in order to achieve the above points, people who have experience of the difficulties associated with migration management must be at the centre of GCM implementation plans. This includes people who are targeted by migration management policies not because of their movement, but because they are stateless.

Recent and forthcoming books on this:

Tendayi Bloom and Lindsey Kingston (eds) Statelessness, Governance, and the Problem of Citizenship (Manchester University Press, forthcoming)

Tendayi Bloom, Katherine Tonkiss and Phillip Cole (eds) Understanding Statelessness (Routledge, 2017)

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