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UNSG: Making Migration Work for All

January 30, 2018

The UN Secretary General released a report in December 2017 that laid out four "considerations" to guide governments negotiating a Global Compact for "safe, orderly, and regular" Migration. The GCM, to be signed by governments in Fall 2018, should maximize migration's benefits, increase labor migration, reduce illegal migration and protect migrant rights, and ensure that people migrate out of choice rather than necessity.

The report is aimed primarily at governments in countries receiving migrants, urging them to open doors wider to legal migrant workers, to protect migrant workers during recruitment, employment abroad, and return or re-integration, and to offer temporary protected status to vulnerable migrants who are not refugees but need protection from adverse conditions in their country of citizenship.

There are no priorities among the long list of "shoulds" for host countries, and no analysis of the trade offs between competing goods. For example, if doors are opened wider to migrant workers, can host governments ensure that migrant and local workers are fully protected? If not, which good deserves priority, protecting local or migrant workers?

If governments give work permits to vulnerable migrants who are not refugees, and allow their families to join them and receive public services, will more vulnerable people make risky moves to obtain protection and services? Will the exodus of those most able to migrate reduce incentives to deal with the underlying issues that are prompting outmigration?

The report's first consideration concludes that migration's benefits exceed its costs and urges governments to open doors to migrants while being "attentive to the needs of local communities and labor forces" who are affected by migrants. Most of the economics-related recommendations call for protecting migrants from high recruitment fees and exploitation while abroad. The report calls on host governments to allow migrants to benefit from the social programs to which they contribute; it does not note that higher costs may reduce employer interest in hiring migrants.

The second consideration calls on host governments to open doors wider to migrants to meet "demand for labor that domestic workers cannot satisfy, but [for which there are] insufficient legal pathways" to admit migrant workers. Destination countries are asked to anticipate their demographic and labor needs when determining how to expand regular labor migration and family unification, a very difficult feat. Migrant-sending countries, in turn, should accept the return of irregular migrants. However, since some migrants who are deported are likely to re-migrate, governments should consider regularization rather than deportation. There is no discussion of how to resolve the contradictions in these recommendations.

The third consideration is security in migrant-receiving countries. Governments must protect their borders and determine what foreigners do inside them, but the report criticizes governments that try to head off migrants in transit countries and that detain migrants who arrive illegally, especially children.

The fourth consideration observes that many people who move irregularly are vulnerable but are not refugees as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. It applauds governments that grant vulnerable non-refugees such as those displaced by climate change temporary protected status, and urges governments to lay out paths by which those who have had TPS for years can form or unite families and become immigrants and citizens.

The report calls for whole-of-government 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 bi-national agreements to manage labor migration that reduce recruitment fees. There are calls for gender-sensitive migration policies, special protections for child migrants, and respect for human rights.

The UNSG's report is a laundry list of "shoulds" for governments, but does not lay out priorities. There is no ranking of the numerous recommendations, such as those that should be implemented immediately and those that are desirable but less urgent. For example, the recommendation to open doors wider to migrant workers should prioritize the fundamental question of whether migrant workers are truly needed.

No UN agency has developed a methodology to determine if there are labor shortages and whether admitting migrant workers is the best way to resolve them, in part because making labor shortage determinations requires weighing competing goods. 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.

Governments may have reasons NOT to allow normal market adjustments to occur, as when they hold down the wages of health care workers to avoid raising the taxes that pay their wages. Such trade offs between taxes, wages, and shortages underlie many migration dilemmas, and the UNSG report provides no guidance on how to resolve them. Instead, it asks governments to admit migrants, and to ensure that both local and migrant workers are fully protected.

As with the iron triangle of managing health care, which wants easy access, low cost, and high quality, there is a trade off between desirable goals in managing labor migration between easy access for migrants, protecting migrants and local workers, and ensuring economic benefits to both host and origin countries. The UNSG report would have been far more useful if it had tackled the trade offs between these often competing objectives to help governments to develop optimal labor migration policies.

UNSG. 2017. Making Migration Work for All (A/72/643).

Kissick, William. 1994. Medicine's Dilemmas: Infinite Needs Versus Finite Resources. Yale University Press.