Issue Report: UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families

This pro/con article was created for the Spring 2011 topic of the The Global Debates: “All states should immediately ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families.” We’ve created this article and the broader Global Debates International Migration Portal to help contestants develop their cases. The United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families was signed in 1990 and entered into force in 2003. The Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW) monitors implementation of the convention. The treaty is meant to ensure minimum protections to all migrants, focusing on ensuring freedom from discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, sex, religion or any other status, in all aspects of work, including in hiring, conditions of work, and promotion, and in access to housing, health care and basic services. It also ensures freedom from arbitrary expulsion from their country of employment and protection from violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions. The treaty recognizes that legal migrants have the legitimacy to claim more rights than undocumented migrants, but it stresses that undocumented migrants must see their fundamental human rights respected. Many nations have signed, but most are countries of origin of migrants. No Western migrant-receiving State has ratified the Convention, even though the majority of migrants live in Europe and North America. Other important receiving countries, such as Australia, Arab states of the Persian Gulf and India have not ratified the Convention either. This means that the treaty is not in effect where the majority of migrants actually live and work. So, one of the main questions in this debate is whether these specific non-signatories should jump on-board and sign. They often contend that the treaty will limit their national immigration control policies. But, supporters argue it will do no such thing. These and other arguments are outlined below.

Solution: Does the convention help solve a problem, or create problems?

Migrant Workers Convention is the best way to protect migrants

" It's Time to Ratify the Migrant Workers Convention." International Federation for Human Rights. June 21, 2010

“20 years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, also known as the Migrant Workers Convention. We believe that the 20th anniversary provides an excellent opportunity for the European Union to live up to its core values and stand firm on the rights of migrant workers. The Convention constitutes the broadest framework in international law for the protection of the rights of migrant workers and members of their families and provides guidance to States on how to respect the rights of migrants while developing and implementing labour migration policies.”

Migrant rights have been eroded in many states

"The United Nations Convention on Migrant’s rights, a Luxury for the European Union?" Notre Europe. December 2006

“The Erosion of Rights in Europe. […] there is no denying the fact that the national texts have, everywhere in Europe, undergone deep modifications, restricting the rights of legal migrants. A survey of the legislation recently passed or still in preparation on the admission of immigrants and their families goes a long way to invalidate the idea that the ratification of the convention is unnecessary.”

Massive growth of migration demands greater protections

"Global Migration: A World Ever More on the Move." New York Times. June 26th, 2010

“One reason migration seems so potent is that it arose unexpectedly. As recently as the 1970s, immigration seemed of such little importance that the United States Census Bureau decided to stop asking people where their parents were born. Now, a quarter of the residents of the United States under 18 are immigrants or immigrants’ children. The United Nations estimates that there are 214 million migrants across the globe, an increase of about 37 percent in two decades. Their ranks grew by 41 percent in Europe and 80 percent in North America. ‘There’s more mobility at this moment than at any time in world history,’ said Gary P. Freeman, a political scientist at the University of Texas. The most famous source countries in Europe — Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain — are suddenly migrant destinations, with Ireland electing a Nigerian-born man as its first black mayor in 2007.”

International law can protect against unjust state migration laws

Migration impacts social cultural, economic spheres of society

Migrant policies and protections deserve greater coordination

Migrant rights treaty can conflict with immigration control policies.

While it appears logical to confer more “rights” onto migrants under international law, some of these “rights” can run directly contrary to the national interests of a country. For example, the Migrant Workers Convention highlights family reunification as, essentially, a right that signatories must recognize and facilitate. For some countries that are crowded, and that already have significant immigrant populations, facilitating this provision of the treaty could result in significant “reunifications”, greater overpopulation, and the worsening of standards of living for other citizens. So, ultimately, what might be “important” to a migrant worker might be harmful to a host country and its population. This is why countries like the UK resist signing the Migrant Workers Convention on the basis that the UK’s policies already strike the “right balance between the need for immigration control and the protection of the interests and rights of migrant workers and their families”.

Migrants are flourishing economically; greater protections unnecessary

"Global Migration: A World Ever More on the Move." New York Times. June 26th, 2010

“rich, aging countries need workers. People in poor countries need jobs. And the rise in global inequality means that migrants have more than ever to gain by landing work abroad. Migration networks are hard to shut down. Even the worst economy in 70 years has only slowed, not stopped, the growth in migration. And it is likely to grow, in numbers and consequence.” If migrants are gaining so much from the most open borders in world history, why is it that they need more protections?

Global migration is a problem; solution: reduce migration

"The Global Immigration Problem." Real Clear Politics. May 31, 2007

“In Germany, Turkish workers – both legal and illegal – are desperate to find either permanent residence or citizenship. ‘Londonstan’ is slang for a new London of thousands of unassimilated Pakistani nationals. In France, there were riots in 2005 because many children of North African immigrants are unemployed – and unhappy. Albanians flock to Greece to do farm work, and then are regularly deported for doing so illegally. The list could go on. […] The lasting solution is not the status quo – or even walls, fines, deportation, amnesty or guest-worker programs. Instead, failed societies in Latin America, Africa and much of the Middle East must encourage family planning and get smarter about using their plentiful natural wealth to keep more of their own people home.”

More migrant "rights" means more immigration, overpopulation

Signing the Migrant Workers Convention is a liability and burden

Social welfare: Should migrants receive equal treatment on social welfare?

Migrants should have equal rights to social welfare as nationals

Article 27 of the United Nations Migrant Workers Convention stipulates: “With respect to social security, migrant workers and members of their families shall enjoy in the State of employment the same treatment granted to nationals in so far as they fulfil the requirements provided for by the applicable legislation of that State and the applicable bilateral and multilateral treaties.”

Migrant rights help advance social and economic progress

"Invisible people, irregular migrants." The Daily Star. June 7th, 2010

“When business exploits irregular migrants, it distorts the economy, creates social tensions, feeds racial prejudice and impedes prospects for regular migration. Protecting the rights of migrant workers — regular and irregular — makes good economic and political sense for all countries — whether source, destination or transit.”

Welfare systems need protecting from "freeriding" migrants.

Immigrants make heavy use of social welfare systems, and often overload public education, while frequently not fully pulling their weight in taxes. Increasing social and economic protections and rights for migrants via the Migrant Workers Convention could increase migration and increase the benefits migrants receive from societies. This could be a burden that a state’s welfare system is not capable of handling.

Full welfare should be reserved for the citizens of a nation.

While it may be acceptable for migrants to receive certain social services while working in a country, much of a nation’s social services should be made unavailable to them. Social Security and Medicaid, for example, are based on individuals paying into the system for years, and thus having a legitimate claim to draw from the programs in their time of need. Migrant workers fall outside this equation, so should not have the same rights to these benefits as full citizens.

Family reunification: Should a right to family reunification exist?

Migrant Rights Convention aims to facilitate family reunification

Article 44.2 of the Migrant Workers Convention stipulates: “States Parties shall take measures that they deem appropriate and that fall within their competence to facilitate the reunification of migrant workers with their spouses or persons who have with the migrant worker a relationship that, according to applicable law, produces effects equivalent to marriage, as well as with their minor dependent unmarried children.”

Migrants have a right to family reunification

Migrant Workers Convention protects sovereignty on family reunification

"The Migrant Workers Convention in Europe: Obstacles to Ratification." 2007

“Article 79 of the treaty provides that ‘[n]othing in the present Convention shall affect the right of each State Party to establish the criteria governing admission of migrant workers and members of their families’; whereas state’s responsibilities in terms of family reunification under Article 44 are limited to taking such measures ‘as they deem appropriate to facilitate the reunification of migrant workers with their spouses… as well with their minor dependent unmarried children.’ In language as heavily qualified as this, leaving such a wide discretion open to states, it is difficult to see any obligation of any sort, let alone one that could present a serious obstacle to ratification.”

Family reunification right is obstacle to migrant rights treaty.

States have leveled as an argument against the Migrant Workers Convention, and against other possible international migrant treaties, concerns about a robust right of family reunification to all migrant workers present in migrant-receiving countries. This could offer family members a right to migrate into the state in question, resulting in large increases in population size. And, there is no doubt that the text of the Migrant Workers Convention aims to create a “right” to family reunification. Even if it provides flexibility on how a nation attempts to facilitate re-unification, it still requires that states reunite families in some way. Under this treaty, therefore, any migrant could sue the state for not allowing their family (and perhaps extended family) to immigrate as well. In overpopulated and strained migrant-receiving countries – particularly in Wester Europe – such a proposition is untenable, which is why so many migrant-receiving nations oppose the treaty. And, even if one goes so far as to call the text of the treaty as merely “aspirational” on family reunification, placing no legally binding obligations on states, such “aspirational” language still provides migrant-receiving nations with reason to pause; why should a nation sign an international agreement that contains “aspirations” not shared by the nation?

Illegal aliens: Is the convention appropriate in its provisions on illegal immigrants?

Migrant treaty presses mere compliance with national laws.

global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said in 2003 when the treaty went into effect: “The Migrant Workers Convention is not soft on illegal immigration. All it asks is that undocumented migrants be treated in full compliance with the law, and not subjected to abuse.”

Migrant workers treaty gives illegals fewer rights/protections.

The treaty recognizes that illegal aliens cannot be treated in the same way as legal migrant workers; that such legal workers have more rights and protections. But, it ensures that these illegal aliens are treated humanely, legally, and responsibly by host governments, whether it be in finding them, arresting them, deporting them, or in integrating them into society with some kind of a path to citizenship. National laws already demand such humane action, so the migrant workers treaty hardly does anything new that Western governments should find objectionable in this regard.

Migrant treaty increases burdens of processing illegal aliens.

The treaty requires that countries provide full legal procedures for illegal aliens. This could limit the ability of a nation to quickly process and deport illegal aliens. In some countries, large immigration problems make such lengthy judicial processes untenable. And, it is not the fault of the government that a massive and constant flood of illegal immigrants makes judicially and equitably handling each and every one of them impossible. In such instances of a breach of national and sovereign security, full legal processes for NON-citizens is simply not an option, not is signing a treaty that requires this.

"Abusive" treatment of illegals is a matter of interpretation.

What constitutes “unfair treatment” or “abuse” in a nation’s immigration policy is a subject for interpretation under the Migrant Workers Treaty. In the United States, for example, people can be fined or held legally liable for aiding or employing illegal immigrants. Some consider this abusive. And, the United States has created a wall on its southern border. Is this abusive? These are all matters for interpretation based on US national interests, but the concern is that the UN will deem some of these actions or policies “abusive” or “inhumane”, and thereby consider them unlawful under the Migrant Workers Convention.

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