The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 16, 2000
Lead Article

Immigration in the era of globalisation
Lure of another land

The immigrant issue is currently centred around immigration to western Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia. While these countries are reconciled to a significant dilution of state’s economic sovereignty in pursuit of globalisation and regional groupings, they resist any attempt to liberalise immigration beyond what they conceive as commensurate with their national interests and requirements, says Mohinder Singh

THERE is the growing consensus among countries to lift border controls for the flow of capital, goods, information, and services — various moves to further globalisation. But when it comes to immigrants and refugees, the nation state is showing little let up in asserting its sovereign right to control its borders. Globalisation is steadily watering down state economic sovereignty. In contrast, immigration stays strictly national politics. Indeed there subsists a remarkable consensus among nations to retain absolute national control over immigration.

  In the context of total populations, immigrants and refugees form a relatively small number. There are about 120 million immigrants worldwide, an estimate that excludes many undocumented, illegal aliens. Another 20 million are refugees. And only half of the immigrants are in the rich developed countries, the rest elsewhere: Bangla-deshis in India, Chinese in Indonesia, Indonesians in Malaysia, all those from the Indian subcontinent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

The immigrant issue, however, is currently centred around immigration to West-ern Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia. While these countries are reconciled to a significant dilution of state economic sovereignty in pursuit of globalisation and regional groupings, they resist any attempt to liberalise immigration beyond what they conceive as commensurate with their national interests and requirements. EEC countries are actually engaged in framing a common immigration policy that promises to be fairly restrictive of future immigration, except from East Europe. In the process, countries with liberal immigration policies are being persuaded to fall in line. France and Germany have even instituted explicit return migration policies, including monetary incentives.

The WTO, NAFTA, and the EU assert the need to lift state controls over borders when it comes to the flow of capital, goods, information, and services, as well as state controls over domestic financial markets. But the countries with clout in these institutions, are unanimous about the undisputed exercise of state’s sovereign power to control entry of outsiders.

How effective is a state’s control over its borders is another matter. Evidently it is never absolute. There are the physical limitations of sealing a country’s extensive borders, more so against people in adjoining areas. Refugees have acquired certain rights under international law. Individual immigration is again subject to flows, based on historical, geographical and economic factors. And lastly the increasing importance given to human rights.

Under the 1952 Convention of Refugees, they have the right not to be forcibly returned to the country of their origin wherefrom they had fled. But then the receiving state has complete discretion to grant asylum or not.

Effective enforcement of controls against illegal, clandestine immigration is proving quite difficult these days, despite border policing, even border fencing, and advanced surveillance technologies. USA, for instance, hasn’t been able to choke cross-border Mexican infiltration. And illegal immigrants often manage to escape detection with the connivance of their kith and kin already settled there or from employers wanting cheap, nonunionised labour.

Discussions of immigration policy customarily treat the flow of immigrants as the result of individual actions, particularly an individual’s decision to migrate in search of better opportunities. Such a view puts all the responsibility for immigration on immigrants. And so subjects them to the rigour of scrutiny, control, and enforcement by receiving countries.

Yet it is now increasingly recognised that international migrations are a function of larger geopolitical and transnational economic dynamics. The worldwide evidence reveals that there is a pattern in the geography of migrations; major receiving countries tend to get migrants from their zones of influence.

Each country is unique, and each migration is produced by specific conditions of time and place. The mechanisms binding immigration countries to emigration countries can assume many forms. One dominant from is past colonial and current neo-colonial bonds. The other important mechanism is the economic links brought about by globalisation.

Expanded American economic and military activity in Southeast Asia since the 1960s triggered much migration from Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, and Philippines into USA. Measures commonly thought to deter emigration—-foreign investment and the promotion of export-oriented growth in developing countries — seem to have had the opposite effect. The quasi-transnational economic integration characterising systems such as NAFTA produces its own contradictions between drives for border-free economic spaces and border control to keep immigrants out.

The geopolitics of migration is clearly evident in the immigration patterns in Europe. Sixty per cent of foreign residents in UK are from Asian or African countries that were former dominions or colonies. European migrants are relatively few, and almost three-quarters of them come from Ireland, another former colony. Almost no immigrants from Turkey or Yugoslavia, which provide the largest share to Germany. Practically all Algerians in Europe live in France, and so also a majority of Tunisians and Moroccans. The Netherlands and Belgium both hosted significant numbers of immigrants from their former colonies.

As migration flow ages, its destinations tend to become more diverse. A limited autonomy from old colonial bonds develops. No wonder, our subcontinent’s migration is shifting from UK to USA, Canada, and Australia. And more the people of a country migrate to a particular destination, higher grows the level of that migration and consequent geographic concentration.

In the immigration debate and policy world, one new development emerges as singularly important for understanding the impact of immigration on questions of sovereignty and territoriality. This is the emergent international human rights regime. Human rights are not dependent on nationality, unlike political, social and civil rights, which predicated on the distinction between national and alien. Human rights override such distinctions and hence can be seen as potentially contesting state sovereignty.

Admittedly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not an international treaty and thus not legally binding. Yet aliens are staking their claim on human rights, more so in the USA and Europe, where the human rights regime is most developed. This regime allows courts to rule on basic protections of individuals not formally covered by the legal system, notably illegal immigrants. Courts have had to accept the existence of undocumented aliens and to extend to them some form of legal recognition and guarantees of basic rights, such as non-separation of families.

These and other developments point to an institutional reshuffling of some of the components of sovereign power over entry, and can be seen as an extension of the general processes whereby state sovereignty is being partly decentred onto non-or quasi-governmental entities for the governance of the global economy and international political order.