Border Security, migration governance & sovereignty

Susan F. Martin

Perry World House Visiting Fellow, University of Pennsylvania, and Donald G. Herzberg Emeritus Professor of International Migration, Georgetown University

Elizabeth Ferris

Research Professor and Acting Director, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University

In a misguided decision, the United States withdrew this week from participation in negotiations at the United Nations over a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argued that “we simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders." The Global Compact  does not infringe on sovereignty. In fact, the benefits of such a system would support the U.S.’s sovereign responsibility with regard to international migration. It will be a non-binding document that sets out aspirations, not obligations, to transform migration from what too often is a chaotic, dangerous process that countries have difficulty controlling into a safe and orderly one that meets national interests.

Sovereignty is the bedrock of today’s international migration system.  While there are different definitions of sovereignty, sovereignty is generally understood as the authority of a polity to govern itself. It recognizes the autonomy of all states and the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states.  Within this context, national security—whether defined as political, economic, social, or cultural —underlies the decisions of sovereign states with regard to border control.

This is increasingly the case with regard to border control, which is seen as a quintessential exercise of sovereignty. State control over borders has several purposes: maintaining control of populations, limiting access to labor markets and maintaining internal security.  Even as governments are devoting more resources to policing of borders and to enhanced use of technology in border control, they often find it impossible to control movements onto their territory, particularly as sophisticated smuggling operations defy their efforts. The risks to migrants are clear, as witnessed by the high number of deaths in transit. But, the risks to states are also great, particularly when they are unprepared for mass movements onto their territories.

By collaborating with other countries, states are able to strengthen their ability to control borders and hence their security. A number of recent ‘surges’ in migration—whether across the US-Mexican border or the Mediterranean—have been reduced only when there has been cooperation among countries of origin and/or transit and countries of destination. When agreements on deterrence or return of migrants are negotiated in the midst of crisis, rather than in a more orderly process, they tend to be costly to the destination countries, both in violation of the rights of the migrants and in financial terms as inducements are provided to source or transit countries.

States risk little in signing on to international migration agreements. Overwhelmingly, as documents written and negotiated by states, these recognize the sovereign right of countries to protect their own security. For example, the 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly excludes from the refugee definition those who have committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity; those who have committed a serious non-political crime; and those who have been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations (Article 1f). Article 32 permits states to expel a refugee lawfully in their territory on grounds of national security or public order.

Rather than something to be feared, strengthening global governance of migration – and in particular, promoting more pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration – is in the collective interests of all states.   The current system is a patchwork of unilateral, bilateral and regional policies which sometimes work at cross-purposes.  Steps to regularize migration would create a more orderly and predictable system.  States don’t like surprises; they are much more likely to respond positively to migration – even to greater numbers of migrants – that is regular and managed.  The benefits of such a system would support every state’s sovereign responsibility to ensure proper management of international migration.

The Trump administration should reassess its decision to boycott negotiations over the global migration compact. As the country with the largest absolute number of international migrants, U.S. participation is important to ensure a successful outcome. U.S. expertise and experience, as well as the leadership that the U.S. can exert when it is engaged, can help ensure that the global compact is balanced, serves our interests as well as those of the world, and encourages all states to support efforts to implement policies to deter irregular movements and encourage safe, orderly and legal migration.