A Champion for Migrating Peoples

By , Jagdish Bhagwati is Arthur Lehman professor of economics at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming book "Immigration: Economics, Ethics, and Politics." This article is adapted from a talk given at the American Economic Association meetings in January.

THE United Nations High Commission of Refugees celebrated its 40th anniversary last November. The occasion symbolized both its contribution, recognized by two Nobel prizes, and the gap in the international infrastructure regarding the world's fleeing and moving multitudes.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) address the world's financial and trade problems. The New World Order now needs a World Migration Organization to oversee solutions to the major challenges posed by international migrations of all kinds, legal and illegal, forced and voluntary.

Refugee flows have exploded. They are currently above 17 million, counting not merely refugees in the narrow sense of those having a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, or political belief - the definition that countries have been comfortable with to date. Refugees also include vast new flows of humanity fleeing for their lives from famine, pestilence, and war.

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Internal refugees, as opposed to those who move across borders, have also become a standard feature of the landscape in Central America, Africa, and the Middle East.

Illegal immigration is also substantial, and it's likely to grow as population expands in the third world.

The immediate worries are out-migration from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This movement of people was suppressed in times past by emigration restrictions, and it's likely to happen now even if these nations manage their affairs soundly and become functioning economies.

The probable results: an overhaul of immigration regimes and the surrender of liberal values. This change could include more draconian enforcement, as foreshadowed by the United States return of Haitians picked up at sea and the forced repatriation of Vietnamese boat refugees from Hong Kong.

Other ominous signs: the sacrifice of asylum traditions in some countries, summary expulsion of aliens (as happened recently to Zaireans in the Congo and to Yemenis in Saudi Arabia), and the denial of basic rights to illegal immigrants in order to deter their entry.

A World Migration Organization (WMO) could influence these developments, which are now largely ad hoc and reflect diverse national responses to emerging immigration crises. The WMO could do this in three ways:

* Periodic country reviews. The WMO's principal task would be to track and monitor the immigration policies of countries. Like the Pope, the WMO would have no troops. But by issuing comprehensive reviews of national policies and actions, it might embarrass countries into more humane and liberal ways of dealing with influxes of aliens.

This, in fact, is what the GATT has been doing since 1989. Selecting a few member countries at a time, GATT officials had issued 18 Trade Policy Review reports by the end of 1991. The reports brought into focus the failings and achievements of countries in the matter of free trade. The WMO has a worthy model here.

* Burden-sharing indices. Like the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the WMO could also move toward developing "burden-sharing" indices of immigration altruism.

In regard to refugees, for example, a country such as Japan, with its tradition of being an insular nation with a homogeneous population, may be unable to absorb large numbers of refugees. But to compensate it might undertake a larger share of the cost of resettling people.

* Codes of rights and obligations for migrants. The WMO should seek to develop codes for the rights and obligations of different types of immigrants. Among the issues that need to be addressed: access by illegal migrants to welfare safety nets; the rights of their children to free public education alongside native children; and the voting rights of legal immigrants.

We need to work toward humane codes, building on the experience of progressive nations like the US. A precedent exists in the international agreements on the unacceptability of forced repatriation and other intolerable practices. It will be an arduous task. But it is an endeavor to which humanity itself draws us.

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