When I started teaching international law more than twenty years ago, it was still
possible to be an international law generalist. In the U.S. legal academy, the likes of
Henkin, Schachter, Franck, and McDougal covered the full range of public international
law subjects. (Some even managed to stay on top of private international law, too.)
Today, being an international law generalist is impractical; it's simply too
difficult to keep current with the breadth of international law. From the
scholar's perspective, it's a case of “be careful what you wish
for.” A generalist international law orientation used to be possible because
there was so little of it, both on the ground and in the scholarship. Those mid-century
saplings—the various distinctive fields within international law—have
grown to mature oaks, and expert knowledge of their many crevices and branches is beyond
the capacity of any single observer. Not only does international law defy individual
mastery, but the level of specialization now makes it difficult to talk across these
different areas. My colleague in international criminal law might as well be a domestic
family law person for purposes of professional points of connection. We both attend the
ASIL Annual Meeting, but we no longer really speak the same language.
International migration law is not one among the oaks. As a descriptive matter, there are
two ways to situate migration in the metaphorical arbor. It may be that we can find, or
even plant, a sapling that at some point (through nurturing or on its own) stands tall.
Or it may be international migration law remains a branch appended to other trees. The
latter would bode poorly for the academic subfield of international migration law. As
appendages, component parts of migration law require an understanding of the field to
which they are attached. Just as no one can master the intricacies of the various
international law-related fields, no one could master an international migration law
that is split among them.
Of course, the fragmentation
phenomenon is well understood in other areas of international law.
To deploy the more common metaphor,
international migration law is hardly the only field that has its silos. It is
impossible to be an international law generalist; it may now be impossible to be a trade
generalist, too. But it's a lot easier to identify as a trade generalist than as
an expert in international migration law. That owes in the first instance to the lack of
a formal multilateral institutional framework. In the absence of an International
Convention on Migration or World Migration Organization, would-be international
migration law specialists have no shared focal point. There are no institutional
processes that draw mutual attention, conversation starters from which we can spin out
more particular threads; we don't have dispute settlement body decisions, climate
change COPs, or treaty committee reports to help cement communities among both scholars
There are of course the UN Refugee Convention and UN High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR). Precisely because they are institutional and migration-specific, they have
dominated the migration law landscape (a phenomenon further fueled by the crisis-related
origins of refugee flows, which heightens their domination in the public imagination).
But that view distorts the fact that most migrants are not refugees. The Refugee
Convention has stunted rather than
facilitated the development of a coherent international law of migration.
And it hasn't helped that
traditional international law situates migration at the core of sovereign discretion.
The Refugee Convention aside, states jealously continue to assert near-complete discretion with
respect to the admission of noncitizens.
The insulation of migration practices from international law
has retarded the development of a centralized institutional apparatus, and the lack of
that apparatus impedes doctrinal footholds from which to expand international
law's reach into the area.
Given the improbability in the short or medium-term of a global treaty or the
establishment of an international
organization with a wide brief in the area,
where does that leave international migration law? There
are two tracks which point to possible integration of the field and the insinuation of
international law into state migration practice over the long run. One takes a
management approach, in which states look collectively in various combinations to
maintain control of migration flows. The other looks to impose legal constraints on
states in their migration policy and their treatment of migrants (actual and
Migration can hardly be insulated from multilateral engagement. In both its crisis and
“everyday” dimensions, the increasing velocity of cross-border movement
forces states to coordinate (or attempt to coordinate) migration flows. Higher migration
flows have also spotlighted the plight of migrants in various postures, which in turn
has drawn the attention of human rights institutions, broadly defined. These tracks
implicate different actors and institutions, and have different dynamic aspects. They
may be dichotomous or they may be poles at the ends of a continuum, reflecting a range
of approaches to migration-related challenges. They may even be complementary. The blend
of management and human rights paradigms will be consequential to the future of global
The management paradigm is dominated by states and light institutionalization on a
traditional model of conventional law and rational actor models. It is anchored in the
default understanding of migration constrained by international law only to the extent
that states cede such control. Power relations among states may lead states to cede
control in some cases. Interesting in this respect is the practice of bilateral
agreements between sending and receiving states governing the terms of labor migration.
The Philippines has entered into a number of such
sketched one out to regulate labor migration between the United States and Mexico.
These bilateral agreements have
historically been targeted on labor migration but more recent initiatives look to manage
other migrant flows. Such is the EU agreement with Turkey regarding refugee flows and EU
efforts to reach similar agreements with African states.
Destination states looking to stem irregular migration at
its source are in effect buying off
sending state governments under the guise of development support.
These agreements (which in other forms date back more than a century)
point to the emergence of migration-related norms, but
only of the softest description. They variously set quotas, the terms of recruitment,
employment conditions, and return. They look to keep migration orderly. Sending states
have leverage to the extent that migrant labor is required in destination countries;
migrants are the functional equivalent of a natural resource. Although protections for
workers are now featured, they still tend to be incidental to sending state incentives
to maintain income flows. Destination states are able to evade thicker obligations in
these regimes. Workers are substitutable; sending states can demand only so much before
their nationals are priced out of competitive migrant labor markets.
In some respects, the management paradigm resembles trade regimes. States remain centered
in a conventional international law model (that is, international law as made by
consenting states through the vehicle of treaties). The game is two-level: in both trade
and migration, states face various political pressures at home (corporate, consumer,
organized labor) which then inform action at the international level. In both the trade
and migration contexts, the international action is permissive. Just as nothing in
international law forces states to enter into free trade agreements, states are free to
enter into bilateral migration-related agreements, or not. Most migration, of course, is
not subject to this kind of international legal regulation, so (obviously) the
management of migration lags far behind the management of trade. But they both play to a
similar sentiment of state-ness, and the kind of noblesse oblige to which states and
their functionaries have become so accustomed.
Also within the management paradigm are less formal processes which states have
established on a multilateral basis. The regional consultative processes and the Global
Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) look to address migration flows on a management
basis without locking destination states into the harder obligations that come
with formal agreement-making.
venues demonstrate the multilateralization of migration management, an understanding of
complexity, the importance of data collection, and the need to approach migration in a
holistic way. But there isn't much law here. (The GFMD describes
itself as a “voluntary, informal, non-binding and government-led
; the regional
consultative processes as an “informal and non-binding dialogue and information
exchange on migration-related issues of common interest and concern.”)
Among scholarly disciplines, this
activity plays to labor economists and development specialists, not legal academics. In
there appears to be no major treatment focusing on either the GFMD or the regional
The human rights paradigm is more comfortable for lawyers for obvious reasons. But on the
ground the curve is a steep one. State resistance to bringing migration under the ambit
of international law is really about state resistance to the application of human rights
law to migration. Beyond the principle of non-refoulement, there is almost no
migration-specific, binding customary international law. The refusal of even a single
destination state to sign on to the Migrant Workers
Convention evidences the anemic position of human right vis-à-vis
To the extent that one
can detect even nascent human rights norms in the area, they are procedural rather than
substantive. States may now (arguably) have to afford some process to
those who are turned away at the border, if only to satisfy the harder, exceptional
constraints of the refugee regime.
Expulsion is perhaps more clearly
subject to due process requirements, at least for migrants lawfully present.
But states retain wide discretion with
respect to the substantive grounds for removal, even more so with respect to admissions
criteria. Even the recent New York
Declaration “recalled” that “each State has the sovereign
right to determine whom to admit to its territory,” conditioned only by
unspecified “international obligations.”
But human rights have come a long way in the context of migration. The migration crises
have helped to bring it more centrally to public attention as an issue involving human
dignity and to make it a frontburner issue for human rights activists. There is a growing
understanding that even in the crisis mode, a large proportion of individuals
comprising migrant flows is not eligible for refugee protections.
Procedural rights map out onto migration and
enforcement of immigration controls.
There are footholds beyond the refugee context for substantive entitlements as well, as
with the insulation within some regimes of long-term permanent residents from deportation
constraints on immigration incidental to the right to a family life.
Powerful human rights groups are
making migration a priority.
include regional courts and human rights components, the international human rights
treaty committees, and other semi-official expert bodies. UNHCR appears to be broadening its
and the International
Organization for Migration may morph with its new status as a related
organization of the United Nations.
There seems to be a cognitive pivot towards normalizing migration to international human
rights law. The implications of this shift are immense, especially to the extent that
human rights come to govern more robustly the terms of admission.
That is a very different destination than the management track, which is oriented towards
controlling migration in the interest of states. The contrast is exemplified by the
orientation of the management paradigm to matching migrant flows (in and out) with labor
demands where human rights work from the touchstone of integration and equality. Human
rights are beginning to constrain state citizenship
practices, something on which the management paradigm would not focus.
The management track looks to restore
order to migrant flows that have strained state capacities; it looks to buttress the
state. By contrast, the human rights track points to an interrogation of borders,
citizenship, and the state construct.
That doesn't mean that the two tracks are incompatible. For now, there should be
few points of conflicts, in large part because they both remain underdeveloped. The
ubiquity of human rights norms is already informing the management processes, a
phenomenon overdetermined by politics, norms, and global culture.
The better job states do at managing migration, even
in the interests of states, the more that pathological forms of migration will be
mitigated. But there will likely come a point where state management incentives conflict
with human rights requirements. The management approach will never satisfy its ambition
of complete (or possibly not even substantial) control; the human rights optic would
demand international law constraints on state policies on irregular migration where the
management paradigm would orient towards state discretion. To the extent that human
rights agents seize themselves of the management track sooner rather than later, they
may avoid having to play come-from-behind ball in the way they have been forced to do in
the trade context. Perhaps it would be that moment of contestation that unifies the
field, comprising not a convergence between the two paradigms but a resolution of their
differences. That might also be the consolidation point for academics studying global
Of course, this trajectory can only be put forward in the most speculative fashion. In
some other areas (trade, for instance), states are backing away from centralized
universal regimes to smaller-set undertakings, regional or otherwise. Global migration
missed the boat on the first wave of top-down lawmaking. Who knows if there will be a
second, especially in the face of a backlash against global institutions. Both the
management and human rights tracks are bottom-up. Even the human rights track clearly
gravitates to soft law. It may then be a question of institutional end-points and
equilibria. Can migration law settle in at some level below the global? For the moment,
international migration law will continue to be characterized by fragmentation. The
fragmentation will be mirrored in the academic community. That may or may not turn out
to be a permanent condition.