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Strong immigration policy must see humans as a migratory species

Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour says countries can't manage their borders without talking to their neighbours

Louise Arbour speaks to conference attendees
John Ashmore

At a time when many see the United Nations as a failing institution that's unable to address the pressing issues of the day, Louise Arbour sees it differently.

She says people think of the UN as the paralysis of its political arm — the General Assembly and the Security Council — which she acknowledges badly needs reform. Still, the organization has a lot of other working parts.

Singling out agencies such as UNICEF, UNHCR, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization, Arbour told attendees of the CBA's Immigration Law Conference in Montreal that "this is the UN, and it's out there doing fantastic work daily." To say that the UN no longer serves its purpose is only looking at its visible parts. Making an analogy with dancing dogs, she said it's not a matter of how well they dance. That they're dancing at all is worth celebrating. In some ways, the same applies to the UN.

"If we tried to create today a single organization to which all states on the planet would be members, I don't think we could do it," Arbour said.

"There's something absolutely irreplaceable about a single forum in which conversations, including those around the Global Compact, take place. It's not nothing."

The former Supreme Court justice has held several senior positions at the UN, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief Prosecutor for The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Until late 2018, she served as the United Nations Special Representative for International Migration, which led to the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration.

The Compact is the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement on a common approach to international migration, comprehensively covering all dimensions of it.

Adopted in 2018, it sets out 23 objectives to better manage migration at the local, national, regional and global levels and increase international cooperation.

Arbour said working on the Compact made it clear that you can't have a sophisticated migration policy nationally if you don't pay attention to the rest of the world.

"You can't manage your borders without talking to your neighbours (near and far)," she said. 

"The lack of international cooperation on migration until the Global Compact is stunning when it's so evident that it's a truly international issue."

She shared an anecdote from 2008 when she was looking for a new home. When thinking about a dream house, her real estate agent asked whether Arbour saw herself outside looking at the house or inside looking out at the world?

"To me, that's a metaphor that is very telling when we look at migration issues," she said.

"I can't for the life of me understand how we have conversations about migration in Canada without ever hearing any reference to the big human mobility picture."

It's helpful to take a step back and see humans as a migratory species.

Arbour said that negotiating the Compact was enlightening for some member states, as it brought information to the surface that was "quite startling."

That included the fact that country characterizations as ones of origin, transit and destination were no longer the reality. Countries, including Mexico and Morocco, are all three at once.

The genesis for the Compact was the "so-called immigration crisis" in Europe in 2016, which generated moral panic "that Africa is going to come pouring in." As conversations got underway, Arbour said the only thing that Europeans wanted to talk about was negotiating ways to return asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

No surprise, countries of origin were not on board with that idea. That's because they receive remittances — the small amounts of money that the world's 280 million migrants send home every year. In 2022, the total amount of remittances globally was just over $700 billion annually. Of that, about $450 billion went to developing countries. What migrant workers send home historically adds up to about three times the amount of financial aid governments send to the developing world.

Arbour noted that remittances account for up to 20 per cent of GDP for some countries.

As a result, countries of origin had little interest in talking to the Europeans about the right of return — economically, it just didn't make any sense.

"It's a massive contribution. Here in Canada, that means we don't have to spend as much on development assistance through our taxes because migrants who pay taxes, with their after-tax money, send their own money home in enormously large numbers," she said.

"But you never hear a conversation about Canadian policy on migration that situates that policy — that 'inside the house, looking outside at the rest of the world' — and asking how we fit into the picture. That's where we have a very insular view."

Negotiating the Compact brought a lot of information about human mobility to the surface. It exposed the depth of stereotypes and assumptions we collectively make, Arbour said, specifically that it's only poor people who move.

She said it turns out impoverished people don't move — they're too poor to move — noting the great immigration paradox is that development increases mobility. According to the International Organization for Migration's 2022 report, the largest increase in migration (in percentages, not raw numbers) is actually between rich countries.

People often assume that the continent of Africa is the greatest source of countries of origin for migrants, but the reality is that Asia is the number one by far.

"It was revealing and quite shocking for many diplomats negotiating this to learn that migration is multi-faceted and has pushes and pulls," Arbour said.

The single most important migration factor is visa access. The IOM has found that citizens of high-income countries have visa-free access to 80% of the world's countries.

"That's how rich people can move," Arbour said.

"Not surprisingly, citizens of very low-income countries can't get visas. So why is there such a surprise that they use irregular pathways?"

Ahead of Canada's adoption of the Compact, Arbour recalled being appalled by the right-wing rhetoric and misinformation that was spread about it, including that it created a right to migrate and would erode Canadian sovereignty.

The reality is it explicitly affirms the sovereign right of states to set national migration policies, which conforms with international law.

What's more, unlike the UN's Refugee Convention, the Compact is a non-legally binding instrument.

"We hope that member states who signed the Compact would feel, at the very least, that it's a public document that they subscribe to and that they would at least aspire to comply and create national policies that would be consistent with the direction of the compact," Arbour said.

"At the end of the day, it imposes absolutely no obligation, but I think it provides a very good roadmap for looking at a lot of very difficult issues."