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Global governance and the regulation of migration flows

At a time when national policies on immigration are becoming increasingly restrictive no comprehensive international legal framework governing migration exists. Unlike trade and capital flows, which are subject to governance and regulation, immigration is not. Though there has been growing interest in the link between immigration and development, receiving countries often seek to use development aid to reduce immigration. A major problem is that immigration is asymmetrical: workers from the North are not interested in going to countries of the poorer South. Furthermore public opinion in the North, especially among the poorest and least educated, is increasingly hostile to immigration even if government policies, perhaps driven by organised lobbies, do not fully reflect public attitudes. Non-cooperative policies may even be counter-productive. Restrictive policies are often expensive, have human costs and do not necessarily work. Economists point to the benefits of immigration, though their views are not often heard.

Are the formulation and implementation of migration policies enough to make it possible to talk about a governance of international migration? Strictly speaking, they are. Public governance is defined as "the exercise of political, economic and administrative authority" (OECD, 2009a). The exercise of such authority within the framework of migration regulation can thus be termed "governance". But by their very nature, migration policies have repercussions on other countries. For instance, when a government unilaterally closes its borders to foreign workers, emigration can no longer act as a safety valve for the problems of other nations. The governance of migration therefore requires a minimum level of co-ordination between receiving and sending countries, at least in theory.

In practice, "there is no comprehensive international legal framework governing the cross-border movement of people" (OECD, 2004). Most migration policies are taken unilaterally with the externalities generated by such policies on other countries not considered at the time their objectives are defined. By way of comparison, it is as if a country were to adopt trade restrictions without analysing their impact on its main partners or the risk in terms of economic growth.

But while the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the G20 offer persistent reminders of the risk of trade barriers on international stability, few are the voices warning about the counterproductive effects of migration restrictions. So why do sending and receiving countries not sit down together to discuss migration issues, in the same way they do it for trade and finance?

It is true that immigration has become a very sensitive issue, increasingly associated - rightly or wrongly - with problems of unemployment, public security and integration. But are migration-related problems the cause of the lack of international co-operation, or is it the other way around? In other words, could the lack of co-operation be the origin of the problems?

This chapter argues that unlike trade and capital flows, regulated by international organisations and the laissez-faire principle, the governance of migration is characterised by the lack of a regulating body and by protectionist policies. The main reason why the two regimes are so different is linked to the asymmetry in the benefits derived by high and low-wage countries. However, the lack of international co-operation has a cost, not only for migrant-sending countries but also for the countries of destination implementing restrictions.

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