Michael W. Doyle: Pulling Up the Ladder After You

It’s ironic that the Eastern Europeans who had so benefited from migration themselves weren’t willing to extend the same opportunity to other people who wanted to move – says Michael W. Doyle in an interview with Olena Jennings.

OLENA JENNINGS: Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative, where you served as director, developed the Model International Mobility Convention. Can you talk about the process and purpose?

MICHAEL W. DOYLE: There was a group of friends and colleagues who came to the realization that the current legal architecture, the set of rules that shaped migration and refugees, had serious flaws and we needed to have a better model of rules. People move across borders for many reasons other than moving for a new job or a new life through migration and other than being chased out of their home country as refugees.

People are tourists, students, they are going to a conference, and there is family reunification. For all of these categories, there was no well-established international legal framework and every country had a different point of view. And so the first issue was to create common rules about the comprehensive character of international mobility.

The second issue was that the rules for migration needed to be rethought. The rules for the people, who moved to work for more than one year, were themselves very flawed. The migrant workers treaty of 1990 was a very flawed document. It has no ratifications for countries of net immigration, where people were moving, despite the fact that its purpose was to protect those people. It was close to useless.

The basic problem is that it has too many rights and too few rights. It gives too many rights to temporary workers which means that many countries don’t want to have them because they have to give them social housing, tertiary education, etc. It provides too few rights for many kinds of workers who only want to work on a temporary basis. Or they want to have multiple visas so that they can keep in touch with their families. So we really needed to rethink the whole issue of migration.

And the third issue is refugees. We have a wonderful convention in 1951 that protects people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, ethnicity, political opinion, and social group. But what about the people who are fleeing because they feel they might be overwhelmed by a civil war in their country or what about people who are fleeing because their farms are disappearing due to climate change? None of these of people are covered.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently sent people back to Central America. We don’t have a broad enough understanding of what it means to flee for your life. And so we need a better standard for what a forced migrant is beyond the 1951 definition of a refugee.

Those were the three issues that brought 20 and by the end, 40 scholars from all over the world together, representing refugee specialists, migration specialists, political scientists, lawyers, activists and others over two years to sit down and write a model, an ideal treaty for governing the rules, the rights, and responsibilities of people who move across borders. Everyone from tourists to refugees.

How does the treaty differ from the UN Global Migration Compact?

There are a few differences. One is that we are broader, we cover the full range of mobility, including visitors that are visiting a country for just a day or two. Though I understand, from what I’ve been told, that our convention helped inspire the broadening of the Global Migration Compact, so we pushed them a little bit in that direction but we are still much broader, much more comprehensive.

The second thing is that ours is written in the rhetoric of legal commitment as if it were a real treaty while the UN Global Migration Compact is a policy document, saying wouldn’t it be a good idea if or why not consider the following policy?

We have a wonderful convention in 1951 that protects people who have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, public opinion, and social group. But what about the people who are fleeing because their farms are disappearing due to climate change?

So it’s very different rhetoric and that’s of course because it is ideal and it hasn’t been negotiated. The Global Migration Compact was negotiated over the past year and many countries including the U.S. dropped out, while ours is something that is produced by scholars and experts.

What are the chances of achieving the UN Global Compact on Migration?

I think it’s relatively small. Unfortunately, many states do not appreciate the value of immigrants and what they can do for their country. Many states have negative images of immigrants as threats to them. And for these two reasons, I think it’s quite unlikely that states will create the safe, orderly, and regular world that the Global Compact on Migration is seeking to achieve.

Can you talk about the Central/ Eastern European approach compared to the U.S. approach?

Our Central/Eastern European friends are the most reactionary in dealing
with questions of migration and this is primarily due to some very bad leadership in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and a few other countries in the region that have formed what they call the anti-migrant alliance, demonizing migrants in ways that are completely fake news, and aligning themselves with President Trump.

Many states do not appreciate the value of immigrants and what they can do for their country. Many states have negative images of immigrants as threats to them.

That’s the bad part in that part of the world. Some of the good parts: some countries that have otherwise miserable human rights records have been relatively receptive of refugees including Russia, the rest of its record is not warm and welcoming, but it has taken in a good number of refugees. One has to say that the Central/East Europeans, that are members of the EU, have enormously benefited from the opportunity of not only trading without barriers with the European Union, but also being able to move.

Article 45 of the treaty of the European Union provides free movement across borders and this has been an immense benefit to many Central and Eastern Europeans, everyone from the famous Polish plumber who goes to the U.K., but much more seriously, all across highly skilled professions, there have been huge opportunities for the improvement of livelihood that have come by moving temporarily or long-term to Germany, France, or the U.K. and from the movement of students across the entire European space.

So the hostile attitude towards immigrants coming predominantly, at least recently, from the Middle East into Eastern Europe is sad given the immense benefits Central/Eastern European members of the EU have gotten from their ability to move to explore new careers and education and high incomes. It’s a classic case of pulling up the ladder after you.

The U.S. is defined as being a country of migration and that’s not the case for most European countries. Another big difference between the U.S. and other countries, other than recently, is the significant undocumented immigration into this country.

It might only happen here because of the ease of working into the informal job market that exists in the U.S., but 10 million people without documentation in the U.S. are working under very challenging circumstances making themselves quite vulnerable to exploitation, but for most of them, for the vast majority of them, this is a huge improvement in their standard of living.

And so undocumented immigration is a big factor here compared to other countries. And documented legal immigration is a big factor here compared to just about any other European country. The only countries with similar kinds of numbers are Switzerland, and very recently Germany, and a couple other countries, but the U.S. stands out still as a country of immigration, which is why the current regime in Washington, Trump, is so anomalous because of its extreme hostility to immigration and to refugees in particular.

And you don’t find that in U.S. history until you go way back to the 1920s when there was also racially politically motivated extreme hostility especially to Asian immigrants coming to the U.S. But our longer history is the history of immigration.

What do you think of the perspective of Eastern Europe where many migrants come from, but their governments are hostile toward migration?

The reason that a lot of migrants came from Eastern Europe, we’re talking to Western Europe at this point, is that even during the Soviet period the educational systems of these countries were pretty good especially in engineering and sciences, so that when the borders opened up there were a considerable number of highly skilled, well-educated people, whose incomes were a fraction of the incomes that were achievable in Germany, France, or Britain, and so naturally there was a big flow of East Europeans west when the borders were at last relaxed.

One has to say that the Central/East Europeans, that are members of the EU, have enormously benefited from the opportunity of not only trading without barriers with the European Union, but also being able to move.

When you come to the contemporary 2015, 2016 reality of many Eastern European governments, especially Hungary, Poland, and a few others expressing anger and unwillingness to take in immigrants, it was sad because many of these immigrants were in desperate need of help, fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It’s ironic that the Eastern Europeans who had so benefited from migration themselves, by going to Western Europe weren’t able to or weren’t willing to extend the same opportunity to other people who wanted to move. So that’s where much criticism was levelled at the Eastern European states.

If you try to explain it, part of the internal rationale presented is that the Eastern European states themselves had only escaped in the past generation from various forms of Soviet control and oppression, and at last they were allowed to be free and be themselves. They did not want to be reshaped by foreigners coming into the country. That’s an explanation but not a justification in my view.

It’s ironic that the Eastern Europeans who had so benefited from migration themselves, by going to Western Europe weren’t able to or weren’t willing to extend the same opportunity to other people who wanted to move.

We live in a world that’s becoming increasingly global in one form or another and we have to accept that we can’t live with just people that are identical to what we are especially when people need to be rescued, as these Syrians and Afghans needed to be rescued in 2015 and 2016.

How do you see migration for ten years from now?

Migration is a political wedge issue being used by Trump and by many, not by all, Republicans as a way to manipulate the public. If they succeed in the upcoming election in 2020 we will have a country that looks a lot more like Hungary than the U.S.; we will build a wall and we will hunt down illegal immigrants, and we will have a much nastier political system.

On the other hand if we begin to push back, including the Democrats winning in November and the Republican party shifting back towards the center, we could have a much better migration regime.

It’s pretty well established that safe, orderly, and regular migration, all of those things are important, help a country. As I mentioned, we should reform our visa system and we should increase the number of refugees that we take in so that we can protect people from immense harms.

And we know that refugees or migrants are not a threat to this country, they’re well-vetted. The numbers are not very large, if everyone does their share. It’s all manageable. We would go back to the more normal times of the periods of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when we were moving in the direction
of a more rational migration system.


Michael W. Doyle

is a Professor of International Affairs, Law and Political Science at Columbia University. He was instrumental in developing a 213-article treaty, the Model International Mobility Convention that seeks to fill in gaps in the current legal architecture when it comes to mobility. From 2001 to 2003, Professor Doyle served as Assistant Secretary-General and Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His responsibilities in the Secretary-General’s Executive Office included strategic planning (the “Millennium Development Goals”), outreach to the international corporate sector (the “Global Compact”), and relations with Washington. From 2006 to 2013 he served as an individual member, and the chair of the U.N. Democracy Fund. He chaired the board of the International Peace Institute from 2016-2018.

Olena Jennings

Olena Jennings’s collection of poetry Songs from an Apartment was released in January by Underground Books. Her translations of poetry from Ukrainian can be found in Chelsea, Poetry International, and Wolf. She has published fiction in Joyland, Pioneertown, and Projectti-le. She completed her MFA in writing at Columbia and her MA focusing in Ukrainian literature at the University of Alberta.

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