Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the facilitating role of international organizations in migration through his sixth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
International migration is facilitated by pre-existing institutional structures, which guide migratory desires to end destinations. Even illegal migrations are defined as such because they are transgressions against the formal institutional structure. Institutional structures run the gamut from national policy to large political unions like the European Union that enable movement of people and labour.
International organizations serve various roles in this structure. There are organizations like the European Union that serve as a legal and governing framework to manage the flow of migration. There are organizations like the International Organization for Migrants (IOM) that provide services and counselling for governments and migrants, helping potential migrants navigate through dense bureaucratic structures. Other organizations from all different political persuasions try to change the system: an example is the Migrant Rights Network, which advocates for migrant rights and protections. All these international organizations form a relatively stable equilibrium of competing interests that result in small changes and reforms to the structures in place.
However, there are Events in history that overwhelm the status quo. These require a rewriting of the global playbook and a reconstruction of established institutional structures. One such Event that occurred was World War II, which led to a displaced population of over 60 million people. Most of the affected were on the European continent. It is important to note that—according to the UNHCR—our contemporary displacements have only recently overshadowed this number in 2015. (This is only the displaced population of refugees, and does not include the general population of migrants worldwide.)
Confronted with the daunting prospect of accommodating these displaced peoples, international organizations managed migrations through laws like the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which granted the right to asylum and the right to other protections for displaced peoples fleeing from a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.” Moreover, new international institutions were founded, like the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1943. This institution is the origin of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that manages international refugees today. These international structures still inform the processes for the current international response to our current migrations.
While the current international structures might seem rigid and slow to change, large-scale crises have created international organizations to radically transform global and national institutional structures to meet migratory exigencies. Our current historical moment provides a cogent example of rapid structural change. In a matter of a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed the previous international logics of globalization. Nation-states are repatriating both citizens and supply chains from abroad, and closing down borders, restricting entry to foreign nationals. While there are hopes for a rapid return to the “normal,” such dreams are yet uncertain: will international flows of people return to levels seen in the past?
Similar crises in the future may prompt a response that is similar in kind. One large question mark looms in the horizon. While we previously critiqued climate change for obscuring the multi-factored nature of international migrations, climate change will create a crisis in one possible future. The mediascape reminds us of this possibility almost daily. For example, a recent The Guardian article title reads “One billion people will live in insufferable heat within 50 years.” Where will these people go if their homes become uninhabitable?
How will the world respond to a scenario like this? A quick read into the past suggests that a response is not confined to limitations of current international structures. If such a crisis does arise, then completely new international organizations and a new institutional structure could emerge to replace the structures of the past. Of course, this does not promise to be a frictionless and conflict-free process.