In Age of Migration, Human Rights Declaration Falls Short

New America Media, Commentary, Joseph Nevins Posted: Dec 10, 2008

Editor’s Note: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually has helped legitimate the right of countries to regulate immigration. This is because the declaration, written before the age of mass migration, protects the right of exit from a country but does not affirm a right of entry. Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College. His latest book is "Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid" (City Lights Books, 2008). IMMIGRATION MATTERS regularly features the views of immigrant rights advocates.

Sixty years ago today, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” Since its birth on Dec. 10, 1948, the declaration has played a significant role in advancing the rights and freedoms it enumerates. Yet it has also helped legitimate the putative right of nation-states to regulate immigration, thus denying freedom of international mobility and residence, and undermining basic human rights in the process.

Among the most tragic manifestations is the plight of so-called “illegal” migrants. Like Apartheid-era South Africa, which dictated where the majority of its inhabitants (black South Africans) could live and work, contemporary control of movement across national boundaries results in systematic violence and dehumanization.

From the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to the perimeter around the European Union, to the sea boundary between Yemen and northeast Africa, many hundreds—if not thousands—of unauthorized migrants die each year while trying to cross the increasingly militarized divides between the privileged and disadvantaged. And countless tens of thousands more are held in detention for violating national laws regarding movement, residence and employment.

At the same time, the millions who have succeeded in transgressing the boundaries that are supposed to keep them out must live with the everyday indignities that their unauthorized status facilitates. These range from sub-standard wages, to constant threat of arrest and deportation, to divided families.

The UDHR enshrines the right of exit from a country. However it does not affirm a right of entry—except into one’s own country—as the document’s framers had no intention of challenging the ability of nation-states to regulate movement from without.

The effect is to deny some of the most basic human rights. In a world of pervasive poverty, growing inequality, and widespread instability and insecurity, the power to move across national boundaries is tied to the ability to access resources needed to realize those rights. They include a right to life, a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of oneself and one’s family, and a right to work under just conditions—all of which are asserted by the UDHR.

As formidable barriers to many across the globe, national territorial boundaries thus often have life and death implications. The poor and disadvantaged are typically forced to subsist where there are insufficient resources, or, in order to overcome their deprivation and insecurity, to risk their lives trying to evade enforcement obstacles put into place by countries that reject them—at least officially.

It is widely recognized that limiting mobility—within nation-states—is both unjust (as the UDHR suggests) and harmful to those denied. In the case of Rwanda in the early 1990s, for example, the U.S. State Department characterized that country’s obstacles to internal mobility and choice of residence as human rights violations. The World Bank opined that these obstacles “increased poverty by limiting options for the poor.” Yet the injurious implications of limited mobility and residence across national boundaries are rarely noted.

No doubt the demand for a right of international movement and residence is “unrealistic” in today’s world. And certainly such freedom would be disruptive of the status quo, creating challenges (in addition to benefits) for migrant-receiving and -sending societies. But its idealistic character and disruptive implications should not prevent us from assessing freedom from an ethical perspective. Instead, they compel us to create practices and mechanisms to negotiate the challenges while working to reduce the national and global injustices that fuel much emigration in the first place.

Were we to do so, perhaps we will be able in the not-so-distant future to look back at the present and wonder how the concept of “illegal alien” could have ever existed—in the same way we now look at state-sanctioned slavery or male-only suffrage.

Reaching such a point requires that we take to heart the UDHR’s affirmation of the inherent dignity of, and equal rights for, all human beings, and understand regulation of international mobility and residence for what it is: an affront to human rights.

Related Articles:

Immigrant Rights Signed Away?

Expanding Borders, Diminishing Rights

Pat Nixon at the U.S.-Mexico Border

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User Comments

Jim Reed on Dec 11, 2008 at 08:20:35 said:

The article is right: to deny freedom of movement and residence is to deny human rights!

Edward Cefalu on Dec 11, 2008 at 06:15:16 said:

Dear Dr. Williams, I thought you'd be interested in this article. I read the author's book and want to nominate it for your center's award. It's great.

Ed Cefalu

MdeG on Dec 10, 2008 at 16:33:04 said:

Nativessayno does not speak for me.

I will agree that human rights in some of the migrant-sending countries leave quite a lot to be desired. This is in many cases related to the US' messing around -- toppling governments, fighting proxy wars, supporting dictators because they appeared to be the enemies of our enemies.

"All we do for Mexico," if you please, has included NAFTA and a lot of other things -- very damaging to those countries. The people who live there are very clear about that.

No, the migrants aren't saints. No group of people is perfect, especially when most of them are trauma survivors. The majority of them are just plain folks. They contribute more than they take, by quite a lot. And if they don't all speak perfect English, well, maybe your great-grandparents didn't either. It's good to learn English & local custom, but there is nothing wrong with maintaining your home culture as well. Generations have done it.

nativessayno on Dec 10, 2008 at 09:41:30 said:

What about the human right's of US citizens that do not want to be forced and shamed into "sharing" their job market and social services or their country by those that do not give a fig about them, or the US???

......"the millions who have succeeded in transgressing the boundaries that are supposed to keep them out must live with the everyday indignities that their unauthorized status facilitates. These range from sub-standard wages, to constant threat of arrest and deportation, to divided families".....

What a crock...dress up illegal immigration to appear as though the only victim is the "transgressor" and the citizen is the obtuse, fat, lazy, arrogant meanie. What a stretch of objective meaning and reality to support having illegals get to decide our immigration policy here! What an insult to the integrity of our generous multi-cultural nation.

It is a slap in the face for all we do for Mexico and other countries; we just sent a ton of money to help Mexico sort out their corrupt government’s drug cartel and violence issues. (This in a major recession; no less)

Illegal immigrants= perpetually displaying the palm out gesture and barely a shred of gratitude or acknowledgement. Pathetic. Indignities indeed!

Migration has been newly-defined by the so-called saintly migrants and the elfish persons standing in the way are.....US citizens. Incredible.

Violin music please...and bring some ant-acids because I feel sick with this POV being shoved down our throats to legitimize amnesty. It is the falsest premise I have ever heard of.

If it was stated, "we want to live here with you we love your country too"....I could tolerate that, but instead we get sentiment based extortion. PS. This is NOT about Apartheid! Different and terrible matter altogether. Analogous how? Always with the conflation arguments. I hate being bullied into an unpopular agenda by those reinterpreting our record of human rights. Latin America's human rights record anyone?




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