Bridge of the Americas (El Paso–Ciudad Juárez), June 2016. CREDIT: <a href="">U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Public Domain</a>
Bridge of the Americas (El Paso–Ciudad Juárez), June 2016. CREDIT: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Public Domain

The Model International Mobility Convention, with Michael Doyle

Sep 4, 2019

In this timely talk, SIPA's Professor Michael Doyle details the Model International Mobility Convention, a "hypothetical ideal convention" developed to define a "comprehensive and coherent" set of regulations for the movement of people across borders. Why was it so important to account for tourists alongside refugees and migrant workers? How does this document represent a "realistic utopia"?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I’m Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week I'm speaking with Michael Doyle, university professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Michael previously served as assistant secretary-general and special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan from 2001 to 2003. He is also a Carnegie Council trustee.

Michael and I spoke about the Model International Mobility Convention, a hypothetical document that proposes a framework for the movement of people across borders, including refugees, migrant workers, tourists, and students. Michael will, of course, expand on this and give some specific examples in our talk.

But first, I wanted to share an excerpt from a Carnegie Council Public Affairs event with Peter Sutherland in February 2016. As you’ll hear, Mr. Sutherland was an inspiration for this convention and he has unfortunately passed away. When he spoke at Carnegie Council, Mr. Sutherland was United Nations special representative of the secretary-general for international migration, a position he assumed in 2006. Among his other high-profile roles, he served as attorney general for Ireland, chairman of Goldman Sachs International, and director general of the World Trade Organization.

Here, he relays an exchange that he had with Angela Merkel after she made the controversial decision in 2015 to allow over 1 million refugees into Germany:

To my mind, Mrs. Merkel has been a hero. I was standing beside her in Malta when we had a conference with Africa not too long ago. I whispered in her ear, "You're a hero."
She said, "Why?"

I said, "You're a hero because you have expressed a moral vision at your own political cost."
She said—I can't remember; I should have written down the words—but she, in effect, said, "What can Europe do in this situation but open?" She's right, and she is suffering.

As you can hear, Mr. Sutherland had access at the highest levels and he chose to use it to advocate for people who had nothing left. It's clear why he was an inspiration for this convention.

I encourage you to listen to Mr. Sutherland's full talk and an interview he did later in 2016 with Joanne Myers, the former director of Public Affairs programs.

For now, here's my talk with Michael Doyle.

Thank you very much for coming today.

MICHAEL DOYLE: Delighted to be here.

ALEX WOODSON: Great to speak with you.

Just to get everyone on the same page, just to get started, what is the Model International Mobility Convention?

MICHAEL DOYLE: It's a hypothetical ideal convention developed by 30-plus experts in migration law, refugee law, migration politics and economics, and the same thing for refugees developed over a two-and-a-half-year period to define a better, more comprehensive and coherent set of "regulations"—let's call it that—for the movement of people across borders, everything from tourists through refugees, the most voluntary to the least voluntary.

ALEX WOODSON: How did this come about? What was the impetus for starting this project?

MICHAEL DOYLE: It was inspired by some work that we were doing with Peter Sutherland, who was the special representative to the secretary-general for migration. He passed away a couple of years ago. Wonderful global statesman. He was trying to advance the cause of migration. I assembled a team that supported his office and his activities, and it was very clearly focused on immediate, practical, UN-related work on migration.

But it became clear to a number of us that the bigger picture—the very legal, treaty-based framework in which migration and refugee movements took place—was incomplete, incoherent, and needed to be repaired somewhere down the road. That's why we decided to begin to do a hypothetical exercise as to what such a set of regulations should look like in a better world.

ALEX WOODSON: In Global Summitry you and Emma Borgnäs write that the method devised in the Convention was closest to what John Rawls called "realistic utopia." You describe some of the tensions between realism and idealism in putting this together.

First, can you describe what "realistic utopia" means and then maybe get into some of the tensions that came up during this project?

MICHAEL DOYLE: I'm happy to.

The idea, as you just mentioned, comes from John Rawls, a great philosopher and one of my advisors when I was a student many, many years ago. The idea there is that one can be utopian and design a perfect world—as utopia exists nowhere—and you can be utterly realistic and describe the world exactly as it is. But there's some ground in between those two where you take the basic framework of the world that you're in and try to devise policies, rules, regulations, and treaties that advance the cause of justice, that would be doable by statespersons if they were better motivated to protect the rights of their citizens or the rights of all people, motivated by a humane concern for a better world, but nonetheless, for a world that we could imagine living in sometime soon.

For this treaty we had a target—imagine the kind of world that we would want to see evolve in the next 15-20 years, or, what we often joked, imagine a kind of treaty that Justin Trudeau could sign. Our Canadian friends pushed back on that on occasion, but that was the ethos that we operated under, knowing that the world that we were in in 2015, 2016, and 2017 was very, very different. It was a world of white supremacy, white nationalism in some countries; Brexit; Donald Trump; Law and Justice Party in Poland; Orbán in Hungary—not such a nice world.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes. That world is still very much in existence today.

Just to speak a little bit more specifically about the Convention and what's going on right now, how would the Convention in your view change something like what's happening at the Southern border right now? What would this Convention put in place that would make that situation a little easier or better able to be dealt with?

MICHAEL DOYLE: Well, you've hit upon one of our more radical decisions, which is we want to change the 1951 Refugee Convention, which provides rights of asylum, that is, refugee status, for anyone who is fleeing from persecution, which is a legally specific standard, on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social origin, or political opinion. This was written in 1951.

First of all, it's a landmark in human rights and one that we all admire. But it has a Cold War aspect to it by the narrow definition of the grounds that you can use to claim asylum. What about people who are simply fleeing a civil war that's not targeting them specifically on those grounds? Or what about people whose farms have just dried up in their whole region or neighborhood and there's no way they can stay alive unless they flee? The 1951 Convention doesn't cover them.

Fortunately, there are many governments that are much more decent, who draw exceptions and offer temporary protection or interim protection to persons who are fleeing those kinds of disasters. Our government, that is, the U.S. government, used to be one of them. We provided that kind of protection to Haitians who were fleeing an earthquake. That doesn't meet the 1951 criteria, needless to say.

But the law as it's written now allows inhumane governments—not to put too fine a point on it—to not provide asylum or refugee status unless you meet those narrow criteria.

You say, "Oh, that's just hypothetical." No, it's not hypothetical. Attorney General Sessions cited the 1951 Convention when he decided not to offer asylum status to Central Americans who were fleeing generalized violence and all sorts of violent situations in their home countries but did not necessarily meet the 1951 Convention.

I'm not sure he was following U.S. law, but he was clearly basing this on the 1951 Convention. Therefore, that's why we need a better foundational document to provide protections for anyone—and this is in our Convention—who is fleeing "serious harm," by which we mean a threat to their life, that is, they're going to die unless they flee, or they're going to be tortured or subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment. That's our new standard, and many more people will qualify, including many people fleeing through Mexico and coming to the United States who have no other choice.

It doesn't mean that you have a bad crop year and you want to improve your job prospects by moving to New York. That's fine. You're more than welcome if you've got a visa to do so, but that's not covered in our Convention. You have to be fleeing for your life or the equivalent of torture or other forms of degrading treatment that you are suffering, and then you qualify.

Moreover, there are built-in protections. You can't jail children. The only possible reason for holding a child in detention is something that's compatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that is has to be in the best interests of the child, and it's almost never the case that the best interests of the child separates them from their parents. No. That's not the best interests of the child.

So, there are specific violations on the border, and there is the broader one of creating a different legal framework for people who are fleeing to the United States and other countries.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to change the conversation to something very different than people fleeing violence and a horrible situation at home. The Convention also covers tourism, which I thought was interesting, and it's something I can relate to. I've been a tourist. I've never luckily had to flee as a refugee.

Why was it important to include tourism in this Convention right along with refugees or along with migrant workers and the rest of the immigration/migration categories?

MICHAEL DOYLE: We came to a decision—this was all democratic—amongst the 30 or so people that it made sense to have a comprehensive Convention that covered basically all the reasons for people to move rather than designing a world where there's one for refugees, one for labor migrants, one for investors, one for tourists, and one for foreign students. It made sense to put them all together because even though each status is different, they are not unrelated to each other.

Even as a tourist or visitor to a country, you want to have some of your basic rights protected around the world. You want to make sure, for example, that you can't be arbitrarily incarcerated; that if you get hit by a bus you'll get emergency medical care; that if you rent a moped and run over somebody, you'll have fair access to the courts; that you'll have a series of basic rights to claim as any visitor, and then when you're on a regular tourist visa that your contracts are honored. That is, if you've been promised so many weeks in a hotel, they can't just kick you out. You'll have a contract that can be honored.

As a tourist, you also have certain responsibilities that you should realize, not to exploit the country that you're in, to treat it with the sort of respect that you want your own country treated as. We need some legal frameworks there, and there are none that exist now.

Now, tourists don't tend to be the most maltreated population in the world, for obvious reasons. Countries want to attract them, they're very desirable. But nonetheless, you can imagine exceptional circumstances where things could go wrong, and so you need a floor level of protection. That's one reason, to fill in the gap. There's no such Convention there.

Right after we started, the World Tourism Organization, which does exist, came to the same decision and officially began to draft a Model Convention for Tourism. I'm very pleased to say that working separately we came up with basically the same ideas, so that in a future version we'd simply borrow from the good work of the World Tourism Organization. But it needs to be put in a comprehensive Convention.

Partly, some of the provisions of the Convention are interdependent and mutually supportive. With regard to tourism, if we have a more orderly world, where all of your rights are guaranteed, more people are likely to be tourists to the benefit of tourist-receiving countries and to the tourists themselves, so we have more exchange back and forth, and that's a good thing.

One of the reasons we want to include that in a broader treaty which has a lot of humanitarian aspects to it like for refugees is that if we have this one Treaty it could be sort of mutually supportive, and all the people who love tourists will also be in a world legally where they have to provide protections to refugees. That's one at a sort of nebulous level; a more tied-together world is something that would be useful.

Then, within the Treaty, there are some specific interdependences. For example, when we get to labor migrants, we set up a framework whereby states create a platform for visas that people can apply for in order to become a labor migrant to another country. We require that 10 percent of those visas be reserved for people who are refugee claimants, that is, asylum seekers.

It doesn't mean that they automatically get a job doing X, Y, or Z. You have a right to come in if you're a legitimate asylum seeker, but you might be able to be transferred from a refugee camp, let's say, in Jordan or southern Turkey or Lebanon or Pakistan or Kenya or elsewhere, if you could get a labor visa to take you to Germany or the United States or some other country. The 10 percent of the labor visas—if you qualify for the work; you have the right skills—will help produce resettlement from areas that are currently overburdened with refugees to areas that have fewer of them, and that would be a good outcome for everyone.


Now that you've written the Convention, it has been out—it was first published in early 2018. What are you doing now? What are the next steps to try to get this Convention to be a document that has some authority?

MICHAEL DOYLE: The first thing I want to push back on a little bit is that this was actually written by 30-plus experts. I kid you not; we had some contentious areas that we had to decide by vote. Most of it was done by consensus. The drafting was done by a small team that worked with me, but my 30-plus colleagues had no hesitation whatsoever about redrafting various articles to make them better, and that took place throughout. So, this is a collective product.

Since that time, all of us have been doing promotions. It has been presented in Canada from Vancouver, through Ottawa, through Quebec and Toronto, and in the United States in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake. It has been all over the world. It has been in Nairobi. It has been in Mumbai. It has been in Seoul and Tokyo. It has been discussed in a very broad framework in Brazil, in São Paolo.

So, we've been promoting it, first to universities and legal groups, like academic associations of lawyers and others. We are now at the point where we want to push it outside the universities. It has gotten a very positive reception—with the normal academic debate but a very positive reception.

If we're going to meet our target of 15-20 years from now, this actually being taken up by statespersons and made into a real treaty, we need to begin mobilizing outside. We'd like to get non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved. We want mayors to be involved. For reasons I could describe, mayors tend to be very progressive around the world on issues about migrants of various sorts.

The private sector; there are a number of corporations out there that are sympathetic, everything from some of the big digital high-tech corporations to IKEA, the furniture maker, Uniqlo, a clothing company. Many of these companies are interested in a better world for safe, orderly migration of people.

We're going to go to NGOs, mayors, and the private sector and then hope that if we build support there, we can then begin to leverage and get some governments onboard. Some governments are right now sympathetic, but we don't yet have that coalition of 20 to 30 governments that could get this rolling, and we think we need to build from the bottom up and let it require dynamic revisions as it evolves over time.

Right now, we're on version 2.0, a summary of the major Convention itself. Someday there will be 3, 4, maybe 5.0, and then someday a statesperson will come along and say, "It's time to really create this comprehensive convention," the way Lloyd Axworthy did many, many years ago with regard to landmines. This was moved forward by NGOs around the world, and he eventually said, "This is time for a treaty," and he assembled 20-30 governments. They wrote a convention on landmines that became international law. They substantially revised what the academics and the NGOs did; it's not as if they just sign the document we have done. This is only input, but that's the process we're looking forward to.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned that some governments have taken a favorable view to this Convention. What are some countries that you think have gotten it right in terms of migration? Do you look at those as models for this Convention?

MICHAEL DOYLE: Yes, there are some countries that do it better. Canada has a pretty long record of doing it better. They have a system of labor migration which is relatively coherent, based upon skills that Canadians need. They also tend to be very welcoming toward refugees and asylum seekers. It's often a source of pride in Canada that people feel that Canada is a country they'd want to flee to in order to lead a better life. So, there's Canada.

I admire what Angela Merkel did in 2015. It wasn't as well-planned as it should have been, needless to say, and it alienated a number of Germans who were very nervous, but it was still a courageous decision that has had no long-term negative effects on Germany.

Other countries have point systems for labor migration that on paper look quite good. Australia on labor migration is quite good; on refugees, not so good.

Then, there are countries that used to be very good, and for me the United States has always been a country that both welcomed immigrants and was a generous host to refugees, and that started changing very rapidly, especially in 2017, of course. So, we have good and bad models out there from which we can learn.

ALEX WOODSON: Are you attempting to speak with the U.S. government at this point, with this administration? I know you mentioned mayors, so that's one way to get into some forms of government, but are you just waiting for this administration to pass? It doesn't seem like they'd be receptive to this Convention, I would say.

MICHAEL DOYLE: I would be very happy to speak with them. I just don't expect a sympathetic hearing. They have been rolling back the protections embodied in U.S. law, and we want to roll them forward and produce more coherence and more humane treatment for people who in desperation have come to this country. So, I would be very surprised if they wanted to listen, but I'll speak to anyone who wants to hear about this and discuss with anyone who would like to discuss what needs to be done.

The Obama administration was more sympathetic, frankly. It was not by any means perfect, but more sympathetic. President Obama led a summit in New York in September of 2016, where there were pledges put on the table by many countries, including the United States, which if they had been fulfilled would have provided a better regime for the treatment of refugees around the world with more places for resettlement and more funding and better standards of treatment.

But that predominantly went by the board with what has happened in the United States most significantly and also in Europe over the past year since that summit.

ALEX WOODSON: Have you been updating the Convention based on what you've been seeing over the last year and a half?

MICHAEL DOYLE: We've been updating it to improve it. The first Convention is a very carefully drafted Convention that reflects what this group of 30 experts thought was necessary, dotting the i's, crossing the t's, to produce this comprehensive Convention. But frankly it's quite long, and it's very detailed.

So, last year at the University of Pennsylvania, at Perry World House, their center of international studies, we convened a group to think through a shorter, compressed version of the Convention that nonetheless covered all the major points, and then strengthened some with the governance mechanism, which had some loose ends which many of us thought needed some work. So, in addition to the long version, which is online at our website at Columbia—you can find it under Model International Mobility Convention Columbia—there is also now a shorter version, much more readable and accessible, that's available that also has some changes imbedded in it.

We are open to changing it again—this is designed to be a living document—based upon how the world is evolving and good ideas that come forward. Any good ideas that provide for safer, more orderly migration and better protection for asylum seekers and forced migrants are ones that we would welcome, I think.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap up, as we've discussed the scope of the Convention is huge. It covers pretty much any type of mobility, any type of international movement you can think of. We didn't get to cover it all today. That would be a very long podcast. But is there anything that you really want listeners to know about this Convention before we wrap up?

MICHAEL DOYLE: Yes. Let me just go back to that point. I'm not going to go into any detail, for obvious reasons.

Think about how comprehensive it is. It covers visitors, anybody in a foreign country—tourists; students studying overseas; labor migrants whether they're documented or undocumented, the different statuses and different rights attached to each; investors who are investing in a foreign country; residents, people who might have retired in a foreign country; and then family reunification and forced migrants, which covers 1951 Convention refugees and broadens the definition to anybody fleeing for their life. The key thing there is how comprehensive that is.

The second key principle is that it's cumulative. You only need a few of your rights to be protected if you're a visitor in a country for a few days, going to a conference or something. You need more rights if you're a tourist—your contracts have to be honored; more rights if you're a student—you need to get a transcript, you need fair treatment in the university you're studying; more rights if you're a laborer and an investor and a resident.

If you're a forced migrant, forced to flee for your life, or a 1951 Convention refugee also forced to flee, you basically need all the rights that were denied to you at home in this new country that's providing you refuge. You need to have access to working rights and all your healthcare, and eventually, if there's no prospect of going home, citizenship rights so that this can be a complete new home for you.

That's the idea. It's comprehensive and it's cumulative. Think of a ladder. At the first step you don't need very much, but at the last step if you're a refugee, you need everything that you should have had in your home country. Those are the two points that I'd want to stress to everybody.

ALEX WOODSON: Great. Well, thank you very much. Hopefully, this will just continue to grow, and we can have more talks about this in the years to come.

MICHAEL DOYLE: Could I add one more thing, Alex? This Convention is available on our website at Columbia. It'll soon be available on other websites as well, and everyone listening is invited to look at it, and if they like it, join those who have signed it.

It's signed by the 30-plus Commission members, but we now have hundreds of signatures that have come, including: a former president of Mexico has signed; the current mayor of Quito in Ecuador has signed; and then academics, students from all over the world, students in São Paolo signed. So please, for all of your listeners, take a look at that website, and then sign if you find it useful.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely. We'll be posting a full transcript of this talk, and we'll have links to all that.


ALEX WOODSON: Thank you very much.

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