In Age of Migration, Human Rights Declaration Falls Short

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 well-being 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.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.