Civil Society

A ‘post-human rights’ era is emerging. Here’s what it means for migrants – and how to stop it

The world is in danger of entering a post-human rights moment — for safe and dignified migration this could have serious implications.

The world is in danger of entering a post-human rights moment — for safe and dignified migration this could have serious implications. Image: REUTERS/Cheney Orr

Marie McAuliffe
Head, Migration Research, International Organization for Migration (IOM)
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Human Rights

  • The world is in danger of entering a post-human rights era — and, as some of the world's most vulnerable people refugees and migrants may pay the price.
  • A renewed commitment to the rule-based multilateral system underpinned by human rights could avert the worst of this global slide.
  • The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration provides the methdology to uphold the dignity and rights of all people on the move

Many analysts and commentators have argued that the world has entered a post-human rights phase, with sustained undermining of human rights and the rule of law around the world. Unfortunately, this is not new — although the focus on this topic has tended to wax and wane as global events have dictated news feeds and analysis.

The United Nations Secretary-General spoke about these challenges during his speech to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting earlier this year, highlighting the critical need to fully respect international law and the UN Charter in building global peace and security.

As we move closer to the UN Summit of the Future scheduled for September, and with previously ‘unthinkable’ wars raging in Ukraine and Gaza, it is time to reflect on the global transformations —geopolitical, technological and environmental — radically altering the multilateral landscape and what they are likely to mean for global governance of migration in a post-human rights world.

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Post-human rights implications for migration and mobility

A multilateral system where traditional human rights frameworks are no longer respected or implemented would involve a profoundly different global approach to migration. Here’s how.

  • Geopolitical dominance and power dynamics

Without the grounding principles of human rights, migration policies and practices could become more influenced by geopolitical interests and power dynamics. Countries would further prioritize national security and economic interests over the well-being and dignity of migrants, leading to more restrictive and selective migration policies that favor certain groups based on strategic alliances.

  • Technological surveillance and control

In the absence of human rights protections, the use of advanced technologies in migration management would shift towards enhanced surveillance, control and enforcement. This might include widespread use of AI in migration management (such as visa processing and border control), potentially leading to increased inequalities between states and potential for violations of personal privacy and other rights.

  • Environmental displacement and inequity

As environmental changes increasingly influence migration, the setting aside of existing human rights frameworks would likely result in inadequate protection and support for those displaced by climate disasters or environmental degradation. This might lead to increased vulnerability and inequity, with wealthier countries potentially fortifying their borders against people displaced from their homes by climate change impacts.

  • Transactional bilateral labour agreements

Without a shared commitment to universal human rights, migration governance could become much more fragmented, characterized by bilateral labour agreements that are transactional in nature. These agreements might focus exclusively on the interests of states rather than the welfare of migrants, potentially leading to scenarios where migrants are used as bargaining chips in international negotiations.

  • Privatization of migration management

A decline in the respect for human rights might also further encourage the privatization of aspects of migration management, including detention facilities, return processes and even rescue operations. This could prioritize efficiency and profit margins over the humane treatment of migrants, with more limited oversight and accountability.

  • Community responses

In response to the erosion of human rights in formal migration governance, non-state actors, including NGOs, community groups and international organizations, might play an increasingly vital role in providing support and protection to migrants. These entities could become crucial in delivering humanitarian aid, legal assistance and advocacy for migrants' welfare.

In such a scenario, the global migration landscape would likely become more complex and challenging, with significant implications for the dignity, safety and rights of migrants worldwide. The erosion of human rights principles would necessitate new forms of solidarity, advocacy and support to ensure that the most vulnerable are not left without protection and assistance.


Bolstering a rights-based approach to migration and mobility

There is, however, another path ahead. A renewed commitment to the rule-based multilateral system underpinned by human rights at this year’s Summit of the Future means bolstering a rights-based approach to migration governance:

  • Enhanced focus on climate and environmental mobility

With climate change intensifying, stronger emphasis on climate-induced displacement and environmental migration is essential. This would involve supporting adaption measures, disaster risk reduction as well as support to those displaced by environmental disasters, ensuring their rights and providing pathways for resettlement or return.

  • Adaptation to technological advancements

The rapid advancement of technology, particularly in digitalization and AI poses both opportunities and challenges for migrants. A rights-based approach incorporates mechanisms to ensure that technological advancements in migration management enhance, rather than infringe upon, the rights and dignity of migrants. This includes addressing digital divides and ensuring equitable access to technology-driven migration processes.

  • Geopolitical responsiveness

Continuing to be highly adaptable to geopolitical shifts, such as conflicts or changes in international alliances, is a cornerstone to humanitarian response due to displacement. Increasing pressure on the humanitarian system globally to provide protection and support to displaced populations in times of crisis will require a rights-based approach that is adequately resourced and geopolitically enabled.

  • Economic and social inclusion

Given the crucial role of migration in economic development and the stark inequalities that exist, rights-based governance prioritizes policies that foster economic and social inclusion of migrants. This involves ensuring that migrants have access to labour markets, social services and regular pathways (including regularization programming). This would also involve a concerted effort to counteract narratives that dehumanize migrants and to combat xenophobia and discrimination.

  • Global governance and cooperation

Recognizing migration as a global phenomenon that no single country can manage alone, international cooperation and global governance will increase in importance. This involves redoubling efforts to share responsibilities to manage migration humanely and efficiently, implementing commitments to collective action over unilateral approaches.

Maintaining human rights at the core of the multilateral system is intrinsically tied to reducing inequality globally through the new agenda for peace and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Migration governance as articulated in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration would amplify its adaptability, inclusiveness and commitment to upholding the dignity and rights of all people on the move. The Compact integrates responses to environmental, technological and geopolitical transformations, ensuring that migration remains a source of human development and global cooperation. Failing to fortify rights-based approaches risks a slide into a post-human rights system with potentially devastating consequences for migrants and societies.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of IOM or any other organizations with which the author is affiliated.

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