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While Mobility Comes under Assault in Europe, Other Regions Forge Ahead

While Mobility Comes under Assault in Europe, Other Regions Forge Ahead

ThailandWorkers ILOAsiaPacific Flickr

Migrant workers head to South Korea from Thailand, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional bloc. (Photo: ILO in Asia and the Pacific)

Governments and politicians in Europe reacted to overwhelming spontaneous migration and asylum flows by moving to secure borders and curb arrivals beginning in 2015 and continuing throughout 2016. Concerns about the influx of asylum seekers and other migrants were so dominant in Europe that several European Union (EU) Member States reimposed border controls, including temporarily suspending passport-free travel guaranteed under the Schengen Agreement, and in some cases erected fencing and other barriers. And concern over the inability to place limits on rising European migration to the United Kingdom was among the key drivers for the British public’s vote in June to withdraw from the European Union, dealing the European project a serious blow. Even as mobility came under assault in Europe, however, governments in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America provided a striking contrast, taking strides in 2016 to facilitate freer travel and mobility, particularly for intraregional migrants.

Intraregional migration is not a new phenomenon in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, though a relatively small one. These migrants account for approximately 1 percent of the population of each of these regions. Over the past quarter century, though, intraregional movement has increased by more than 400 percent in Southeast Asia and 95 percent in South America (it appears not to have grown in Africa). In 2016, intergovernmental organizations in these regions took new or expanded steps to remove barriers to mobility and regularize movements. In Africa and South America, leaders discussed continent-wide citizenship and the abolition of visa requirements within their regions. Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is promoting regional integration and competitiveness by developing portable qualifications for the highly skilled.

Moving Toward Freer Travel and Mobility

Issue No. 10 of Top Ten of 2016

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In South America, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR)—a regional bloc modeled after the European Union—signed a letter of commitment in 2016 to establish a continent-wide citizenship, as a means to further liberalize cross-border movements. As of 2015, the UNASUR bloc spanned a population of 418 million people, nearly 4 million of whom resided outside their home countries, but within the region.

UNASUR’s proposal of a South American citizenship builds upon implementation of the Mercosur Residence Agreement, which began in 2009. The most tangible intraregional migration program to date, the Mercosur agreement provides citizens of Mercosur and Mercosur observer countries (a smaller group than UNASUR) the right to reside and work for a period of two years within another host state, and sets a path for permanent residence under certain conditions, as well as rights to equal treatment at work, family reunification, and access to education for children.

Importantly, in recent years, national governments and regional alliances in South America have proposed an expansion of migrant rights. Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador are debating legislation incorporating migration as a basic human right, with the objective of providing rights to migrants nearly on par with those of citizens. And in November, representatives from across the continent convened for the 16th South American Conference on Migration, focused on the theme of “Towards Free Movement,” which culminated in the adoption of the Declaration of Asunción reaffirming the rights of migrants and the inherent right of individuals to free circulation.

Encouraging Mobility for the Highly Skilled in Asia

In Asia, meanwhile, ten Southeast Asian nations on December 31, 2015 inaugurated the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) to enhance economic competitiveness by harnessing the vast natural, capital, and human resources available in a region of more than 622 million people. One of the principal objectives of the AEC is the free movement of skilled labor. To meet this goal, ASEAN governments are seeking to increase the circulation of the highly skilled in a number of professions by facilitating the recognition of academic and professional credentials earned in another Member State. Thus far, there has been little movement of workers in these fields, in part due to implementation difficulties and lack of necessary visa liberalization. However, 2016 proved pivotal for mobility within one sector in ASEAN: tourism. An online system that connects qualified workers to potential employers in the tourism sector was launched in January, paving the way for professional recognition of more than 9 million middle-skilled workers in this industry, representing about 3 percent of total employment in the region.

Launch of the African Passport

Meanwhile in Africa, 2016 marked the launch of the biometric African passport, which enables visa-free travel between all 54 African Union (AU) Member States, but does not provide employment or residency rights. The first African passports were presented to heads of government and senior officials. While the delivery of visa-free travel for African passport holders lags far behind visa-free regimes in other regions, the move represents a step forward for a continent in which less than one-quarter of states are otherwise open to visa-free travel for all Africans.

The launch of the African passport, which undoubtedly will be sought by only a fraction of the more than 1 billion people living in AU Member States, follows from the 2015 AU Assembly Declaration on Migration calling for visa liberalization and for Africa to progress toward a “continent of seamless borders.” Proponents argue that easing travel will improve regional commercial partnerships and tourism. AU leaders have set a timeline for issuance of African passports in all Member States by 2018, but observers are skeptical the deadline will be met, pointing to lack of technology to read biometric passports and the need for approval in each national parliament. 

EU Free Movement Still Gold Standard

Despite the progress that regional blocs around the world made in 2016 toward freer intraregional movements, the integration of these regions, mobility of peoples, and rights enjoyed by migrants remain far less advanced than in the European Union, which remains the gold standard for free movement.


MPI Research


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