Home EJIL Analysis The Human Rights of Migrants as Limitations on States’ Control Over Entry and Stay in Their Territory

The Human Rights of Migrants as Limitations on States’ Control Over Entry and Stay in Their Territory

Published on May 21, 2015        Author: 

As Juan Amaya-Castro points out, (domestic) migration legislation is about selecting among potential or prospective migrants, i.e. creating two categories of migrants: ‘documented’ or ‘regular’ migrants, whose migration status complies with established requirements, and ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrants, whose migration status does not so comply. Where does this leave international law and, as Juan Amaya-Castro calls it, its humanist-egalitarian tradition?

This post will argue that Amaya-Castro underestimates the strict and strong limitations on the sovereignty of states established by international human rights law, international refugee law and international labour law. In particular, states’ discretion in the adoption and enforcement of migration policies is limited by their obligation to respect, protect and promote the human rights of all individuals within their territory and subject to their jurisdiction (UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 15, para. 5). This post discusses some of the far-reaching consequences of this principle, focusing on three types of limitations on state sovereignty with respect to migration: limitations on the prerogative to control entry; limitations on the prerogative to establish conditions for entry and stay; and limitations on the treatment of irregular migrants.

Limitations on the prerogative to control entry

The obligation not to reject refugees and asylum-seekers at the frontier may be an exception to state sovereignty conceptually, but it is far from exceptional in practice, especially in certain European contexts. Of the 19,234 people “intercepted” along EU borders by the joint border control operation Mos Maiorum between 13-26 October 2014, 11,046 people (57%) claimed asylum (Mos Maiorum final report, p. 25). More than a quarter of those “intercepted” were Syrians, followed by Afghans, Eritreans, Somalis, Iraqis – individuals whose need for international protection can easily be argued (ibid., p10).

Nikolaos Sitaropoulos expertly discussed the limitations imposed on states’ sovereign prerogative to control entry and stay by the Council of Europe human rights framework, in particular its obligation of non-discrimination. Outside that framework, the guidance provided by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is also worth mentioning. In 1998 the Committee criticised Switzerland’s so-called three-circle-model migration policy, which classified foreigners on the basis of their national origin, as ‘stigmatizing and discriminatory’ (UN Doc. CERD/C/304/Add.44, para. 6). Four years later, the Committee expressed concern at the possible discriminatory effect of Canadian migration policies (in particular, a high ‘right of landing fee’) on persons coming from poorer countries (UN Doc. A/57/18, para. 336). On these grounds, this post argues that the general principle of non-discrimination is a limitation to states’ discretion in the adoption and enforcement of all migration policies, including their prerogative to control entry.

Limitations on the prerogative to establish conditions for entry and stay

While the limitations imposed by international law on a state’s prerogative to control entry into its territory are relatively well-established, at least on paper, visa regimes are often perceived to be an area where state sovereignty has little boundaries. Once the state has complied with its international obligations in selecting who is allowed into the country, it seemingly enjoys a broad freedom in determining how long they can stay and under which conditions (the generally recognised exception being, again, refugees and those protected by the obligation against refoulement). In fact, the rules of international labour law protecting workers from labour exploitation, forced labour and servitude, and the international legal rules against trafficking in human beings, profoundly impact the prerogative of states to establish conditions for entry and stay in the form of visa regimes. As the requirements of some visa regimes may ultimately be in breach of a state’s international obligations to protect individuals from labour exploitation, forced labour, servitude and trafficking, such obligations limit its sovereignty in establishing visa conditions.

In 2014, Amnesty International published an analysis of selected visa regimes in five countries of destination (China/Hong Kong, Italy, Qatar, South Korea and the United Kingdom), showing that some visa requirements, such as the inability to change employer and the employer’s control over the worker’s migration status, increase migrant workers’ risk of suffering labour exploitation and other abuses at the hand of private actors such as recruitment agencies and employers. Recently, the link between visa requirements stopping migrant workers from changing employers and vulnerability to labour exploitation has been at the centre of the debate on a new Modern Slavery Bill in the United Kingdom. NGOs have argued that the current system of overseas domestic workers visas “tied” to the employer (whereby the migrant worker is not allowed to change employer) is open to abuse, as the workers can only leave an exploitative labour relationship at the price of losing their visa. Amnesty International’s research also shows that the promise of regular documents is often used by abusive employers to induce irregular migrant workers to accept exploitative labour conditions. In countries where the administrative procedure to obtain or renew residence and work permits has to be initiated by, or requires the cooperation of, the employer, the employer’s effective power to determine their migration status can easily become a tool to intimidate or threaten workers, undermining further the irregular migrant workers’ limited ability to negotiate better wages and working conditions (Amnesty International, Abusive labour migration policies, 2014, p. 7-10).

Limitations on the treatment of irregular migrants: “firewalls”

The current European debate on irregular migration tends to focus on the limitations on state sovereignty during law-enforcement, i.e. on the procedures of arrest, detention and deportation. In fact, the international obligation to respect, protect and promote the human rights of migrants may require states to modify not only the procedures of their law-enforcement operations, but also law-enforcement operations tout court.

In his 2013 report to the United Nations General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, called on states to allow migrants to access the public services needed for the enjoyment of their rights without fear of being arrested, detained and deported. In order to do so, states should implement “firewalls” between public services and migration enforcement, whereby public services (healthcare, education, housing, labour inspection, local police) would be instructed not to request migration status information unless essential; and migration enforcement would not have access to the information collected by public services relating to migration status (para. 82).

The call for “firewalls” between the public officials charged with protecting and enforcing the human rights of irregular migrants (teachers, doctors, labour inspectors, etc.) and those charged with enforcing migration laws recognises and addresses a problem familiar to human rights advocates: irregular migrants are generally so concerned about coming to the attention of the authorities that they are reluctant to access public services, even when they would be entitled to do so to enjoy their human rights. While, in its first formulation, the “firewall” argument was built on ethical and policy grounds (Carens 2008 at pp. 167-168), this post argues that it also has strong grounds under the legal principle that the human rights of migrants limit the sovereign prerogative of states to control migration.

Here again, the debate is far from being academic. The domestic legislation of several European states imposes on public officials a duty to report irregular migrants to migration-enforcement authorities, either expressly (such as in the Irish Immigration Act 2003, s. 8) or via the interplay of legislation criminalising irregular migration and a general requirement of any public officer to report all suspected criminal acts to law-enforcement authorities. Yet, many European states also impose direct or indirect reporting bans on public bodies and officials providing basic services, which either prohibit them or allow them not to report irregular migrants to the police. Although a complete review of state practice in this field is beyond the scope of this post, a few examples may illustrate the point. In Italy, irregular migrants are allowed free access to “urgent or essential” health services and “preventive care” services, including maternal health care, children health care, vaccinations and the care of infectious diseases and epidemics (Legislative Decree No. 286/1998, art. 35.3). To allow meaningful implementation of this right, Italian legislation expressly guarantees that access to health services by irregular migrants will not be reported to the authorities (ibid, art. 35.5). Germany’s migration legislation imposes upon all public administration bodies a general duty to report irregular migrants to the authorities in charge of migration enforcement (AufenthG, s. 87). In 2011, an explicit exception to this provision was introduced for schools and other educational and care establishments for young people (ibid.).

 In the same way as reporting bans on healthcare and education personnel are a simple measure to “firewall” irregular migrants’ rights to health and education, reporting bans on labour inspectors are a simple measure to “firewall” irregular migrants’ rights at work. Such bans are in fact required under the ILO Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81). According to the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR), tasking labour inspectors with immigration control functions is incompatible with international obligations because it diverts resources from their primary duty “to protect workers and not to enforce immigration law” (General Survey on Labour Inspection, 2006, p25).


 This post has attempted to provide a summary overview of the limitations imposed by international human rights law, international refugee law and international labour law on states’ sovereign prerogative to control entry and stay in its territory. The broad scope of these limitations strengthens the comparatively weaker position of the individual migrant vis-à-vis the state. By imposing a range of direct restrictions on law-enforcement operations, states are effectively hampered in their pursuit of the goal of migration control.

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2 Responses

  1. […] post was published on 21 May 2015 on EJIL Talk!, blog of the European Journal of International […]

  2. Christos

    You correctly highlight the abusive potential of tying visa to work permits restricted to one employer.
    In the ASEAN country whose name starts with T, this means that a teacher, for example, cannot change schools even if they have been assaulted by a Thai staff member, or been denied payments to which they are contractually entitled.
    Instead, they are forbidden to report any abuse or corruption as this would result, not only in dismissal, but also in being black banned from working in other schools. The buddy networks among school directors is remarkably powerful.
    Am I writing from personal experience? Heavens no! Purely hypothetical 555