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

Published on May 21, 2015        Author: 

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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. Read the rest of this entry…