Giuseppe Sciortino

Università degli Studi di Trento


The current global system relies on a set of liberal international regimes assuring, with some important exceptions, the circulation of goods, capital and information. No such liberal regime exists for the circulation of individuals. There is (although often violated) a right to ‘exit’ recognized by the UN declaration of human rights. There is no, however, right to be admitted somewhere else. Given the actual socio-economic configuration of global society, this implies that the movements of individuals across boundaries is regulated, rather unilaterally, by the receiving states.

Such regulation is, by necessity, highly restrictive. Contrary to news stories, the population of the world is actually pretty immobile. Only a tiny minority – less tha 4% – live currently in a state different from the one in which she is born. Nor such percentage has been growing remarkably in recent decades. The world is pretty much staying home.

If migration rates are pretty stable, the migration potential (the number of people that would move if only they had an appealing chance) is actually growing (and much higher of those of actual migrants). Surveys in emigration countries points nearly anywhere to a large migration potential (roughly, at least four times the number of current international migrants).

Measured against this global demand for admission, the functioning of migration control appears quite effective. Passports, visas, border guards, career sanctions and anti-trafficking measures are able to protect the segmentary differentiation of the world political system in a remarkable way. This restrictive regulation of migration is far from being a mere historical contingency. On the contrary, citizenship plays a key role in producing and reproducing the current global social stratification. Location is a major determinant of income. Unsurprisingly, migration is above all an attempt at social mobility through motility.

Although often ignored, the restrictive regulation of migration is an important dimension of the current global political system. It is a functional pre-requisite for any redistributive welfare policy. It has become a key factor in the functioning of all democratic societies (national public opinions, in fact, are nearly always highly restrictive). Paradoxically, such restrictionist attitude is stronger and more consistent in those states that grant resident foreigners a modicum of right and a path, no matter how long, to citizenship. It is enough to compare the percentage of foreign residents in Western Europe and South America with those of the Gulf States to realize the existence of a factual trade-off between numbers and rights.

Powerful factors militate against international mobility, particularly along the South-North direction. Why, then, migration is such a conflictual issue? Why do state complains to be “unable” to regulate migration? To understand it globally, three structural tensions are to be considered:

– The strain between political system, legitimated in reference to a community of belonging, and the market economy, whose regulation is based on prices, not territory;
– The tension between political will, inevitably particularistic, and a national and international legal system that is increasingly autonomous and increasingly universalistic (embedded liberalism);
– The tension between an international order defined by a segmentation of the political system in nation-states defined as of equal power and status and the factual existence of enormous – and growing – economic, political and military differences.