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Human Rights, Domestic Politics, And Informal Agreements: Parliamentary Challenges to International Cooperation on Migration Management

14 Jan 2020
By Natasja Reslow

Given that there is no internationally binding system for migration regulation, parliaments hold the ultimate say in the matter. However, parliaments also constrain the room for manoeuvre that governments have in conducting international negotiations.


There is no binding system of multilateralism for regulating migration at the global level; instead, migration management is discussed in non-binding international fora (such as the Global Forum on Migration and Development) and embedded in the work of international organisations (such as the International Labour Organisation). The recently adopted United Nations (UN) Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, whilst being hailed as a significant achievement, is not legally binding. This gap in global governance is filled by a growing number of bilateral, regional and multilateral agreements on the joint management of migration flows. Whilst migration policy has always had an international dimension (in that it regulates the movements of people across borders), more recently developed countries are increasingly seeking the cooperation of developing countries on border control, migration prevention, and the deportation of irregular migrants. The format and degree of formalisation of these arrangements varies, ranging from legally binding international agreements to informal, political cooperation, and even more covert operations. The form of such cooperation matters because it has an impact on the types of actors involved in policy-making and implementation

Human rights NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have harshly criticised arrangements for cooperation on migration management between developed and developing countries. Amnesty for example accuses Australia of undermining the right to seek asylum by sending asylum-seekers to Nauru, a country not equipped to provide adequate services and ensure human rights are upheld, and documents the disastrous mental health consequences for the asylum-seekers held there. Amnesty has also labelled the European Union-Turkey Statement a “blueprint for despair” due to the desperate situation it has created for thousands of migrants trapped on the Greek islands. A 2018 report found that deportation of migrants from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda “gravely endangers the mental health, safety and life of men, women and children, and has already cost the lives of an unknown number of human beings.”

However in recent years anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise in industrialised countries, as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump despite (or because of) his hard-line rhetoric on immigration from Mexico, and the rise in support for right-wing populist parties in European countries such as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Parliaments can be expected to respond to such public sentiments, as their members battle for re-election. In this context, the aim of the article is to understand how and to what extent parliaments are challenging policies for international cooperation on migration management, which are questionable from a human rights perspective. The question of impact of parliaments’ actions cannot be addressed within the scope of this article; the aim is to show what parliaments do and how, not to measure the effectiveness of these actions in achieving their objectives.

International cooperation on migration management sits at the nexus of two very different policy fields: foreign policy and migration policy. Whereas “the pursuit of security requires national unity,” migration is a highly politicised policy area. Immigration and integration are issues that are high on the public and political agendas in most developed countries and subject to national legislation and intensive public and parliamentary debate. The literature claims that parliamentary involvement in foreign policy will grow as foreign policy becomes more important to daily political life. The political salience of this policy area has undoubtedly increased in the last years: certainly the “migration crisis” of 2015–2016 captured public attention at least in Europe in an unprecedented manner, and drew attention to international cooperation on migration management, particularly between the European Union (EU) and Turkey. This article thus contributes to the political science literature on parliaments in foreign policy by focusing on a new aspect of foreign policy, namely international cooperation on migration.

Explaining how and why parliaments challenge foreign policy

  1. The role of parliaments in foreign policy

Traditionally, studies on foreign policy have neglected the role of parliaments or argued that their role is inconsequential. The established wisdom was that parliaments are rubber-stamp institutions, which are not expected to challenge the content or direction of foreign policy. A number of reasons for this marginal position were advanced: in the fast-paced world of diplomacy and international relations, parliamentary procedures are too slow and inhibit parliaments from responding to international events in a timely manner; members of parliament (MPs) do not have the same privileged access to sensitive and classified information related to national security as is granted to executive actors; related to this, there is an inherent tension between the role of parliaments as bodies for public debate and deliberation on the one hand, and the needs for secrecy in diplomacy and security policy on the other; MPs lack channels of communication with international actors, thus hindering them from developing a foreign policy role; foreign policy is not usually based on legislation, rendering the legislative function of parliaments irrelevant in this policy area; MPs may be cautious about criticising executive actors’ foreign policy choices for fear of compromising the country’s image of a united front; and finally parliaments tend to remain parochial and national in their focus and concerns, given that foreign policy is not a salient issue in battles for re-election.

Recently, however, a more nuanced view of parliaments in foreign policy is beginning to emerge. Empirical studies have been published documenting cases in which parliaments have challenged foreign policy decisions, for instance on the war in Iraq.

There are plausible reasons to expect that parliaments will play a significant role in this policy area. Authors highlight the status of parliaments as sources of legitimacy and public accountability, based on their representative function. Parliaments are important forums for debate, contestation and justification of policies, and there is no reason necessarily why this should not also apply to questions of national interest and bilateral/multilateral diplomatic relations. Parliamentary scrutiny of policy is a crucial component of democratic governance, because for a policy to be democratically legitimate it is essential that parliaments hold governments to account, both publicly and privately, over how that policy is adopted and implemented. In other words, from the point of view of democratic governance, the lack of attention to parliaments is surprising because normatively parliaments should be involved in making foreign policy.

Empirically speaking, there is reason to expect parliaments to challenge foreign policy as a result of the increasing blurring of boundaries between domestic policy and foreign policy. International cooperation on migration management—migration management through foreign policy means—is an apt example of this. Commenting on the “ever-growing interdependence of national and international political agendas,” Raunio and Wagner note that “the expanding range of political issues that are subject to international regulation should produce stronger incentives for parliamentary engagement in foreign affairs, and signals the need to study whether that engagement differs between various policy sectors.” Migration policy is an example of an issue that was previously decided only at the national level but today increasingly encompasses cooperation with other countries.

  1. Parliamentary means and motives for challenging foreign policy

In order to analyse the role of parliaments in international cooperation on migration management, this section develops an analytical framework, based on two distinct elements: categorising the means through which parliaments challenge foreign policy; and presenting explanations for the motives for parliaments and MPs to challenge foreign policy.

Firstly, there is a need to distinguish between the formal and informal means available to parliaments to challenge foreign policy. Parliaments exercise significant formal powers in the policy-making process. In the realm of foreign policy, these may be: holding debates; conducting inquiries; dictating the government negotiating position by issuing mandates; forcing ministers to elaborate government positions; issuing statements; having access to information not accessible to the general public; control of budgetary resources; removing government officials from office or dismissing the entire government; and ratifying international agreements. The national context determines the formal powers granted to parliaments, and these vary greatly, for example as to whether parliaments may veto government proposals or simply be informed about them, whether debates take place in plenary or in committees, and whether mandates are formulated in a flexible or binding manner. Even when parliaments have strong formal powers, these may still come up against limits; for example, the rejection of proposed military missions at a late stage in the policy-making process may not be politically feasible due to the momentum in place.

However, “parliamentary influence is more than voting down government proposals.” For this reason, scholars have also focused on the informal means available to parliaments. Several scholars develop a typology of influence based around the stages of the policy-making process. Before a decision is made, parliaments can play an agenda-setting role by: identifying and defining a problem and placing it on the national agenda; framing the problem as an urgent matter for foreign policy; or changing the ranking of issues on the government’s order of priorities. At the decision-making stage, MPs’ roles will depend on their formal powers (see above). However, even if not formally involved in the decision-making process, parliaments may establish limits to the politically workable policy alternatives and force government ministers to elaborate on and defend the chosen course of action. During the implementation and evaluation stages, MPs may scrutinise implementation, “name and shame” shortcomings, and frame the lessons learned from current and previous policies, thereby putting pressure on future decisions. MPs can also gain influence by circumventing the executive and working directly with other actors, for instance through parliamentary diplomacy, or by presenting arguments that are considered legitimate and valid by executive actors.

In order to come to a comprehensive understanding of the influence of parliaments on foreign policy, it is not sufficient to examine the actions of parliaments or MPs alone; governments may also undertake actions which either restrict or enhance parliamentary influence. Governments may try to exclude parliaments or undermine parliamentary participation, for example by announcing the decision before seeking parliamentary approval and thereby tying parliament’s hands; conversely, governments may seek parliamentary involvement in order to share responsibility for and enhance the legitimacy of a decision. Alternatively, government ministers may base policies on parliamentary reports and choose to present information in parliament rather than in a press conference.

Besides the means available to parliaments, we also need to look at the motives for challenging foreign policy, because this will account for variations in the extent to which parliaments make use of their formal and informal means. Huff argues that, in addition to authority (formal powers), ability and attitude explain the extent of parliamentary involvement in foreign policy. Ability refers to the resources and support available to parliaments to enable them to make use of their formal powers; for example MPs’ expertise in a policy area, the existence of specialised committees dealing with the issue, and the availability of relevant information. Attitude refers to the political will to hold the government accountable for foreign policy choices, which will depend on whether foreign policy is perceived as being a responsibility of MPs or rather a domain of executive privilege, the salience of foreign policy for the electorate, and the party affiliation of individual MPs. Public opinion and elite preferences have also been highlighted as explanatory factors, although Auel, Rozenberg, and Tacea find that these do not affect parliaments’ engagement with EU affairs.


Overall, the article challenges the notion of parliaments as “moral tribunes,” at least in the realm of international cooperation on migration, because it found, in all three cases, a lack of political will to scrutinise and hold the executive to account. In all cases, parliaments” actions (or rather inactions) are aligning with public opinion on migration management; future (qualitative) research should investigate the relationship between parliamentarians’ preferences and public opinion in order to establish causality.

Natasja Reslow was an Assistant Professor and post-doc researcher at the Faculty of Law, University of Maastricht. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

This extract is part of a journal article entitled “Human Rights, Domestic Politics, And Informal Agreements: Parliamentary Challenges to International Cooperation on Migration Management.” The original article was published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs and can be viewed here.