Bilateral Agreements on Free Movement of People in a (Post-)Covid World

Bilateral agreements are central tools to facilitate the free movement of people, which have not been sufficiently investigated by academics and other stakeholders. I refer here to agreements adopted by two countries in a region — or by a regional organization and a country — that widely regulate several aspects of entry, stay, rights, and protection from expulsion, rather than to other more limited bilateral accords on labor recruitment. While they are theoretically possible between countries in different regions, these treaties usually occur intra-regionally. As often verbalized in their preambles, they are expressions of special historical, friendship, cultural, or geographical relationships.

The importance of bilateral agreements in a (post-)Covid world is twofold. First, should certain countries introduce new immigration restrictions, it is expected that bilateral treaties will remain in place due to the diplomatic costs associated with denouncing an international treaty. Second, the external rights certain nationalities offer as a result of bilateral agreements will become more significant. The most relevant example is Irish citizenship, which will be the only EU member state nationality that will offer the right to reside and work in the UK post Brexit.

Examples are abundant and they apply to several major immigration countries in the world. Among many others, one can cite the Union between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus that has since 1996 granted citizens of both countries equal rights of residence, work, and welfare; the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK that offers their nationals the possibility to move freely, reside, work, and vote in local and national elections, as well as equal treatment in terms of education, healthcare, housing, and social protection; the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement between Australia and New Zealand that grants their citizens the right to reside, work, and access other entitlements in each other’s territories; the Compacts of Free Association between the USA and the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, under which any of their citizens may enter, lawfully engage in occupations, and establish residence as non-immigrants in the USA, and vice versa; and the agreements Andorra has ratified with France, Portugal, and Spain, that enable Andorrans to enjoy EU-citizenship–like treatment in these countries, and offer French, Portuguese, and Spanish citizens a special status in Andorra.

Each agreement has a different origin. Some crystallize a special relationship between two countries that were previously part of the same state, as in the cases of Belarus, which was previously a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Ireland, which was part of the UK. Others, such as the USA’s compacts, are the result of historical processes of decolonization. What all agreements have in common is that they do work in practice, so that the law on the books is reflected in the law in practice.

Migration law pundits and other interested parties should pay close attention to the development of bilateral agreements in the years to come.

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