iOS app Android app More

Navi Pillay

Navi Pillay

Posted: December 22, 2009 03:15 PM

Stop Treating Migrants as Second-class Human Beings

What's Your Reaction:

In recent years, migrants - including individuals who were possibly refugees - have reportedly been shot dead by security forces, or dumped to die in the desert in their attempts to cross borders in North Africa. Hundreds more are believed to have died after being pushed back out into the Indian Ocean in boats without functioning engines. Many others die on a regular basis as they try to evade coastguard and naval vessels deployed by the world's richer nations, or because they have been packed on unseaworthy vessels by ruthless smugglers who seem, in some countries, to operate with almost total impunity.

Others migrants are killed by landmines, die of exposure in remote mountain areas, or are raped, forced into bonded labour or prostitution, in both developed and developing countries. In some countries, migrant communities have been forcibly rounded up by the authorities, or have had to flee for their lives as they are attacked by mobs, and seen their homes and businesses ransacked.

Despite the heavy toll, remarkably little attention is devoted to all these deaths and the chronic human rights violations against so many extremely vulnerable men, women and children.

The commonest reaction to this horrific reality seems to be a collective shrug: The deaths are sad of course, but it is the indivdual's own fault for trying to enter other countries uninvited. The unmistakable conclusion is that many of us - politicians, state authorities, media and the general public - view migrants, especially poor migrants, as second-class human beings, who are somehow not entitled to the same rights as the rest of us.

It is likely that this year's International Migrants' Day will elicit token expressions of concern before we return to business as usual: keeping migrants out, blaming those in our countries already for some of our social or economic problems - while at the same time readily exploiting them as cheap labour. The trend of criminalization of irregular migration and the use of detention to discourage more people from coming are also likely to continue or get worse.

Such policies often violate the human rights of migrants and contribute to anti-migrant sentiments and xenophobia. Immigrants arriving irregularly in a new country are often detained as a routine procedure and at times without proper judicial safeguards. In addition, irregular migrants intercepted at sea, and others seized by law enforcement officials during raids, are increasingly facing violence, arbitrary detention and premature expulsion. Such actions rarely take into account the mixed character of migration flows, and often lack necessary measures to protect the most vulnerable amongst irregular migrants, such as unaccompanied children, asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking.

Migrants who reach their final destination often face severe discrimination in the fields of housing, education, health, work or social security. Laws discriminating - or allowing for discriminatory practices - against non-nationals, along with programmes and policies that fail to address specific needs and vulnerabilities of migrants, often result in them being unable to access basic services or only able to do so at levels that do not meet international human rights standards.

International human rights law recognizes this heightened vulnerability of migrants, but here too the 'collective shrug' is having a noticeably negative impact.

The International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which offers the most comprehensive framework for the protection of the human rights of migrants, will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its adoption in 2010. Unfortunately, few States will be attending the party, as it is one of the least respected human rights conventions, taking more than 12 years to gather the 20 State ratifications it needed to come into force (in July 2003), and picking up only a further 22 ratifications since then. Of these, 17 are African States, 15 are from Latin America and the Caribbean, six from Asia, three from Eastern Europe and only one (Turkey) from the 'Western group' of nations, which includes Western Europe, North America and Australasia.

I would urge those countries which have not yet ratified the Migrant Workers Convention, to consider doing so without further delay. While States have a right to place limitations on migration, and to institute systems to manage it, this does not mean they can treat migrants as second-class human beings, who deserve less protection than the rest of us.