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Rights and wrongs

Western states are still scared to defend migrants’ rights

Left out: migrants protest in Hamburg. EPA/Maja Hitij

December 18 2014 is International Migrants Day, marking 24 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It should make us pause and think about the many migrants, particularly irregular ones, who live among us.

In most of the world, migrants’ human rights are neither respected nor defended, whether they are refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented or irregular migrants, or even “legal” arrivals. And those people are the “fortunate” ones: they at least are alive.

Thousands of migrants die each year attempting to reach the shores of Europe and Australia, or crossing borders into America. Many more are detained – effectively imprisoned – when discovered entering Global North states.

And then there are the enslaved migrant workers across many countries, whether with their passports confiscated under Qatar’s laws, or in farms that mirror US slave plantations of a bygone era, or in sex industries where many trafficked women end up. It is these people that we need to pause to think about – and it is these people on whose behalf we must act.


The Convention’s central purpose is to protect all migrant workers and their families irrespective of their legal status. The Convention has been ratified by 46 countries, far below the 120 states for which the UN says migration “is an important feature, either as origin, transit or destination countries”.

But none of the states from the affluent West or the rising-power BRICS bloc – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have signed or ratified the Convention That means many of the countries that most need to be bound to protect the rights of migrants are the ones that are studiously avoiding signing up to its provisions.

More than 20 years after its creation, the Convention is spluttering along – and it is a disgrace that none of the Global North countries have ratified it.

These countries have been at the vanguard of developing, promoting and protecting human rights; they also control much of the money and resources in the global institutions set up to safeguard rights and therefore hold the power. So it seems strange, to say the least, that they refuse to step up and ratify the Convention.

Stand up and be counted. EPA/Oliver Weiken

But remember that those countries are often the most affected by migration in the world. The numbers of people seeking to enter their territories are huge – and their domestic politicians are under enormous pressure to avoid appearing “soft” in response.

Culture of silence

Western politicians know that by speaking out on behalf of migrants, let alone seeking to change the laws on migration, they put their own careers on the line. Since irregular migrants cannot vote, and cannot mobilise to form pressure groups or put pressure on the government, sticking your neck out to support them is political suicide.

And because irregular migrants live in the shadows of electoral democracies, there is little to be gained from defending their rights. By and large, these people do not protest in the streets to make their voices heard, since that would be asking for unwanted state attention.

Most of them do not join campaign or activist groups, mainly because they are busy working long hours in menial jobs – jobs that many residents and citizens would refuse to undertake.

The Convention is designed to recognise that these things should not exclude migrants from the protections to which all people are entitled – a minimum standard of rights far above what they are currently allowed to access in most of the world.

Human rights ought to be exactly what they say on the tin: rights held by all individuals by virtue of their being human. A person cannot lose their status as a human simply because they are an irregular migrant. Crossing a border in contravention of a law does not dehumanise anyone. The total disregard that Global North countries have for the rights of irregular migrants undermines the central notion of the whole human rights project.

International Migrants Day demands we take a look at our societies’ attitudes to migrants. We must ask why our governments are still cowardly or callous enough to leave such vulnerable people without the protections they desperately need – and to which they are entitled as humans.

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