Protecting migrants' rights is in everyone's interest

14 Sep 2016

Protecting migrants' rights is in everyone's interest

September 2016 | Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The world's current failure to protect the human rights of growing numbers of migrants is a terrible indictment – one that will not only hurt people on the move, but all of us. Already, cruel indifference and a shockingly militarised deterrence of these desperate and vulnerable men, women and children has contributed to the deaths and suffering of countless people. It has placed an impossible burden on countries responsible enough to live up to their commitments under international law. It has generated increasing hostility between countries. And within nations, it is leading to a rise in discrimination and xenophobia – cleaving communities, dividing societies and mainstreaming hate.

The vast majority of people caught up in today's large movements of people are compelled to do so. Conflict, persecution, bad governance, extreme poverty, climate change, and violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights have forced them to leave their countries and seek safety and opportunity elsewhere. Clutching their few posessions, traversing the Mediterranean or Andaman Seas, the deserts of the Sahel or the Americas, they are extremely vulnerable to severe human rights violations – including extreme violence, detention, kidnapping, extortion and other terrible abuse. 

Wherever they are, these are people, with the same human rights as us all. They are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. I am shocked by the frequent demonization of migrants that we see in many countries whose people benefit from prosperity, peace and ease.

I also oppose in the strongest possible terms the notion that migrants are a burden.  On the contrary, as workers, consumers and taxpayers, they contribute to the economic growth of all societies, as many studies have demonstrated. They also refresh societies with a sense of innovation, and social and cultural diversity. I suggest all of us reflect for a moment on the courage, the endurance, the adaptability and the grit that refugees and migrants deploy. Migration is an essential component of the economic and social life of every modern State, and it has shaped the history of virtually every member of the human family. Few among us can claim that they or their ancestors have not benefited from migration. 

Today we face a crisis of political will and moral courage. It cries out for sane, collective action.

If the countries of the Security Council and regional powers can at last engage a concerted and principled effort to do so, we can put an end to the metastasizing conflicts that are ripping apart so many lives and driving people to flee.

The failures of governance and development that create extreme poverty can be resolved with a joint effort to fulfill the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Meanwhile, to minimize suffering and chaos – and maximise the positive benefit that migrants can bring - transit and destination states can adopt a rational, comprehensive and joint approach to governing large movements of people. They can give full support to countries which are welcoming the largest numbersof migrants and refugees. They can create channels for safe and regular movement, so that vulnerable people can avoid falling prey to traffickers and other dangers.

And all of us can stand up and join forces to combat the growing tide of hatred and discrimination that is dividing communities, twisting public policies and poisoning our future. Because history teaches us how swiftly xenophobia and bigotry can be weaponized. As hate-speech spreads, communities will barricade themselves into fearful, hostile camps, with populists and extremists, as their commandants.  The atmosphere will become thick with hostility and suspicion, ready to burst into violence at the smallest spark.

We must pull back from this dangerous trajectory. It is not enough to state our values; we must act on them, again and again, in every generation. Change begins locally, with small circles of people raising their voices, sharing their thoughts and developing a sense of responsibility for something greater than the self.

The United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants will be an important opportunity to put the world on a fresh path.

We can set our shared planet on a course of greater inclusion; more sustained prosperity; more justice; more dignity; more freedom; more peace. We can encourage leaders to embrace the voices of all members of society, and to ensure that all are given equal respect. Because the most effective way to create societies that are cohesive and resilient is to build a system that protects the full human rights of every individual, in equality, dignity and justice.