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Address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Global Forum on Migration and Development/Civil Society Days

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
8 November 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
I am very pleased to be with you today to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
 
The challenges of protection of migrants and management of migration are central issues of governance worldwide and key concerns to governments and international organizations, as well as human rights advocates.
 
Migration continues to grow in numbers because it is essential for the present and future well-being, if not economic survival, of many individuals, communities and whole countries. Decades of work by the UN and relevant specialized agencies –which are members of the GMG – have amply demonstrated that protection of migrants’ rights is inseparable from human and economic development and social cohesion.
 
Let me remind you that 2010 also marks the 35th anniversary of ILO Convention 143 on migrant workers.  This treaty, together with the UN convention on migration, embodies the principles that can make migration an empowering and rewarding experience not only for migrants, but also for their countries of origin and destination. International law encapsulates a rights-based approach, and thus forms an essential part of the rule of law framework that is the necessary foundation for, and complement to, good practices in migration management. 
 
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
Migration today is a feature of international labour and skills mobility, and migrants contribute significantly to economic and social advances in the countries of origin as well as destination. The ILO estimates that there are approximately 105 million economically active persons living outside their countries of birth or citizenship in 2010.[1]  A significant number of them were motivated to move by the lack of opportunities at home due to the low level of development and employment. Other migrants’ movements are encouraged by a demand abroad for the specific skills they can offer.
 
Those who leave their countries often possess the resourcefulness that allows them to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings and often trying circumstances.  They become eager contributors to the welfare of the communities that receive them and integrate them successfully.
 
But we also need to be mindful that migrants are often vulnerable to discrimination, intolerance, xenophobia and racism. Irregular migrants are particularly exposed to abuse, such as denial of access to basic health care, adequate housing, sexual harassment, violence, or worse.  It may mean that they are compelled to accept disproportionate health and safety risks, lower or no wages.  They may be forced to forego their right to freely associate with others and join a trade union.  Such discriminatory practices are breaches of international law.  They must not be allowed to continue.   
 

Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
       The experiences of developed and developing countries shows that reducing exploitation and ensuring equality of treatment are essential elements for building prosperity, social cohesion and democratic governance.  A comprehensive body of law that protects the rights of migrants has been developed over the last century which reflects not only noble principles but also practical experience. History shows that well-being and social peace in nations can only be sustained under conditions of democratic rule with the credibility and enforceability provided under the rule of law.  
 
The failure to protect vulnerable individuals, as well as impunity for abuses perpetrated against these people, undermines the rule of law and peaceful co-existence.  When international standards of protection are deliberately violated or ignored, then almost inevitably the price for societies to pay is an escalation of prejudice and even strife predicated on ethnic or religious divides.   This discrimination may create permanently disenfranchised groups whose discontent and frustration could ultimately trigger violent protest which, in turn, is met with counter-violence.  Once ignited, such vicious cycle of hatred and retribution is difficult to break.
 
There is no doubt that a human rights-based approach to migration will contribute to effective policy decisions. Migrants with legal status are entitled to equality of treatment and non-discrimination vis-à-vis nationals in employment and work; only this will prevent unfair and exploitative competition and ensure adequate conditions of work for both national and foreign workers alike.
 
Let me underscore that universal human rights norms apply to all migrants, regardless of immigration status. This was stressed by the GMG Principals in their recent joint statement on protecting the human rights of migrants in irregular situations.  Immigration status does not obliterate the fact that all migrants are, first and foremost, human beings entitled to be treated with dignity and respect in law and practice. In this regard, we observe that the use of terminology as “illegal migrants” promotes exclusion by implicitly justifying differential treatment. I cannot overemphasize that migrants in irregular situations cannot be denied their human rights.
 
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
The Convention, together with ILO Convention 97 on Migration for Employment and ILO Convention 143 on migrant workers (Supplementary Provisions), is today commonly referred to as an international charter on migration.
 
The Convention, as one of the ten core United Nations human rights treaties, sets migrant workers’ rights squarely within the human rights normative framework. It obliges States parties to establish concrete benchmarks and provides a set of guidelines for policy-markers in respect of the specific vulnerabilities of migrants. The Convention is also an important instrument for international cooperation, with provisions to encourage and guide intergovernmental consultation, information sharing and cooperation on all aspects of international migration.
 
Today, we can appreciate the relevance of the “International charter on migration” even more in the context of the global financial crisis, which as you know is also a global employment crisis.  Data compiled by ILO, the International Organization for Migration and other institutions confirm that the crisis has had an especially serious impact on migrants, who are often the first to be laid off, without the benefit of an adequate social safety net. Their situation becomes even more serious when they are in an irregular situation. In this regard, I am particularly concerned at the recent rise of intolerance, xenophobia and racism directed at migrants and their communities, including acts of extremist violence against migrants in transit which are, sadly, much too common. 
 
Ladies and gentlemen,
 
The 20th anniversary is an occasion to take stock of the progress made. Today, 44 states have ratified and 16 have signed the Convention. As many as 82 countries – nearly two-thirds of the 130-some countries for which international migration is an important feature - have ratified at least one of the three complementary conventions on migrant workers.  A majority of concerned States have already integrated international legal standards on migration in their domestic legislation. Such progress is certainly due in no small part to the tireless efforts of civil society organizations, working in partnership with Governments.  Here I salute the inspiration and guidance provided by the Steering Committee for the ratification of the Convention, a unique gathering of international organizations and civil society that work together not only to promote ratification but also compliance with the Convention.
 
I take this opportunity to invite States that have not done so to consider signing and ratifying or acceding to the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and thus seize the opportunity to send a strong signal that you are committed to ensuring the human rights of every person. For State parties to the Convention, I urge you to make the rights enshrined in international law a reality for all.
 
I also encourage States parties to make the declarations provided for in articles 76 and 77 of the Convention recognizing the competence of the Committee to receive communications from States parties and individuals.
 
This is also the occasion to call for the strengthening of anti-discrimination measures everywhere. Racist violence and xenophobia against foreigners must be countered with all appropriate legal and administrative means, perpetrators must be prosecuted vigorously, and education that promotes our common human values, teaches respect and tolerance – in short, human rights education – must be pursued with urgency. This is the minimum effort incumbent upon all countries, whether countries of origin, transit or destination, in order to prevent manifestations of xenophobia and stem intolerance at its roots.
 
How our societies treat migrants will determine whether we succeed in building societies based on justice, democracy, dignity and human security for all. The standards-based international organizations stand ready to assist our Member States in this vital task.
 
Thank you.