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Opening Statement by Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chair of the Global Migration Group

10 November 2010

Good morning,

I should like to begin by making it clear that I am here in Puerto Vallarta in my current capacity as Chair of the Global Migration Group. The Global Migration Group is a consortium of 14 UN agencies as well as the World Bank and the International Organization for Migration. So, 16 international agencies in all which have joined together to encourage the adoption of more coherent, comprehensive and better coordinated approaches to international migration issues.

The different agencies take it in turn to Chair the Group, and my organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is filling that role until the end of this year.

So that is why I have been focusing exclusively on issues relating to migration during my stay. I plan to return to Mexico next year wearing my normal hat as High Commissioner for Human Rights, for a regular country visit. So, if you have general human rights questions, unrelated to migration, please be patient. I intend to give Mexico the attention it deserves in the very near future, but that is not the purpose of this particular visit.

Mexico is, as we all know, a major country of origin for migrants, especially to the United States. It is, however, also a country of destination and transit for many thousands of migrants coming from elsewhere in Latin America and even from further afield. With ongoing experience of all three aspects of migration, Mexico is an especially suitable host for this year’s Global Forum on Migration and Development.  

Mexico, of course, is not alone in confronting migration, which is one of the most monumental human rights challenges of our modern globalized world. Currently, around 214 million people are estimated to be living outside their country of origin. Migration affects us all. Many countries are now simultaneously countries of origin, transit and destination. Migrants contribute to economic growth and human development both in countries of origin and destination. Officially recorded remittance flows to developing countries alone estimated to reach $325 billion in 2010, according to the World Bank’s Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011. This does not include the substantial amount of remittances to developed countries, five of which are among the top 20 recipients of migrant remittances. But positive contributions of migrants go far beyond the economic realm. Migrants enrich societies through cultural diversity, by introducing new practices, ideas and technology, fostering understanding and respect among peoples, and contributing to demographic balance and the labour force in aging societies.

Perhaps the most important point to stress is that migrants, whether regular or irregular, should enjoy the same fundamental human rights as anyone else. Unfortunately, all too often they do not, which is something we are seeking to rectify.

Migrants in an irregular situation face discrimination, exclusion, exploitation and abuse while in transit or at their final destination. They are often denied even the most basic labour protections, due process guarantees, personal security, and healthcare. In many countries, they face prolonged detention or ill-treatment, and in the worst cases enslavement, rape, enforced prostitution or even murder.

They are targeted by xenophobes and racists, victimized by unscrupulous employers and sexual predators, and all too easily fall into the hands of criminal traffickers and smugglers. Because of their irregular status, these men, women and children are often afraid or unable to seek protection and relief from the authorities of their countries of origin and final destination, as well as in the countries through which they transit. They are among the most vulnerable and most abused groups on the planet, and the abuse they suffer often takes place in the dark. Government authorities, the media, the general public, often behave as though abuse of a migrant somehow matters less than the abuse of a regular citizen. It does not. A child is a child, a woman is a woman, a man is a man: whoever and wherever they may happen to be, at home or abroad.

All too often, and perhaps more so now than ever before, States are tending to address irregular migration solely through the lens of sovereignty, border security or law enforcement, sometimes driven by hostile domestic constituencies. Yet there is ample evidence to show that migrants help make economies and societies more dynamic and prosperous. Ending the criminalization of irregular migrants, reducing barriers to human mobility and expanding channels for regular migration could bring considerable gains not just to migrants themselves but to society in general. However, instead of being seen as a potential asset, migrants – especially irregular migrants – tend to be viewed as a burden, a problem that must be contained or repelled. As such, they are dehumanized and the abuse of their rights is all too often seen as more or less legitimate. Something they have brought on themselves, something they deserve.

Although States have legitimate interests in securing their borders and exercising immigration controls, such concerns do not trump their obligations to respect the internationally guaranteed rights of all persons. These rights include the rights to life, liberty and security, the right to seek and enjoy asylum, the right to a fair trial and to legal redress, the rights to health, food, adequate housing, and just and favourable conditions of work. They include the rights to be free from arbitrary arrest or detention, to be free from discrimination, and to be free from slavery, involuntary servitude or torture. All these rights are guaranteed by the core international human rights treaties and other instruments, as well as by customary international law.

Human rights violations against migrants are often closely linked to discriminatory laws and practice, and to deep-seated prejudice and xenophobia which can be found in all societies. The principle of non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law and runs across all international human rights instruments inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

International law is unambiguous. It prohibits discriminatory treatment of migrants, whether they are in regular or irregular situations, and protects their rights and freedoms. It views migrants as human beings like everyone else.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. All the members of the Global Migration Group which I am representing here today join together to urge those States that have not yet done so to ratify the Convention and ensure its effective implementation. It is, I am sad to say, one of the least subscribed to of all the international human rights conventions. I hope that this year’s Global Forum on Migration and Development will help to stimulate more States to ratify this important but shamefully neglected international instrument. As we have seen during the course of the Global Forum, there is a lot to do if we are to rectify the ill-treatment of millions of migrants around the world, but signing up to the Convention specifically dedicated to their protection would be a good start.

Thank you.