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Opening Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Panel Discussion - Promoting tolerance, dispelling myths, protecting rights: an evidence-based conversation on migration


Geneva, 15 December 2015
Room XX

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Last week, in Canada, one of the country’s main newspapers ran a big front page headline addressing the first of the 25,000 Syrian refugees due to be resettled in the country by the end of February. It said: “Welcome to Canada.” And then repeated the phrase in Arabic. The country’s new Prime Minister greeted the refugees with warm words at the airport. Perhaps most moving of all were the words of a little Canadian girl to the Syrian children taking their first steps on Canadian soil: “It’s a very nice place here,” she said. “There is no war and you can go to school safely and….Welcome!”  Similar sentiments went viral on Canadian social media.

What a contrast to the words and attitudes of an increasing number of politicians, newspaper commentators and social media and internet trolls, and – unfortunately – an increasing number of ordinary citizens who are being influenced by them, in so many other countries. 

Various political figures have likened Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs,” called Mexican migrants “rapists,”  referred to “swarms” of migrants, and suggested banning all Muslims from entering their countries, and placing all those already there into camps.

In one European country, a tabloid newspaper recently published a cartoon depicting migrants as a mixture of rats and men with guns -- disturbingly similar to 1930s Nazi cartoons that used rats to depict the Jews. Earlier a columnist in another tabloid described migrants as “cockroaches,” a word also used by the Nazis as well as by Rwanda’s infamous Radio Mille Collines during the run-up to the genocide there. For many humans, the first instinct when seeing a rat or a cockroach is to want to kill it – and in Nazi-occupied Europe and Rwanda the people who were described in these terms were subsequently killed in huge numbers. We need to be clear: this kind of rhetoric has led, and still can lead, to violence.

I have repeatedly condemned these types of statements, which in my view come dangerously close to incitement to hatred, which is forbidden under international law. In many countries, the legislation designed to stop incitement is focused solely on race. Migrants are not a race, they are simply foreign. So making these kinds of comments appears to be cost-free. In fact, arousing the racist that lies inside all of us is a tactic that is, today, once again winning votes, and the alarm bells of history are increasingly falling on deaf ears.

These are by no means phenomena that are confined to Western Europe, North America and Australia. The rise of ethnic nationalism – ethnic exceptionalism – and its accompaniments, racism and xenophobia, are found everywhere: in Africa, where migrants from other African nations are sometimes attacked and killed. In Asia, where people including migrants are sometimes subjected to violence or killed on the basis of their foreign origins or religion. In Latin America, where transiting migrants are subjected to horrendous human rights violations by criminal gangs. And in Eastern Europe, where in some countries having a dark skin can dramatically increase the chances of being attacked in the street.

Our panel discussion takes place in celebration of Human Rights Day and International Migrants’ Day and it is my hope that we can use our conversation today to dispel some myths and promote tolerance. I am delighted in particular to be joined on the panel and in the room by migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees from around the world who will tell their stories and share their views. Hearing the voice of migrants and enabling them to participate equally is at the heart of a human rights-based approach to migration.

It is also my pleasure to welcome UNHCR, our sister agency and partner in the campaign to prevent and combat xenophobia, as well as the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency and the important research that they have conducted in this regard.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The words we use in the conversation about migration are key because they feed the myths, and stoke the idea that migrants damage or in some way diminish their host society. Over the past two decades, terminology has increasingly been used to distance migrants and their communities from the mainstream, to stigmatise them as the “Other”. It is not simply extreme words like “cockroach.” It is also words such as “flood,” “horde,” and “burden.”

In the human rights community, we have also long resisted the use of the word “illegal” to describe migrants who are in an irregular or undocumented situation. A person can never be illegal. We have made clear that using this term encourages stigmatisation and even criminalisation of migrants who have done nothing more than enter a country without proper authorisation. They have committed no crime against persons, property or national security.

The word ‘migrant’ is used to cover a diverse array of people who move to and live in a country that is not their own. The word itself tells us nothing about why a person left her home, the treatment she receives along her journey, or where she is headed. But international law does illuminate the specific human rights of particular groups of migrants; that refugees are entitled to protection from persecution and conflict, that all actions taken in respect of children must be in their best interests, that every person on the move is protected from return to torture and other serious human rights violations. When I use the word “migrant” my intention is not to exclude refugees or other more precisely defined groups, but rather to reclaim the term as a neutral umbrella for a group of people who have in common a lack of citizenship attachment to their host country. All human beings have human rights and must be treated with dignity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

How do we change this twisted and dangerous narrative? The answer is simple. By telling the truth, and exposing those who lie and distort. Too much migration policy is being made on too little evidence. Facts, rather than myths, prejudices and flawed assumptions, should guide policy-making. So when governments tell their publics that they are going to stop migrants claiming social benefits, they are falsely implying that most migrants arrive in the country just to claim these benefits. In fact, as research in the OECD countries shows very clearly, migrants add more to the public purse through taxes and social contributions than they take out in benefits. Similarly, politicians often promise to limit migration in order to reduce crime and enhance security, when there is no evidence that migrants are more prone to criminality than any other group of people.

Demographic trends show that many destination countries are experiencing population decline. Care needs are increasing, and there are fewer young people to look after an increasingly elderly population. Migrant workers are desperately needed to fill this gap – it has been estimated that the German labour market will require half a million migrants annually until 2050. Already, over the past ten years, we know that migrants represented 47 percent of the increase in the workforce in the United States, and 70 percent in Europe.

Research tells us that people consistently overestimate the numbers of migrants in their country. Concerns over foreigners stealing jobs ignore the data showing that migrants generally stimulate the economy, and reflect misplaced fears about unemployment rates, the viability of welfare systems and other aspects of globalization.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The effort to change an often damaging public narrative on migration must be a multi-stakeholder effort, bringing together governments, local authorities, civil society, the media, and migrants themselves in order to tell the story as it really is. Together, we must:

  • Confront hate speech and incitement to hatred against migrants, and combat impunity for xenophobic violence and other manifestations of xenophobia.
  • Emphasize that the vast majority of migrants do not pose a security or terrorism threat, and re-evaluate the wisdom of linking migration policy primarily with the internal security agenda.
  • Publicize the benefits migrants bring to the economy, and the ways they fill gaps in the labour force, pointing out that many services in our major cities would collapse without them.
  • Place a stronger focus on the exploitation and victimization that many migrants suffer. The Migrant Workers Convention celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and, together with the other core human rights instruments, provides vital guidance to decision-makers – yet few countries have ratified it.

The promise inherent in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to “leave no one behind” must result in more and better data about migrant communities. We know already that all migrants are rights-holders, and that their contributions are significant - they are, for instance, far more likely to be working in a hospital than unfairly using its resources.

When more than 200 migrant children lose their lives in a single year trying to cross the Mediterranean this is the only wake-up call we should need to demand better, more principled migration governance. Policy which affects so many lives should be made on the basis of values and evidence, not fantasy or malice.

We adults need to learn from the attitude of that little Canadian girl who found it so easy to empathize with Syrian refugee children the same age as herself. Unless we do, we cannot have greater responsibility-sharing when it comes to the conditions giving rise to migration on a massive scale.

Thank you, and I look forward to an enriching conversation this afternoon.