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Statement by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic at the Side-event on the margins of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly on Launch of OHCHR’s Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders

New York, 23 October 2014


Distinguished delegates, colleagues and friends

Today more than 232 million people live outside their country of origin. There are more international migrants in the world than at any other time in history and this trend is only expected to grow.

From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and the deserts of the United States of America, we continue to see countless avoidable deaths of migrants in the course of their journeys. This year, in the Mediterranean alone, more than 3,000 people died while trying to cross the sea, whilst another 120,000 were rescued.

There are many reasons why migrants leave their countries of origin: to escape poverty or discrimination, or simply to reunite with family, or to seek a better job or life elsewhere. In their pursuit of better futures, every day migrants cross, or attempt to cross, air, sea or land borders, often, at great personal risk.

Tightened control of international borders, increased border surveillance measures and a reduction of channels for regular entry, force migrants to seek more precarious and dangerous avenues to arrive at their destinations. All too often they fall prey to traffickers and smugglers, who exploit their vulnerability.

Migrants face a number of human rights violations when they cross borders: discrimination; arbitrary detention; unlawful profiling, ill-treatment and torture, to name only a few. Dangerous interception and push-back operations are common and may lead to death.

One of the problems is that border governance is often prompted solely by national security considerations and are perceived as zones of exception of human rights obligations. Policies curtailing migration often result in the diversion of migrants into irregular channels where vulnerabilities are exacerbated.

As stated by High Commissioner Zeid at the opening of the Human Rights Council a few weeks ago: “Human rights are not reserved for citizens only, or for people with visas. They are the inalienable rights of every individual, regardless of his or her location and migration status. A tendency to promote law enforcement and security paradigms at the expense of human rights dehumanises irregular migrants, enabling a climate of violence against them and further depriving them of the full protection of the law.”


Against this background, I am pleased to launch OHCHR’s Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders.

These are guidelines aimed at translating the international human rights framework into practical measures for border governance. The Guidelines, which accompany the report of the Secretary-General on the Protection of Migrants (A/69/277), were presented to the 69th session of the General Assembly yesterday; and are available online.

The Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders before you today are aimed primarily at States. They seek to support them in fulfilling their border governance obligations in accordance with international human rights law and other relevant standards. However, they will also be useful to other actors including international organizations and civil society concerned with border governance and private actors.

The document sets out three guiding principles: the primacy of human rights law; the principle of non-discrimination and assistance and protection from harm. They list 10 Guidelines. The Principles place human rights and non-discrimination at the centre of border governance.

While recognising that States have legitimate interests when they exercise immigration controls, they must also respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of migrants at borders. All migrants arriving by land, air or sea, regardless of their migration status or circumstances, are entitled to equal respect for, and protection of, their human rights, without discrimination of any kind. The respect for the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their status, promotes effective governance of borders, rather than hinders it.

The 10 Guidelines contain practical border governance measures. I will now highlight some of their main messages:

1) States should improve knowledge and address negative perceptions of migrants, including through the media, and by ensuring the term “illegal” is not used to refer to migrants in an irregular situation.

2) Relevant domestic legislation needs to be brought in line with international human rights standards. This means ensuring that provisions of non-discrimination, mandatory protection and assistance, non-criminalisation, accountability, and access to justice and redress, are enshrined within national legislation.

3) Border authorities need to be trained to ensure that they are able to comply with human rights standards. Adequate resources and proper mechanisms need to be put in place to assist to that end

4) Rescue operations should ensure the human rights, safety and dignity of all persons at risk. Relieving imminent danger to lives and ensuring safety should be the first priority for border authorities, as well as private shipmasters.

5) At places of rescue, interception or disembarkation, immediate assistance should be provided where necessary. This should include medical care, provision of adequate food and water, blankets, clothing, and sanitary items.

6) Human rights-based approaches to screening and interviewing people at borders require individualized determination of situations and reasons for entry, as well as the appropriate identification of individuals at particular risk who should be referred on for particular attention.

7) Border authorities should be able to rapidly identify and refer migrants who may be at risk, particularly children, pregnant or breastfeeding women or victims of violence, including sexual or gender-based violence. It is also essential that service providers, such as interpreters, legal aid and health service workers, are present at international borders.

8) Alternatives to detention should always be sought for irregular migrants. Any deprivation of liberty should only be a measure of last resort and the reasons for detention should be clearly defined in law, be of limited duration, necessary and proportionate. Children should never be detained on the basis of their or their parents’ migration status.

9) Any decisions to remove or return migrants should be carried out in accordance with international law and with due procedural guarantees, including upholding the principle of non-refoulement and the prohibition of collective expulsion.

10) Strong bilateral, regional and international cooperation is needed in order to promote human rights-based, equitable, dignified, lawful and evidence-based migration and border governance measures.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights looks forward to further engage with Member States, UN agencies, human rights mechanisms, civil society organisations and private actors for the effective implementation of these Principles and Guidelines.

Thank you for your attention.