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Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at Session II – Migration across the post-2015 agenda, IOM New York Migration Series “Defining the role of migration in the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda"

New York, 17 December 2014

Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

Thank you for inviting me to speak on this vital topic. Few could be closer to my heart.

We human beings are a migratory species. As the Secretary General’s recently released report on Post-2015 puts it, “we are a mobile world”. And may I say that whether your forebears had visas, or were in an irregular administrative situation, they were not "illegal migrants": there is no such thing as an illegal human being. On the contrary, all migrants – regular or irregular – have an inalienable claim to dignity, to justice, to freedom and to all other human rights.

Yet, as I speak, all over the world, migrants are discriminated against and attacked. They are exploited by unscrupulous employers, often with the collusion of government officials indifferent to labour laws. Their rights to adequate healthcare, education and other services are trampled. It appears at times that migrants are considered by some to be somehow sub-human, somehow undeserving of the most fundamental human rights.

Equality and non-discrimination

The post-2015 development agenda will be a powerful opportunity to deliver more equitable and sustainable development. But if it does not include protection of the human rights of all people, including migrants, then it will fail to meet one of its core objectives of ‘leaving no one behind’. The Secretary General has said unequivocally that the agenda ‘must not exclude migrants’. Equality and non-discrimination must be consistently integrated across all economic, social and environmental policies. They are powerful drivers of development.

The current selective application of labour laws in certain sectors – such as agriculture, construction, or domestic service – is both inhumane, and counterproductive.  Similarly, refusing to give migrants and their families access to education, health-care and other key services is both morally indefensible and practically short-sighted. Persistent discrimination of this kind generates sharp inequalities which threaten the social fabric. No society can develop to its true potential when legal, social or political barriers prevent entire sectors, such as migrants, from contributing.

Some States are hesitant to include attention to migrants in the post-2015 agenda, because they see irregular migrants, in particular, as a drain on their economies. But the evidence disputes this. My Office has recently published a study on the legal and practical barriers that prevent migrants in an irregular situation from enjoying the rights to health, education, housing, work and social security. It shows that migrants do not move with the objective of cheating social security systems or misusing services. In fact, they often do the jobs that no one else wants, and are typically less likely to claim benefits than others.

Technical points

Disaggregated data is crucial for formulating and monitoring public policies, and the lack of such data is widely recognized to have been a key failing of the MDGs. If we hope to tackle inequalities and ‘leave no one behind’, it will be vital to correct this. But numerous studies have established that migrants are largely ignored by official data sources, either because the census and other surveys fail to focus on them as a group, or because migrants are reluctant to reveal themselves to the authorities, fearing detection and its consequences. The post-2015 agenda must include a commitment to providing relevant data that includes all migrants.

OHCHR welcomes the Open Working Group’s first draft of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Secretary-General’s synthesis report, which place people at the centre of development, and give explicit attention to migrants and other marginalised social groups. The strong emphasis on data disaggregation – including 'migratory status', in target 17.1 – will help to focus attention on the needs and rights of migrants and their families. My Office will be able to provide further assistance, as we have been developing - in collaboration with UNICEF, ILO and civil society partners - a set of human rights indicators for migrants and their families, with an initial focus on their rights to health, education and decent work.

We also welcome Target 8.8's call for protection of labour rights of migrant workers, particularly women migrants and those in precarious employment as well as the inclusive language used in other targets regarding universal health coverage, education and the provision of birth registration. 

However, as we approach the next phase of intergovernmental negotiations, other aspects of the Working Group's draft deserved to be strengthened. Target 10.7, which seeks to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration" with "planned and well-managed migration policies” without further qualification, may encourage an approach that is overly focused on law enforcement and national security. We should be emphasizing a vision of migrants as people – not as interlopers that can be declared "illegal" and mistreated.  Rather than “well-managed migration policies”, this target should call for “well-governed migration and social inclusion policies, in accordance with international standards on the human rights of migrants”. 


Only societies that respect migrants and which prevent violence against them can claim to be peaceful. Only leaders who stand firmly against the abuse and exploitation of migrants can claim to uphold human rights.

True development seeks to eliminate marginalisation, vulnerability and powerlessness. It seeks to promote accountability and justice for all, and a voice for all in decision-making.

The whole point of development is to promote the human rights of all:  to enable freedom from want and from fear, without discrimination. Economic growth that does not promote the human rights of everyone, regardless of their nationality or legal status, is a poor shadow of what true development means. And denying full expression of the talents of every individual holds everyone back.  The Post-2015 agenda is an opportunity to correct this.