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Rich countries must not become xenophobic “gated communities”, warns UN rights chief Zeid

Human rights for all - including migrants

10 December 2014

GENEVA (10 December 2014) – As the world marks Human Rights Day today, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned that the depiction of migrants as “invasive hordes”, who are “threatening our way of life” and “jumping the queue” must stop, and States must act with full respect for the human rights of all – including migrants.

“Rich countries must not become gated communities, their people averting their eyes from the bloodstains in the driveway,” High Commissioner Zeid said.

“From the Mediterranean to the Pacific and Indian Oceans – as well as in the Middle East, the Americas and beyond – migrant crises cry out urgently for rational and coordinated action. Unilateral attempts to close borders are almost certainly futile, and the response cannot just lie in aggressive, and often counterproductive, anti-smuggling plans.”

Speaking at the 2014 Dialogue on Protection Challenges organised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees*, Zeid said that many countries appeared to view migrants – particularly those in an irregular administrative situation – as somehow undeserving of human rights.

“Today it seems that only a tragedy involving hundreds of deaths calls for compassion. One or two bodies washing up on a rock: this barely makes the news. Migrants are depicted as invasive, by a belligerent vocabulary – people “flooding”, "swamping", "jumping the queue," "threatening our way of life",” he said.

Zeid added that policies that seek to stamp out migration do not decrease the numbers of would-be migrants. Rather, they exacerbate the dangers they endure, create zones of lawlessness and impunity at borders, and corrode the values of freedom, equality and human dignity that States are bound to uphold.

“The near-closure of legal migration channels and ever higher barriers to entry drove them to seek highly dangerous sea routes, which also made them more vulnerable to abuse along the way,” he added.

“When migrants are left to drift for weeks without access to food and water; when ships deliberately refuse to rescue migrants in distress; when children in search of family reunification are detained indefinitely, denied education and care, or returned to perilous situations – these are grave human rights violations.”

Zeid stressed that States have a right to determine who enters their territory. But this is limited by the requirements of international law. People in distress at sea must be rescued and States must refrain from using harsh interception and deterrence measures to prevent people from reaching their territory. On arrival, every person has the right to individual determination of her or his situation, and specific attention must be paid to those who are at particular risk, such as children, pregnant women, victims of torture, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, persons with disabilities, and older persons.

“Regardless of status, no-one should be subjected to prolonged or arbitrary detention, discriminatory decision-making, unlawful profiling, or disproportionate interference with the right to privacy,” the High Commissioner stressed. “The absolute prohibition on refoulement must be upheld.”

Zeid called on States to set up structured regional response mechanisms that cover both push factors in countries of origin and pull factors in destination countries – such as the demographic and economic gaps that migrants clearly help to fill. Above all, far more emphasis needs to be given to protecting rights and saving lives.

“The siege mentality fanned by an increasing number of populist leaders is disgraceful and dishonest, and must end. Indeed perhaps we can even say there is a mean-spiritedness that marks the general attitude in some countries,” he said. “When migrants are welcomed and fully integrated into society, they can be a tremendous asset.”

The UN Human Rights Office last month issued the OHCHR Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders, which give practical guidance to assist States to integrate human rights in rescue and interception, as well as in border screening processes.

“Ultimately, unless they can access safe and regular migration channels, desperate people may continue to brave the perils of the sea in search of protection, opportunity and hope. In their place, we would probably do the same. And perhaps only this recognition of our common humanity can guide us to make the right choices in response,” Zeid said.


Read the High Commissioner’s full speech here:

* For more information about the UNHCR Dialogue on Protection Challenges, please see:

For further information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 /
[email protected]) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / [email protected])

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