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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Opening Statement by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to a Panel to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families

08 September 2015

8 September 2015

Distinguished Chairperson and members of the Committee
Ladies and gentlemen

It is a great pleasure to be with you today to mark this thought-provoking anniversary. And it is a privilege to be able to speak in person to the Committee, the States parties, civil society and UN colleagues who together work for the implementation of this key international normative text on the human rights of all migrant workers and their families.

Migration is among the defining human rights issues of our era. This much should be clear to even the casual observer of news events. Since becoming High Commissioner last year, I have attempted to draw greater focus to the rights of migrants, be it their right to life and security of person, their rights to health and education, or the scourge of intolerance and xenophobia that drives violations of migrants’ rights. In this I am joined by many other voices, including the Secretary-General and the broader UN, the Human Rights Council, and the treaty bodies.

There are of course opposing voices, which see migrants’ rights differently, or that implicitly suggest that migrants have no rights at all. It is in these situations that the international human rights law framework shows its relevance. Agreed international norms and standards provide the framework and limits for these often difficult and fraught discussions. And the expert views and analysis of the treaty bodies, in this case notably the Committee on Migrant Workers, provide a sound basis upon which those advocating for the rights of migrants – such as myself – can work. I take this opportunity to thank the Committee for its intellectual leadership on the issue of migrant workers’ rights. Let me give two examples. In their interpretations of the Convention, the Committee members have notably emphasised the requirement to protect migrant domestic workers under national labour laws, and rejected the criminalization of irregular immigration – two very significant areas in which more thoughtful policies would profoundly benefit millions of vulnerable people.

And yet even with a clear view of the rights that migrant workers enjoy under international law, we face enormous challenges in our drive to make sure that migrants and their families fully enjoy their human rights during their journeys, and in schools and workplaces across the globe. The rights of migrant workers are frequently, indeed routinely, violated. They work in dangerous or harmful conditions, with high incidences of injury, death and sickness; receive wages far under the minimum baseline; and are subjected to fraudulent practices, excessive working hours and even illegal confinement by their employers, as well as sexual harassment, threats and intimidation. Their families are also vulnerable to human rights abuses in other contexts.

These abuses of migrants are intensified when their immigration status is irregular. Not only are they often denied even the most basic labour protections, personal security, due process guarantees, healthcare and, in the case of their children, education; they may also face abuses at international borders, including prolonged detention or ill-treatment. And in some cases they risk being trafficked, enslaved, sexually assaulted or murdered.

The current migration crises across the globe, from the seas around South East Asia and Australia to the Mediterranean and the deserts of the United States and Mexico, highlight the fundamental importance of the Convention, as a robust and agreed international legal framework for the rights of all migrant workers and their families in countries of origin, transit and destination. The Convention lays out the most effective strategies for preventing abuses. It brings assistance to policy-makers who face the challenges associated with governance of migration by providing guidance on policy-making and international co-operation based on respect for human rights and rule of law. States codified it into a legally binding treaty because they grasped the importance of providing sound, equitable and lawful conditions for all migrant workers and their families.

After a quarter-century, the Convention is now more relevant than ever. And yet there have been a very low number of ratifications to this vital text – 48, the second lowest of all human rights treaties. No major destination country has ratified the Convention.

Gaining new ratifications remains a priority. Let me be clear: States do have legitimate interests in securing their borders and exercising immigration controls. However, international law is also clear: such concerns cannot over-ride the obligations of the State to respect the internationally guaranteed human rights of all persons. The Migrant Workers Convention does not lay down new categories of human rights; it is rooted in the two international Covenants. It sets out in greater detail how international human rights are to be applied to migrant workers and their families – but migrants are also protected to varying degrees by all the other core human rights treaties, meaning that all States have accepted international human rights standards relating to migrants. Ratification of the Convention should thus be viewed as a logical and principled next step.

The juxtaposition of this landmark 25th anniversary with today's dramatic and accelerating migration crises underscores the urgent need to begin a more honest discussion about the obstacles to ratification of the Convention. Is there confusion about alleged security problems arising from promoting basic human rights for migrant workers? Is there a perception that such human rights will involve massive legislative and regulatory reforms, and undue cost? Do specific business sectors that rely on exploitative treatment of irregular migrants have undue influence? Are opinion-leaders scapegoating migrants, and depriving them of their right to claim basic human freedoms, for short-term political gains, or in response to deep-seated xenophobia?

Migration is a daily reality, and we should welcome that fact. It can and should be a positive and empowering experience for individuals and their societies; one that contributes to economic progress and human development, both at home and in destination countries. When migrants – particularly irregular migrants –– are subjected to ill-treatment and discrimination by their countries of destination without hope of redress that not only contravenes international law but is also deeply corrosive to the values of society as a whole.

A clear and honest vision of the need for migrant labour in destination countries, with commensurate channels for regular migration at all skill levels, as well as for family reunification, would assist greatly in preventing the exploitation and other dangers faced by so many people seeking to live a life in dignity. I also urge much deeper work to address the root causes of these desperate attempts to flee. Migration should be a choice. Conflict, poverty, discrimination and poor governance – four key factors which push people to risk their lives in search of safety and decent work – must be addressed with profound and long-term international cooperation. With real efforts by States to implement the post-2015 sustainable development agenda – which pays specific attention to migrants, among other groups – we can hope to address and eliminate some of these root causes.

In applying the Convention, this Committee consistently calls on States parties to enhance regular migration channels and address the root causes of forced and irregular migration, such as violence, insecurity, impunity, corruption, poverty, unemployment, income inequality, discrimination and lack of access to healthcare and education. The guidance and policy solutions laid out in the Convention 25 years ago have striking pertinence for policy-makers in 2015, and I trust that all remaining States will seize this opportunity to review its contents and consider its ratification.