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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the panel discussion marking the launching of the Joint General Comments by the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the human rights of children in the context of international migration; New York, 18 December 2017

Putting migrant children’s rights upfront

18 December 2017

Putting migrant children’s rights upfront: Challenges and duties in protecting the human rights of children in the context of international migration


On behalf of the UN Human Rights Office, I am very pleased to be here to mark the launching of these two joint general comments by the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child – one covering general principles and the other delving into the obligations of States. We congratulate both Committees for this significant achievement, and wish to thank the many partners, especially UNICEF, for their support. The recent adoption of the joint general comments by the Committees followed a widespread consultation process in every region of the world.

Both in its causes and its effects, migration cuts across all pillars of the UN – peace and security, development, and human rights. For us, migration has evolved into one of the defining human rights issues of our time. There are more than 244 million migrants, most in developing countries. 30 million of them are children. And we believe we are on the cusp of far greater international mobility due to numerous push and pull factors, many involuntary, including poverty, inequalities, repression, conflict, poor governance and environmental degradation.

At least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were recorded in 80 countries in 2015 and 2016. According to UNICEF, this is a rise of almost 500 per cent since 2011. But we believe the total number of unaccompanied and separated children on the move worldwide is likely to be far higher even than that.

Migration can be especially dangerous for children, whose vulnerability to human rights abuses – including at the hands of unscrupulous smuggling networks – is that much more acute.

Last month, the bodies of 26 teenage girls were found floating in the Mediterranean near Italy. These girls were probably victims of sex trafficking, originally picked-up in southern Nigeria, held in Libya and then sent to Italy in dinghies. Aid workers suspect that they were tortured and raped, and we fear they will never be identified. The Central Mediterranean migration route is one of the world’s deadliest, with over 4,500 deaths – including 700 children – recorded in 2016. Similarly dangerous is the route through Southeast Asia in the Andaman Sea, where the risks are multiplied for children, especially those who are unaccompanied.

The heart-breaking image of the tiny corpse of Alan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish beach in 2015 at least made headlines, but it seems we are becoming far too immune to such tragedies.

In Libyan cities, as has been well reported, African men and boys are now being bought and sold in broad daylight in modern-day slave markets. I never thought I would see actual footage of contemporary slave-markets. It’s a new low for us all. Unaccompanied child migrants in Europe from the Middle East and beyond are being forced to sell their bodies to pay smugglers. Boys from Cambodia and Myanmar are forced into hard labour in the fishing ports of Southeast Asia. In Mexico, children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are called canguritos, little kangaroos, because of the plastic trays of candy, cigarettes and other goods strapped across their mid-sections.

As many as half a million Central American migrants take la Bestia – or the beast – a train that crosses Mexico heading north towards the United States riding on top of the rail cars or in the recesses between them. One in five is a child. Thousands of children have died or have been gravely injured aboard the beast – either because of the train itself or smugglers, thieves, and police who threaten, blackmail or attack people on board. Others are raped, abducted or murdered.

How many more children will fall victim to such extreme violations of human dignity before the world community faces these issues head on? It should be deeply troubling that the world community, in particular the major States of destination, have not had the moral or political courage to recognize all human rights of migrants, regardless of their status, including child migrants. On the contrary, politicians work to create physical barriers or bureaucratic impediments, and in some cases whip up a climate of fear and hatred of migrants that inevitably leads to discrimination and violence. In this they are ably assisted by cable networks and tabloid newspapers, as in the US and UK, to take two examples.

The current migration crisis across the globe highlights the fundamental importance of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, as an agreed legal framework. It sets minimum standards for their protection, and is now more relevant than ever. So why are there such a very low number of ratifications to this vital text – a lamentable 51, the lowest of all human rights treaties? Not a single major State of destination has ratified that Convention.

While States of course have legitimate interests in securing their borders and exercising immigration controls, such concerns cannot override their obligations to respect the internationally guaranteed human rights of all persons. The Migrant Workers Convention does not lay down new categories of human rights, but sets out how international human rights, as contained in the core treaties, are to be applied to migrant workers and their families.

The general comments that are being launched today promote the development and implementation of comprehensive, rights-based migration policies in countries of origin, transit, destination and return of international migration, by improving the realization of children’s rights in line with both Conventions.

I think it’s hard to deny that we are living through a dramatic failure of protection for tens of thousands of child migrants worldwide. In the landmark New York Declaration of 2016, Member States acknowledged a shared responsibility to protect the human rights of all migrants, and recognized the particular vulnerability of migrant children, especially those who are unaccompanied or separated. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights calls upon States to use the opportunity of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration to ensure a long-term approach to the protection of all children in situations of international migration, including by factoring these general comments into the commitments coming out of this State-led process.

We need to persuade people that migration is not a threat. It is a daily reality but also an opportunity. Look at the city we are in and try to imagine what a pale imitation of itself it would be if it had not been revitalised by generation after generation of migrants from all over the world.

In today’s world, where we see a fearsome (and fearful) backlash against many of the human rights we have taken for granted, we see a particular emphasis on scapegoating migrants. We need to resist, contain and ultimately reverse the general backlash against human rights, and the specific targeting of migrants. Surely a good place to start that process is the subject we are here to discuss today – addressing the duties involved in protecting children’s rights in the context of migration. We have much work to do in this regard, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights looks forward to collaborating even more closely with our partners here today.

I thank you.