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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Intersessional Panel Discussion on the human rights of migrants in vulnerable situations

21 February 2022

Delivered by

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Greetings to all of you. Thank you to the Human Rights Council for convening this important session and bringing much-needed attention to the human rights of migrants in vulnerable situations.

I am very pleased to be joined by Ms. Martha Delgado Peralta, Vice-Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico. As a sponsor of the Human Rights Council resolution on the human rights of migrants, I want to thank Mexico for their global leadership on this issue.

Around the world, some 281 million people are on the move. Tens of millions live in the shadows, facing violations and abuses of their human rights and lethal disregard for their dignity. Walls and barriers are built to keep them out. They are often demonised, treated like criminals, exposed to sexual and gender-based violence or arbitrarily detained in appalling conditions. They are sometimes even separated from their children.

Already this year, we know that more than 270 migrants have died or gone missing during their journey in search of safety and dignity. The real figure is certainly far higher.

In many countries, taking solidarity with migrants is a criminal act. Harmful and dehumanising narratives on migration use migrants as scapegoats for deep-rooted societal problems and fears, often for political or financial gain.

Such approaches spawn xenophobia and put lives at risk. They damage the social fabric of our societies, and they undermine our common values.

The Human Rights Council has recognized the compelling need to address critical human rights protection gaps, and requested my Office to develop a set of principles and guidelines on migrants in vulnerable situations.

These guidelines outline that migrants are vulnerable to human rights violations and abuses linked to one or more of three factors.

Firstly, the reasons that compel people to move. Migrants who leave their countries out of necessity, rather than free choice, are at greater risk of human rights violations.

Think of the thousands of children who are left behind, yearning to be reunited with their parents; of the families whose livelihoods are eroded by the effects of climate change; of the people who lack access to decent work, adequate food or healthcare. They are particularly susceptible to exploitation and abuse and it can be far more difficult for them to break free from this, or to return home.

The second factor involves the precarious circumstances that migrants face in transit, at borders or in countries of destination. Migrants who have no access to pathways for regular migration continue to risk their lives in search of safety and dignity, taking perilous routes or using dangerous means of travel.

Thousands may start their journeys well and healthy but arrive at their destination having suffered profound trauma and abuse. At borders, mandatory detention, pushbacks and unsustainable returns only worsen their situation. And at all stages of their journey, lack of regular migration status can mean exclusion from justice, decent work, social protection, healthcare and education.

Finally, many migrants continue to suffer pervasive discrimination due to personal factors, including age, gender or disability. I want to make it clear that migrants who are, for example, pregnant, young, old, in poor health or with disabilities are not inherently vulnerable. Yet they are often forced into jeopardy by discriminatory policies and practices.

Excellencies, colleagues,

Migration policies matter. They can mean the difference between migrants moving towards a more positive, hopeful future, with dignity ensured for them and their families – or remaining mired in an existence of vulnerabilities and precariousness.

 The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered many countries to take concrete action to reduce vulnerabilities faced by migrants. These measures included providing migrants, regardless of their status, with access to COVID-related healthcare services. They involved extending visa and residence permits to avoid them falling into an irregular status; and, crucially, creating alternatives to immigration detention.

I look forward to hearing more from our panelists and from you all about some of the actions that have been - and should be - taken to address situations of vulnerability in migration. These could include, for instance, regularization mechanisms based on human rights and humanitarian grounds, psycho-social counselling at international borders, and firewalls to separate immigration enforcement from public service provision.

I am especially pleased that this seminar will feature the expert contributions of civil society partners, National Human Rights Institutions, independent experts from human rights mechanisms, academia and migrants themselves. 

The Human Rights Council has an important role to play in contributing to guidance on critical protection gaps that migrants in vulnerable situations face. This is showcased by the principles and guidelines I have referred to, and my Office’s principles and guidelines on human rights at international borders that were both considered by the Council and then integrated in the Global Compact for Migration.

I believe the Council, along with its bodies and mechanisms, including the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, can add a great deal to the important work it has already done in strengthening the promotion and protection of the human rights of migrants.

 Including the human rights of migrants in the Council’s regular agenda by, for example, having an annual panel discussion on this issue, could be a good way forward. My Office will continue to monitor and report on violations and abuses of migrants’ human rights and stands ready to support efforts from the human rights mechanisms in this regard.

The Council also has an important role in driving implementation of the Global Compact for Migration, for example by serving as a forum to discuss and measure the progress of States’ commitment to implement the Compact.

The enhanced focus of the Council on the human rights of migrants would not just deliver progress but highlight the Council’s own relevance and responsiveness.

I hope these ideas enrich your discussions later today.

Thank you.