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Background on the Rights of Migrants

  1. Definition of a Migrant
  2. According to intergovernmental experts appointed by the Commission on Human Rights, the term ‘migrant’ should be applied to all “cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor." 1 Implicit in the Commission’s definition is that migrants are not forced to leave their homes—they do not migrate involuntarily, but must leave willfully, or voluntarily.  Prospects of better work, educational opportunities and the desire to be reunited with family members who have emigrated are among the reasons migrants may decide to leave their homes, their communities, their countries and, often times, close family members behind.  Migrants therefore include, according to the UN definition, job-seekers, students and family members of migrants.  Specifically excluded from the Commission on Human Rights’ general definition of migrants are political refugees and asylum seekers, internally displaced people, victims of trafficking and others forced to leave their homes because of external compelling factors (such as natural disasters, nuclear or chemical disasters, development, etc).

    It is worth noting that the term ‘migrant’ as defined by the Commission on Human Rights and as is used in all UN Covenants and documents, differs from the more common definition of a migrant: “one who migrates.”  This common and oversimplified definition includes any person who “moves from one country, place, or locality to another.”  The reason for the distinction made by the UN between ordinary migrants and refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people is that the latter are viewed by the UN as special cases of migrants who have specific civil, political, social, economic and cultural needs that require distinct protection under the law.  The rights of these special types of migrants are therefore addressed in separate UN Conventions as explained in detail in the section B.2. below. 

    © FAO/18120/M. Sistini

    In many parts of the developing world, men migrate seasonally in search of work. Households headed by the women who remain behind constitute an important vulnerable group. These women heads of households typically produce the family food, engage in local trading and raise small livestock. The land they farm, however, is often degraded, and the women lack the knowledge and technologies to reclaim it. Also, the money brought back by migrant husbands is often spent on prestige purchases instead of food and other necessities.

    1. Regular vs. Irregular Migrants

    There are two classifications regarding the legality of a migrant’s status: regular and irregular.  A regular migrant is a person “authorized to enter, to stay and to engage in a remunerated activity in the State of employment pursuant to the law of that State and to international agreements to which that State is a party.” 2  In other words, regular migrants reside legally in a country from which they are not a national. 

    Irregular migrants, on the other hand, are foreigners who are not legally allowed to be in the country in which they reside.   A migrant may be in an irregular situation from the time of arrival by entering the country without authorization or can become irregular for a variety of reasons, including: 1) entering a country as a tourist or student and then working without a work permit 2) failing to renew a work permit after it expires and continuing to work anyway 3) entering a country as an asylum-seeker and remaining after an application to be recognized as a political refugee is denied 4) remaining in a country while trying to renew a permit or trying to change status after valid documentation has expired.3

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  3. Types of Migrants and Related Conventions
  4. 1. Migrant Workers

    The International Convention on the Protection of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (hereafter referred to as the Convention on Migrant Workers), solely protects the rights and needs of migrant workers, a category including any “person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.”4  Migrant workers differ from immigrants in that they seek temporary residence in a host country as opposed to immigrants who seek permanent residence. 

    © IOM 2002 - MEC0001 (Photo: Galo Paguay)

    As part of the labour migration agreement signed between the Governments of Ecuador and Spain in 2001, IOM is assisting the first group of thirty-six persons selected to work in the hospitality sector to travel to Madrid. All Ecuadorians applying for jobs in Spain register at the IOM office in Quito.

    Types of migrant workers specifically protected by the Convention on Migrant Workers are:

    1. "frontier worker"- one who retains a residence in a neighbouring State to which he or she normally returns every day or at least once a week;
    2. "seasonal worker"-who is dependent on seasonal conditions and works only part of the year;
    3. "seafarer"- which includes a fisherman or anyone employed on a ship registered in a State of which he or she is not a national;
    4. "worker on an offshore installation"- who is employed on an offshore installation that is under the jurisdiction of a State of which he or she is not a national;
    5. “itinerant worker''- who, having a residence in one State, has to travel to another State or States for short periods, owing to the nature of his or her occupation;
    6. "project-tied worker"- who works on a specific project being carried out in another State by his or her employer;
    7. "specified-employment worker” who has been sent by his or her employer for a restricted and defined period of time to a another State to undertake a specific assignment or duty and who is required to depart from the State of employment either at the expiration of his or her authorized period of stay, or earlier
    8. "self-employed worker" who earns his or her living through by working alone or together with members of his or her family, and to any other migrant worker recognized as self-employed by the State where they work or by bilateral or multilateral agreements.

    Motivated by the possibility of a better life, job-seekers migrate to places “where work prospects seem--at a distance, at least-- to be better.”5 Despite common perception, this does not always mean that migrant workers move from a developing to a developed country.  In fact, migrant workers are just as likely to migrate from one developing country to another as they are to move from the developing to the developed world.6  While poverty and/or an inability to support themselves or their families are the driving force behind migration for job-seekers, the most impoverished people of the world usually cannot afford the move.  It is therefore generally those from households with middle incomes (compared to others in their community) that are migrating.7

    2. Special Cases of Migrants not included in the Convention on Migrant Workers

    The Convention on Migrant Workers specifically excludes students and trainees, refugees and stateless persons, and people employed by a State but who live outside its territory.  

    The rights of political refugees are protected by the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which includes any person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”8  

    © IOM 2001 - MIN0014 (Photo: Ovais Sarmad)

    Victims of the Gujarat earthquake. IOM focused its relief efforts on rebuilding shelters for migrant workers employed in the northwest Indian state's salt pans.

    While the UN recognizes people who cross a national border when fleeing from natural disasters as refugees, they are not currently protected by the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or any other UN document.  There is increased pressure on the UN, however, to extend similar rights to refugees fleeing from natural disasters as are currently afforded to political refugees.  This is due in large part to a 2005 UN University report suggesting that up to 50 million people could be displaced by 2010 because of natural disasters and environmental degradation.9

    As it stands now, however, it is “commonly understood” that in order to be eligible for protection based on the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the following three elements must be present:

    1. “ there must be a form of harm rising to the level of persecution, inflicted by a government or by individuals or a group that the government cannot or will not control;
    2. the person’s fear of such harm must be well-founded — e.g. the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a fear can be well-founded if there is a one-in-ten likelihood of its occurring;
    3. the harm, or persecution, must be inflicted upon the person for reasons related to the person’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (the nexus).”10

    A person is granted refugee status after successfully going through the asylum process.  An asylum seeker, on the other hand, is a person going through the asylum process who has not been granted refugee status.

    Internally displaced people, frequently referred to as IDPs, are similar to refugees and asylum seekers in that they are forced to leave their homes, but unlike refugees and asylum seekers, IDPs remain in their home country.  A commonly accepted definition of an IDP can be found in the “Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement” produced by the Office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  This states that internally displaced people are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced to flee, or leave, their homes or places of habitual residence as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, and habitual violations of human rights, as well as natural or man-made disasters involving one or more of these elements, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border."11

    © Thomas Moran 2003

    Children in Battambang, Cambodia are now regularly taught about the dangers of trafficking and have been introduced to a network of local community workers, including police and social workers who regularly visit the area.

    There is another group of people who are forced to migrate against their will: victims of human trafficking. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking schemes in which traffickers sell them into a life of forced labor and exploitation.

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  5. Facts and Figures

  6. © Eddie Arrossi 2004 - MUS0045

    Migrants send some US$93 billion in remittances per year.

    According to the report of the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, there were 191 million known international migrants as of 2005. Due to the sensitive political issues involved, there are innumerable undocumented cases of migration, however, that cannot be accounted for in migration statistics.  As of yet, “No reliable global estimate of the number of migrants in an irregular situation exists. The United States has an estimated 11 to 12 million at the present time. In 2003, the Republic of Korea had 140,000 individuals who had overstayed their visas; Japan had 221,000; Australia, 60,000; and New Zealand about 20,000. For Europe, the estimates of irregular migration are less well founded and fluctuate as a result of regularization. Irregular migration is also common in the developing world, but the figures cited are generally not based on data.” 12

    Of 191 million documented migrants, 115 million were living in industrialized countries and 75 million were in developing nations in 2005.  The total migrant population was split fairly evenly between males and females, but a greater number of female migrants were living in industrialized countries whereas more males were living in developing nations. Twenty percent of all migrants (approximately 40 million people, or one in every five migrants) were living in the United States at the time of the report. 13

    By continent, Europe hosted the greatest number of international migrants (34% of the total) in 2005.  Asia followed with 28% and then North America with 23%.  Only 9% of all migrants were living in Africa at the time, with even fewer in Latin America and the Caribbean (3%) and 3% in Oceania.14 

    The number of South-South migrations (i.e. from one developing country to another developing country) and South-North migrations (i.e. from a developing country to an industrialized country) were approximately the same (60 million people). The majority of all international migrants (60% or 112 million) live in countries with high-income economies. 15

    Cash and Flow
    This IFAD documentary tells the story of the Cortez family in the United States and El Salvador and explores the role development can play in spreading the impact of the remittances flow.

    >> Play Video
    (Real Player Required)

    Duration: 22’ 41”
    Locations: El Salvador, United States
    Producer: James Heer
    Languages: English

    The money sent home by migrants, commonly referred to as remittances, increased from $102 billion in 1995 to an estimated $232 billion in 2005.  The percentage of such remittances going to developing countries also increased, from 57% ($58 billion) in 1995 to 72% ($167 billion) in 2005.  One third of global remittances went to only four countries: India, China, Mexico and France (in order of total money received with India receiving the most and France the least).  In two countries, the Philippines and Serbia and Montenegro, remittances constituted a high share of gross domestic product. 16

    Globally, remittances have a profound effect on the economy.  In 2005, remittances sent home from migrants to developing countries—the $167 billion--surpassed the total amount of official aid from all donor countries combined.  Remittance money, which is usually recirculated through the local economy of the receiving country, has a social and economic multiplier effect.  It has been found, for instance, that family members receiving remittances from migrant workers spend more money on education and health care, thereby improving community social services.  They are also more likely to make financial investments, for example business ventures or investments into the stock market, which often positively affect the economy.

    © IOM - MCL0016 1989

    Migrant workers in Chile help stimulate the economy and development.

    These are a few of the positive effects international migration has on development, contributing to the Secretary General’s assertion that“mounting evidence indicates that international migration is usually positive both for countries of origin and of destination” and that international migration’s “potential benefits are larger than the potential gains from freer international trade, particularly for developing countries.”17

    The following conclusions, based upon migration research, further support the Secretary General’s claim:

    1.  “Many advanced and dynamic economies need migrant workers to fill jobs that cannot be outsourced and that do not find local workers willing to take them at going wages.”
    2. Prevailing research in the field suggests that most migrants complement the skills of domestic workers rather than compete with them.  Migrant workers, therefore, allow citizens to perform other, more productive and better-paid jobs by performing tasks that either would go undone or cost more.
    3. “By maintaining viable economic activities that, in their absence, would be outsourced, migrants enlarge the labor force and the pool of consumers, and by contributing their entrepreneurial capacities, migrants boost economic growth in receiving countries.”
    4. “When migrants establish themselves abroad, they help friends and relatives to follow and, in the process, the costs and risks of migration fall, making it possible for poorer people, though not for the poorest, to join the stream. Low-skilled migration has the largest potential to reduce the depth and severity of poverty in communities of origin.”
    5. Successful migrants often return home transferring technology and knowledge to their countries of origin.  It is also common for migrants to invest in and therefore boost the economies of their home countries.18

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  7. The Special Vulnerability of Migrants

  8. “The special vulnerability of migrants stems from the fact that they are not citizens of the country in which they live, they have crossed an international border and- unlike citizens-they may generally enter and live in another country only with the express consent of its authorities . . . As strangers to a society, migrants may be unfamiliar with the national language, laws and practice, and so less able than others to know and assert their rights.  They may face discrimination, and be subjected to unequal treatment and unequal opportunities at work, and in their daily lives.  They may also face racism and xenophobia.At times of political tension, they may be the first to be suspected-or scapegoated- as security risks.”19

    IOM 2001 - MIN0002 (Photo: Chris Lom)

    Following the Gujarat earthquake, IOM focused its relief efforts on rebuilding shelters for migrant workers employed in the northwest Indian state's salt pans.

    1. Labor Issues

    The vulnerability already suffered by migrants because of their alien status is exacerbated when migrants enter a country illegally or become irregular over time (by remaining in a country after their visa expires or beginning to work without a work visa, for instance).  Such migrants are significantly more likely to be subject to abuse and exploitation such as extortion, forced labor (often for exceptionally long hours, little pay and in dangerous work environments), withholding of identification, and so on because of their already compromised position.  Women, because of their high risk of sexual exploitation, are considered “doubly vulnerable” because they are 1) irregular and 2) female.  This is often referred to as “double marginalization.”20   Because of fears of criminal charges or deportation, irregular migrants very rarely report any kind of abuse to authorities. 

    a. Work-related Health and Safety Issues

    Migrant workers, especially low-skilled migrants or those in an irregular situation, place their health and lives in danger by taking the high-risk jobs that nationals often refuse. These include: mining, construction, heavy manufacturing and agricultural work.  Migrant workers in these industries are often exposed to toxic agents (such as pesticides), are forced to operate unfamiliar machinery, work long hours (particularly dangerous when operating heavy machinery) and are rarely given appropriate training or told of the risks involved with these jobs.

    The World Heath Organization found that “occupational accident rates are about twice as high for immigrant workers as native workers in Europe,” and claims that “there is no reason to believe the situation is not similar in other parts of the world.”21  Migrant agriculture workers report high incidences of depression, headaches, neurological disorders and miscarriage presumably as a result of exposure to pesticides and other chemicals.  In Spain, researchers have found that migrants who spend long periods of time in greenhouses are more likely to suffer from muscular diseases, dehydration and heart problems.  These findings are, at least in part, because of the types of jobs migrants take, but there is also indication that some employers are less likely to take appropriate safety precautions when they have a predominantly migrant staff.  This may explain why migrant workers suffer from higher rates of respiratory problems and tumors linked to pesticides and other chemicals than agriculture workers who are nationals.22

    b. Problems of Accessibility to Healthcare

    Even though the UN decreed “right to health” requires governments to ensure that “health facilities, goods and services are accessible to all, especially the most vulnerable or marginalized sections of the population, in law and in fact, without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds,” migrant workers face many obstacles in attaining adequate healthcare. This is in part because they “often fall outside of state-sponsored health programs, and frequently are unable to afford private insurance. Consequently, migrant workers, even in very rich countries, generally live in poor health conditions and are largely uninsured and frequently uninformed about the programs that do cover them.” 

    An example of these problems, cited by the World Health Organization, is based on a survey of migrant farm workers in California, USA.  The majority of those surveyed were young, married Mexican men of low educational attainment who evidenced high rates of asthma, stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Almost 20% of those surveyed were “at high risk for elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure or obesity, and many were severely anemic. Approximately 30% had never been to a doctor, over half had never seen a dentist, 75% had no health insurance and a mere 7% were covered by government sponsored low-income insurance programs. Additionally, while 20% had experienced work-related injuries that should have led to workers’ compensation, only 30% of all workers even knew about such programs.”23

    In addition to the actual cost of doctors’ visits, migrant workers are often deterred from seeking medical treatment because of the associated costs.  These include: an inability to miss work, an inability to find or afford childcare and lack of transportation.  There have even been reported cases of employers forbidding domestic workers to see a doctor when they are ill or requiring them to work when they need medical attention.  In addition, migrant workers tend to be unfamiliar with the health-care systems and are afraid of communication problems resulting from language barriers and/or cultural differences.  A study in Denmark, for instance, revealed that poor communication with healthcare staff has been a major cause of the poor obstetrical and gynecological care of female migrants and refugees.24

    As a result, migrants—especially ones in an irregular situation-- often wait until they are in a “sufficiently hazardous” condition requiring emergency care before ever visiting a doctor.  This means that minor problems, which may have been easy to treat in the early stages, often progress into something far more serious and expensive to address.  This puts added stress on emergency care facilities, which are required in most States to accept anyone requiring attention, including irregular migrants. 

     c. The Treatment of Female Migrant Workers

    As mentioned above, many female migrant workers are employed in the domestic sector, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by employers.  Female migrant workers are often forced to work long hours (sometimes fourteen hours per day) without rest days for low or unpaid wages.  Their movement is often restricted--innumerable women are held captive, locked in their employers’ homes and not allowed to leave or communicate with anyone—and their living conditions are inadequate.  To make matters worse, female migrant workers are often mistreated by employers, who abuse them physically, psychologically and sexually.  Because of the afore mentioned difficulties authorities face in detecting human rights abuses of domestic workers, these violations often go unnoticed and unaddressed.  While this is a problem found around the world, the instances of mistreatment of migrant women in some countries is markedly worse.  

    For instance, the International Organization for Migration reports that a high number of Ethiopian women die while working in Arab states or return home with “broken limbs and back, acid burns, and (evidence of) other physical abuse.”25  Malaysia and Indonesia (which is the country of origin for over 90% of domestic workers in Malaysia), have also been the focus of global concern surrounding the treatment of female workers.  Domestic workers from Indonesia risk being subject to abusive treatment during every phase of the migration process (recruitment, training, transit, employment, repatriation).  Female workers-in-training, for example, are usually forced to stay in Indonesian camps for a time ranging from one to six months before the government will grant them permission to leave the country.  This is often where the abuse against them begins. One Indonesian migrant recounts her experiences in the following:  

    “I slept on the floor without a mat and used my bag as a pillow.  There were 300 people there, all women….  We were staying in a big room with no windows….  There were three toilets but two were out of order.  The water was not enough and the toilets were dirty.  I took a bath twice a week, there were so many people that there were long lines.  We were not allowed to go outside, there was a gate with a lock.  Many people wanted to run away but didn’t know how….  Some of the women had anxiety and were crazy, because it was very scary.”

    As this quote reveals, the women in training camps suffer abuses similar to those found in the domestic workplace--restricted movement, inadequate living conditions and mistreatment of all kinds.  They are often forced to shower together in front of their trainers and are subject to ridicule and harassment.  Many women are affected psychologically by the harsh training camp conditions.  They want to leave, but cannot without paying exorbitant amounts (Human Rights Watch found that the fee to be released from the camps ranged from $122-610).  And even if they are able to leave, they are not guaranteed a life any better than they had in the camps. 

    Additionally, the laws of Indonesia and Malaysia hardly protect the women. In Malaysia, for instance, visible physical evidence of injury must be present for a woman to bring an abuse case to trial, which means that women migrant workers who have suffered from sexual abuse without visible physical harm have very little recourse, if any. 26

    2. Discrimination

    © IOM 2002 - MDO0001 (Photo: Niurka Piñeiro)

    Haitian migrant sells flowers in the local market of Santo Domingo.

    According to Article 7 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, “States parties should respect and ensure the rights contained in the Convention without distinction of any kind such as sex, race, colour, language, religion or conviction, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, nationality, age, economic position, property, marital status, birth or other status.” Article 1 also states that the “Convention applies to all migrant workers and members of their families without distinction of any kind.” These stipulations are referred to as “the right to non-discrimination.” 

    However, many migrants suffer from discrimination, sometimes before ever entering their destination country.  In addition to the reasons mentioned above, migrants are often discriminated against during screening at the border because of their health status.  While some of this is legally justified (see the Siracusa principles27)--for instance screening for highly infectious diseases such as SARS—other border screening practices violate “the right to non-discrimination.”  For example, the World Health Organization argues that screening for HIV/AIDS—especially when it results in deportation—is unnecessary and discriminatory because 1) research shows that allowing HIV infected migrants into a country does not add any additional risk of contracting the disease to the local population and 2) HIV exists in all countries of the world.  Yet, all migrant workers who tested positive for HIV/AIDs in 1998 were repatriated and the US State Department reports that 60 countries still require long-term visitors to be screened for the disease.28 

    Once allowed in the country, migrants—particularly migrant workers--suffer from unequal treatment and unequal opportunities because 1) they are aliens and 2) racism/xenophobia may exist in the host country.  To make matters worse, few countries protect migrants against such treatment.  The International Labor Organization found in their International Migration Survey that fewer than half the countries surveyed provided for any protection against discrimination at work.  In fact, in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, migrant workers are excluded specifically from national social and labor laws.29 

    The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), established under Article 8 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), which was set up under the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and concerned by issues of discrimination against foreign workers, their spouses and their children, commissioned a report on the rights of non-citizens.

    The CERD expressed concern about violations of the following rights guaranteed under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:
    • The “exploitation of foreign workers including practices of debt bondage, passport deprivation, illegal confinement, and physical assault including rape.”
    • Discrimination in the workplace and obstruction by employers of the free choice of employment (protected under article 5), which gives migrants access to all professions and trades. 
    • Denial of the rights of children of foreign workers to join their parents in the host State and to be provided an education in their own language.
    • Discrimination in employment, housing and education and denial of equal access to courts and administrative bodies (article 6).

    The CERD report, published on June 6, 2001, found that “continued discriminatory practices against non-citizens demonstrate the lack of standards adopted and particularly implemented by States regarding the rights of individuals who are not citizens of the country in which they live.” Based on this research, the report claims that the “CERD is correct in noting that ‘distinctions are being made between different categories of non-citizens’ (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1997/31, annex, p. 4) and that these distinctions may amount to total exclusion of persons, depriving them of the most fundamental rights and having racist implications.” (ibid) The report goes on to say that “because aliens tend to be of a minority race, discrimination against aliens has some of the same underlying tendencies as racism, and there is a substantial relationship between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination against aliens.”30

    3. Obstacles to Integration and Assimilation

    Besides discrimination, language barriers and cultural differences make integrating and/or assimilating difficult for migrants.  Migrants are often confronted with religious and cultural conflicts between the values of their homeland and that of the new society they have joined.  Second generation immigrants, or the children of migrants, especially, find themselves torn between the influences of the cultures in which they are raised and that of their parents. 

    To make matters worse, migrants often find that the countries they have moved or escaped to are not always welcoming of their religious/cultural differences even though the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, asserts that migrants are entitled “to their own religious beliefs and practices” as long as they do not threaten the “public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others,” this right is not always respected.31  The Special Rapporteur has received numerous other reports that migrant domestic workers have been forbidden to practice their religion in countries around the world.32

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  9. UN Initiatives to Protect the Human Rights of Migrants
  10. In 1948, the UN General Assembly (GA) adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and proclaimed the document should be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”   While the UDHR was meant to be universally applied to protect all members of society, UN member States soon realized that despite the UDHR, migrant workers were one of the many groups whose rights were not respected.

    The following year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the Migration for Employment Convention (Convention 97), which was the first document to explicitly protect the rights of migrant workers and laid the groundwork for other conventions to come.33 

    In 1972, the Economic and Social Council of the UN adopted resolution 1706 (Llll), expressing alarm at the exploitation of African workers in European countries (often illegally transported) “in conditions akin to slavery and forced labour.”  Later that year, the General Assembly, in resolution 2920 (XXVII) “condemned discrimination against foreign workers and called upon Governments to end such practices and improve reception arrangements for migrant workers.”

    By 1975, the ILO had adopted Convention 143: Concerning Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotion of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Worker, defining the term migrant worker and recognizing the abuses specific to this subset of people.34

    © IOM 2003 - MGH0012
    (Photo: Jean-Philippe Chauzy)

    Fishing boys drawing nets under the supervision of a "slave master" in Tonka, Ghana a small fishing community on the shores of Lake Volta. The trafficked children, mostly boys aged between five and fourteen are forced to work from dawn to dusk, casting and drawing nets.

    The Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Mrs. Halima Warzazi, published a report in 1976 on the exploitation of labor through “illicit and clandestine trafficking” at the request of the Economic and Social Council.  In her report, Warzazi highlighted the discrimination migrant workers faced in host States.  She recommended the creation of a UN convention on the rights of migrant workers. Similar suggestions were made at the World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in Geneva (1978) and in the General Assembly resolution 33/163 on improving the situation of and ensuring the human rights and dignity of all migrant workers. 

    Also during 1976, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) went into effect.  The articles under Part III outline the civil and political rights of “all” migrants, including irregular ones.  Article 8, for instance, states that 1. No one shall be held in slavery; slavery and the slave trade in all their forms shall be prohibited.  2. No one shall be held in servitude.  3. (a) No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

    Under Article 12 (3), the Covenant states that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” This key document goes on to assert that there is to be equal treatment between all migrant workers and nationals, including employment conditions, social security, emergency medical care, etc.  The Covenant also protects cultural rights, stating that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and that minorities in a country, often times migrants, “shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.” Under Part IV, the ICCPR lays out rights granted only to regular migrant workers, such as the right to form trade unions and participate politically or the right to family reunification.35

    On December 17, 1979, the General Assembly (GA) adopted resolution 34/172 and a working group was established in 1980 to draft a convention on the rights of migrants specifically.  The GA encouraged all Member States to participate in drafting the convention along with all related international organizations—the Commission on Human Rights; the Commission for Social Development; the International Labour Organization; the United Nations Educational, Scientific Organization; and the World Heath Organization.  The draft, titled the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, was completed and adopted by the General Assembly on December 18, 1990.  It was opened for signature by all Member States of the UN at that time. 

    Due to slow response to the convention by Member States, a group of nongovernmental and UN organizations formed a unique alliance in 1998 called the Steering Committee of the Global Campaign for Ratification of the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.36  The Committee organized events internationally to raise awareness about the Convention in an attempt to convince a greater number of member states to ratify the document.  Over the next six years, the number of ratifications and signatures tripled from 9 Member State signatures in 1998 to 27 by 2004.37   Still, the document is only legally binding in the 34 countries that have ratified or acceded to the document†, none of which are major employment countries.  The International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers therefore lacks the legal authority of other human rights treaties that have been ratified by a majority of UN Member States.38

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29 November - 1 December, 2006

United Nations
Headquerters, NY

Intermediate and
Secondary Students
(grades 5- 12)

Migration and Development: Challenges for Human Rights


Read about the conference's
sub-themes that will be incorporated into the students' Plan of Action.”



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