3 October 2013
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants


Migration had always been a fundamental human phenomenon, and the human rights of migrants must be respected and enforced whether their crossing was considered “illegal” or not, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

“Migrants are human beings with human rights, not agents for economic development and outputs,” Mr. Crépeau said.  “It’s essential that the discussion focuses on the human dimension.  All migrants are protected by international human rights law, regardless of the administrative status or situation.”  Countries, he pointed out, tended to focus on security issues when it came to migrants, not taking into account that “99.99 per cent of irregular migrants posed no security threat.”

Yet despite the international legal frameworks in place to protect the rights of migrants, Mr. Crépeau said they continued to suffer from exploitation, xenophobic violence and abuse.  States needed to ratify humans rights treaties, particularly those pertaining to migrants, and strengthen global migration governance.  Whether or not the crossing was “regular or irregular,” migrants needed access to education, health services, courts and tribunals, and proper labour enforcement.

Many vulnerable groups, such as women, minorities, or the LBGT (Lesbian Bisexual Gay and Transgender) community, were able to demand access to their rights via their status as citizens, he said.  However, irregular migrants felt unable to advocate for their own rights out of fear of being deported.  Thus, millions of migrants had their rights exploited every day, and States needed to take concrete action on the ground to remedy that.  For its part, the United Nations needed to increase its presence in the global discussion on migration governance, since States were often reluctant to push the issue themselves due to domestic political concerns over security and national identity.

Prasad Kariyawasam, member and former Chair of the Committee on Migrant Workers, who was also present and speaking on behalf of that Committee’s current Chair, Abdelhamid El Jamri, stated that although migrant workers were contributing to both their country of employment and their country of origin “in big terms”, their “enormous” work was often overlooked and discounted.

The Migrant Workers Convention, he said, did not go beyond the scope of the other human rights conventions, but it nevertheless gave a very clear road map for how to implement and achieve those rights on the ground.  However, that Convention currently had only 47 State parties, and almost all were labour-sending countries rather than labour-receiving countries.  A strong approach to combating the violation of migrants’ rights required three pillars — countries sending workers, transit countries, and receiving countries.  However as of now one of those pillars — that of the receiving countries — was absent.

When asked about yesterday’s tragedy in Lampedusa, Italy, in which more than 100 migrants were killed and hundreds more missing after their boat caught fire and capsized, Mr. Kariyawasam said that migrants would continue to take such risks as long as there was a cross-border supply and demand for work, minus sufficient legal migration frameworks.

“Migrant workers are like water,” he said.  “They flow from where the demand is, to where the supply can be [and] it’s up the international community to set up a regulatory mechanism for workers to travel from point A to B when there is a need.  That supply and demand equation should be handled devoid of xenophobia.”

Mr. Crépeau said that tragedies like that had not always existed, and was a result of the “push factor” and the “pull factor” of migrants being interrupted by a barrier, such as the criminalization of irregular migration.  However, such movement would continue “in deserts, mountains, in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic” until the channels of migration were opened to fulfil labour needs.

“States need to think about their share of responsibility in those deaths,” he said of the incident in Lampedusa, adding that increasing repression of migration merely handed the control of the border over to smugglers and human traffickers.  “Continuing to treat irregular migration only by repressive measures will only result in instances like what was seen last night,” he stated.

Responding to several questions about migration issues across the globe, Mr. Crépeau said that alternatives to the practice of detaining irregular migrants were available, and needed be explored in countries such as the United States and other labour receivers which resorted to punitive measures when they should not. 

He further said that society needed to take stock of the true costs of doing business, a cost that included fair wages, rather than one based on the exploitation of irregular migrants too often cowed into working for less and fearful of reporting unsafe working conditions.  This could also mean re-evaluating the true cost of commodities — be they strawberries, asparagus, domestic services or meals in a restaurant.

Also responding to questions, Mr. Kariyawasam said that Member States needed to be more proactive in addressing migrants’ rights, and to make the distinction between migrants and refugees, which was a different category.

“The rights of migrants are still on the back burner,” he said, “and it’s the responsibility of the Member States and the United Nations to bring them to the fore.”

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For information media • not an official record