Special Panel Discussion, The Human Rights of Migrants and Refugees

Date Publish: 
Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 00:00
Ms. Laura Thompson, Deputy Director General, International Organization for Migration
Vienna, Austria
It is an honour and a great pleasure to be here in Vienna addressing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly special panel on ‘The human rights of migrants and refugees’. I would like to express my gratitude to Isabel Santos, Chairperson of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions for inviting me to participate at this event.

The XXI Century is the century of human mobility and migration. It is estimated that there are currently more than 232 million international migrants and 740 million internal migrants. This means that 1 in 7 people on the planet is a migrant and billions more are impacted by the fact that those migrants are on the move.

Human mobility is expected to increase. We can no longer think about our economies, societies or cultures without thinking about human mobility. Migration is inevitable, necessary and desirable -- when well governed.

Today the world is confronted with numerous political and ethnic conflicts that generate humanitarian crises. Environmental degradation and climate change have also impacted the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, impacting the lives of more people every day. Humanitarian crises force people to flee their homes in search of safer places and frequently generate prolonged displacement, which in turn can sweep away hard-won development gains. All of these challenges exacerbate the number of mixed migration flows all over the world. 

Allow me to give you some figures of some crises in order to put things into perspective:

According to the UNHCR the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.

The situation in this very region shows how quickly the conditions can deteriorate. At the end of 2013, no displacement was reported in Ukraine, yet by February 2015, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, the number of IDPs in the country has exceeded one million people, including many elderly, children, women and disabled persons. This figure has been climbing steeply since the beginning of the conflict, doubling in the past two months. External displacement also grew in the past year. According to UNHCR, as of February 2015, over quarter million Ukrainians have applied for international protection in the Russian Federation, and over 11,000 in the European Union. Many more have sought other forms of legal stay in Russia, Belarus, the Republic of Moldova, Poland, Hungary and other EU countries. (UNHCR Operational Update: Ukraine Situation, 6 February 2015).

The situation in North Africa and the Middle East has been fuelling growing inflows of forced migrants into the OSCE region. A large majority of these are Syrian refugees. The number of Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and, Egypt has reached over 3.8 million, with Turkey alone hosting over one and a half million Syrian refugees (UNHCR, Government of Turkey, AFAD, UNHCR Registration, UNHCR Registration Unit, 15 February 2015). In addition, there are currently around 7.6 million IDPs and 12.2 million people in need of assistance inside Syria. We see more and more Syrians moving to countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, seeking safety and more durable solutions, sometimes using irregular channels.

Many more people are affected by other crises happening right now in South Sudan, Iraq, Central African Republic and Yemen.  

All these crises have a common element: the human suffering and the different vulnerabilities with which different people are confronted. When conflict or disasters hit, in addition to the local population that might be displaced or seek asylum elsewhere, international migrants present in the crisis-stricken country are often among the affected population. For a variety of reasons, migrants can be especially vulnerable during crises. In some cases migrants may be trapped, unable to leave the crisis area, in others they may be unwilling to leave or unable to access humanitarian assistance, while in others they may seek refuge across borders in adjacent countries.

The international humanitarian system has produced well-developed mechanisms to provide a coordinated international response to crisis situations. However, the existing frameworks do not comprehensively cover all patterns of mobility during crises and not all those on the move. In its humanitarian response and assistance, IOM has experienced first-hand the gaps the existing frameworks have left in this respect. To help address them, we developed in 2012 the Migration Crises Operational Framework (MCOF) as a practical, operational and institution-wide tool to improve and systematise the way in which the Organization supports its Member States and partners to better prepare for and respond to migration crises.

More recently, a State-led initiative called “Migrants in Countries in Crisis” (MICIC) was launched in 2014 to address the impact of acute crisis situations on migrants. The initiative aims to improve the ability of States and other stakeholders to prepare for, respond to, alleviate suffering, and protect the dignity and rights of migrants caught in countries in situations of acute crisis.

But people moving forcedly from their countries of origin or residence as a result of a crisis represent only a part of the current human mobility patterns. Migration is now a global phenomenon affecting nearly all countries of the world. South-South migration is just as great as migration between the global South and the global North. About a fifth of all migrants move from one developed country to another and a growing number of people are moving from the North to the South in search of work. Another fundamental aspect to keep in mind is that the large majority of migrants enter the countries through regular channels.

Clearly one of the most brutal aspects of irregular migration is the increasing number of deaths of migrants at sea and along other perilous migratory routes. Just last week we heard of yet another tragedy as over 300 African migrants drowned on the way to Europe. Globally, IOM estimates that at least 4,077 migrants died in 2014, and at least 40,000 since the year 2000 have died. Experts say, however, that the true number of fatalities is likely much higher as many deaths occur in remote regions of the world and are never recorded. IOM released recently the publication “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration,” the world’s most comprehensive tally to date of migrant fatalities across land and sea.

So which is the legal framework that exists today?

I am not going to refer here to the protection framework created by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol that clearly define who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations. I will focus my presentation on the legal framework protecting migrants that is an area less straightforward as there is no universally accepted international agreement covering them, since the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families has still only 47 ratifications.

First of all, I would like to highlight that the core human rights treaties adopt all-embracing language such as “everyone”, “all persons”, and “no one” and also contain non-discrimination clauses requiring each State party to respect and ensure the rights recognised therein to all individuals within its territory or under its jurisdiction. Only very few political rights can be limited to nationals.

Therefore, it is clear that the protection of one’s fundamental human rights and freedoms does not and should not depend on where one is in the world and that it is the State’s responsibility to uphold human rights through their laws and enforcement.

Second, migration discourse is replete with terminology used to categorise people who migrate, such as “unaccompanied or separated children”, “migrants in irregular situations”, “smuggled migrants” or “victims of trafficking in persons”. In the complex reality of contemporary mobility, it is very often difficult to neatly separate people into distinct categories; people may simultaneously fit into several categories, or change from one category to another in the course of their journey.

For instance, we have made considerable progress in creating a legal framework that better protects those identified as victims of trafficking. We know, however, that the number of beneficiaries remains very small in proportion to the hundreds of thousands of people who are thought to be trafficked annually. It has been IOM’s experience that the line that separates a trafficked person from an exploited or abused migrant is blurred at best, and that this line becomes all the more difficult to draw when we are confronted with real people with real needs. But a migrant – especially if he is young, male and working illegally and therefore does not fit our stereotype of a victim – is unlikely to be screened for possible trafficking and/or exploitation. There is no quick or easy solution to strengthen our ability to identify trafficked persons, but a greater commitment to protecting the human rights of all migrants may well be a precondition.

It is clear that States can determine their migration policies, decide - preferably based on careful labour market analysis and in collaboration with relevant stakeholders - who they admit and allow staying on their territory and under which conditions. However, any such policy must pay due attention to the protection needs and rights of individuals.

Therefore, it is crucial that States promote a rights-based approach to migration that ensures access by migrants to their rights, taking into account differentiated vulnerabilities based on gender, age, health, legal status, etc., such as those that they create to protect and promote the rights of other vulnerable groups within their territory and under their jurisdiction. IOM itself is now moving to strengthening its rights-based approach to protection of migrants in order to be better able to support States in their efforts.

States shall respect, promote and fulfil human rights wherever they exercise jurisdiction or effective control, including where they exercise authority or control extraterritorially – this means having in place processes and procedures to meaningfully assist migrants and nationals in accordance with international human rights and refugee law obligations. In some cases when people move by sea it also means adhering to the international law of the sea and other relevant standards.

A third point I would like to make is that the individual assessment is crucial in order to respect the principle of non-refoulement. Only by having an individual screening and referral mechanisms which are adequate to understand and provide for different needs and rights deriving from different status can effective respect for rights be ensured.

Whereas the principle of non-refoulement was developed in the refugee law regime, guaranteeing that no one was returned to a place where he or she had a well-founded fear of persecution, it has been considerably expanded to include people who do not “fulfil” the requirements laid out in the definition of a refugee. It is now quite clear that not only those with well-founded fear of persecution cannot be returned, but also people who are in real danger of having the right to life violated upon return or who risk being submitted to torture or inhumane and degrading treatments. In some jurisdictions this has even been extended to people who could not receive adequate lifesaving medical treatment in their country of origin.

There is thus a clear obligation under international law to not return people to a place where they would be in danger. In order to put this in to practice sufficient individual screening, followed by adequate referral mechanisms and access to protection schemes must be put in place – both in law as well as in practice.

Finally, it is also important to recall and keep in mind that establishing legal channels of migration, corresponding to both labour market needs as well as protection obligations, will significantly reduce the vulnerabilities and risks incurred by those who unless such channels exist will use irregular channels with the inherent dangers.  In all this, we must keep in mind that what we are really talking about here are individual human beings and not statistics; human beings that have aspirations, dreams, hopes and needs; human beings like all of us sitting in this room.

Let me conclude by seeking your support as parliamentarians in working together to achieve better migration governance and thus enhancing the human rights of migrants. As parliamentarians, you are not only continuously confronted with a wide spectrum of policy issues that are relevant for migration governance, but you can also connect your constituencies with the global policy discussions and channel local debates to the global level. In doing so, you can help generate a dialogue on migration that is better informed, more inclusive, that addresses legitimate concerns and combats harmful myths which hinder integration; the ability of migrants to fully participate and contribute to the economic, social and cultural life of the countries and societies of destination and origin; and the respect and protection of the Human Rights of migrants.

But above all, you have a fundamental role in promoting the centrality of the Human Rights of migrants and the fact that the respect for rights needs to take a central stage, both as an end and as a condition, for harnessing the benefits of migration for the development of migrants and societies.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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