Human rights, like Ronseal, are exactly what they say on the tin…


On 3rd October this year a boat caught fire and capsized. On board were more than 500 Eritrean men, women and children. 155 people survived. While this disaster has grabbed media attention across the world, it is only one of many such stories over recent years. Lampedusa has become the landing point for thousands of migrants seeking to enter Europe. The Italians islanders stand out as compassionate and caring towards the boatloads of new arrivals. They seem to understand that these people arrive on the shores seeking a better life than the ones they left behind. That approach stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric across much of the Global North.

The issue of migrants, particularly irregular migrants, increasingly dominates our newspapers and politics. No one knows whether irregular migration is increasing or decreasing. Unsurprisingly, we have no statistics on the actual numbers of people who cross borders in irregular ways. Yet the prominence of the topic in daily life might make one think that a tidal wave of irregular migrants has arrived in Europe. And that rhetoric increasingly dehumanises irregular migrants. This increased and increasingly-negative attention might be owing to financial pressures – history shows us that with recessions and depressions comes the rise of nationalism and xenophobia. It may be based on security concerns and the global threat of terrorism. Regardless of its basis, the result is a general failure to acknowledge let alone uphold the human rights of migrants.

Human rights, like Ronseal, are exactly what they say on the tin. The rights are held by all individuals by virtue of them being human. A person does not lose his status as a human simply because s/he is an irregular migrant. Crossing a border in contravention of a law does not dehumanise an individual. Yet the total disregard that Global North countries have for the rights of irregular migrants undermines the central notion of human rights.

If we examine the resources devoted to securitising the issue of migration, we can see that significant time and money is used for activities that abuse the human rights of migrants. Detention without charge; lack of access to justice; failure to ensure adequate housing, food and healthcare; failure to ensure that children receive education are just some of the systematic violations that occur across Europe, Australia, and North America. Headline news is made where a migrant dies during deportation, as occurred with Mr Jimmy Mubenga in 2010. Occasionally investigative journalism focuses on Yarls Wood, or other similar detention centres abroad. But the daily systematic violations are swept under the carpet.

Efforts are being made at the international level to protect and promote the human rights of migrants.

In 1990, the General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The central feature of the Convention on Human Rights of Migrants is to protect all migrant workers and their families irrespective of their legal status. 46 countries have ratified the Convention. This falls far below the 120 states ‘for which migration is an important feature, either as origin, transit or destination countries’. None of the states from the West or from the rising global power of BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India and China – have signed or ratified the Convention. Without those heavyweights, politically and economically, the treaty largely has failed to get off the ground. Over 20 years after its creation, the Convention is spluttering along. The countries that most need to be bound to protect the rights of migrants are the ones that are studiously avoiding signing up to its provisions.

States from the Global North are the leaders in the human rights game. They control the money and resources, and therefore hold the power. Typically, they have been at the fore of developing, promoting and protecting human rights. It seems strange, to say the least, that those same countries refuse to ratify the Convention on human rights of migrants. But remember that those countries are the most affected by migration, not just in terms of the numbers of people seeking to enter their territories but also by the political implications of being seen to be ‘soft’ on that issue.

There is a structural deficit of electoral democracies where it comes to migration. Irregular migrants do not have a vote. Politicians in electoral democracies require votes to be re-elected. Focusing efforts on a vulnerable group that do not have the right to vote, and who cannot mobilise to form pressure groups or to place pressure on the government, is political suicide. Politicians know that by speaking out on behalf of migrants, let alone seeking to change the laws on migration, they will place their own careers on the line.

But it is not all doom and gloom. At least these issues are now being discussed. Great efforts have been made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. Mr Francois Crepeau has sought to focus global attention on Europe and migrants’ rights. He reported on that region last year, with a particular focus on Italy and Greece as the first port of call for many migrants entering Europe from North Africa. Crepeau’s recommendations have been discussed widely at the highest levels. Media attention on Lampedusa and other horrific tragedies helps increase the pressure on Global North countries. It is only when those states start seeing irregular migrants as humans rather than security concerns, protecting their rights will always be the lowest priority and tragedies will continue to occur. 

Dr Rosa Freedman, Birmingham Law School

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