Statement by Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights - Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the ECOSOC General Segment 2010, Item 14(g), Thursday, 22 July 2010 New York

Mr. Vice-President,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a special privilege for me to make my first official appearance, in my capacity as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights before ECOSOC.  I recognize some familiar and friendly faces around, which means that at least some of you know that as Permanent Representative, I served as President of ECOSOC in 2002, and Senior Vice President in 2001.  From my own experience, I know that the General Segment has always been a challenge and I wish you successful deliberations.

Today, I have the honour to introduce to ECOSOC the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  The report before you focuses on the economic, social and cultural rights of migrants in host countries, and State obligations in this context.  The analysis draws from international instruments, the work of treaty bodies and special procedures mandate holders.  It also draws from international and regional case law to highlight general State obligations and specific obligations relating to the economic, social and cultural rights of migrants. 

This report should be read in conjunction with previous reports of the High Commissioner to ECOSOC that have clarified particular aspects of the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights which are also applicable to migrants.

As we prepare for the High Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals in September, I hope that this report will help in drawing attention to the human rights of migrants in the context of development.  

Today about 214 million people live outside their country of origin.  Migration affects every region of the world.  For many of those seeking better opportunities and a decent livelihood in foreign countries, migration is a positive and empowering experience.  Many others, however, have to endure discrimination, exploitation and a wide range of human rights abuses.  Violations of economic, social and cultural rights are daily experiences for countless migrants who are often denied access to public health care, adequate housing and essential social security. Such denial of access is often closely linked with discriminatory laws and practice, and with deep-seated attitudes of prejudice and xenophobia against migrant communities.

Migrants’ vulnerability is compounded by the fact that they live beyond the reach of the legal protection of their country of origin.  They are frequently unfamiliar with the language and laws of the host country, and may lack social networks on which to rely. This impairs their ability to assert their rights. Migrant women in particular are subject to multiple forms of discrimination.  Migrant children, whether on their own or accompanied by their family, also suffer from abuse and discrimination.

In addressing the human rights of migrants, it is important to situate the international movement of people within the contemporary global context.  Poverty, social exclusion or violations of human rights continue to induce many to migrate.  Other recent factors, including the global economic downturn, climate change and food insecurity have increased existing vulnerabilities.  Periods of crisis, whether real or perceived, are often marked by an increase in xenophobia, anti-migrant sentiments and discriminatory practices affecting the human rights of migrants. This is especially harmful when such sentiments are reinforced by legislation, regulations and policies which criminalize and exclude migrants.

To counter these challenges, States must put in place legislation and policies that better protect migrants from abuse.   Such action should be guided by a human rights approach which places the individual migrant at the centre of migration policies, and ensures protection, participation and access to remedies.

Children and adults alike, regular or undocumented migrants, all too often experience debt bondage, passport retention, illegal confinement, rape and physical assault, while their abusers go unpunished.  Irregular migrants are particularly vulnerable to denial of their rights. Many will refrain from utilizing public services, such as emergency health care or primary education, even when they are legally entitled, out of fear of detention and deportation. This is heightened when countries impose a duty on public officials, such as health professionals and local police officers, or even private individuals such as landlords, to report the presence of irregular migrants to immigration authorities.  In such cases, even if the human rights of migrants are protected by the law, migrants in an irregular situation may not enjoy these rights in practice. Irregular migrants are also often invisible to official integration measures and strategies, leaving them vulnerable to systematic exclusion, discrimination and abuse.

I must emphasize that  human rights, including labour rights, apply with no restriction to all migrant workers, regardless of their status, and must be upheld at all times.

International human rights law requires States to take steps to achieve the full realization of the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.  From this perspective, at a minimum, all migrants should be given access to emergency healthcare and primary level health interventions. 

Adequate housing is another key human right, and one that is all too often denied to migrants. In particular, where accommodation is provided by the employer to the migrant worker, it can often be, to put it mildly, substandard. Domestic migrant workers, for instance, have been forced to sleep in hallways or closets and to remain on duty 24 hours a day with little privacy. In some cases they can be subjected to physical, psychological and sexual violence.  Moreover, migrant workers are vulnerable to eviction and may feel compelled to put up with abuse in order to avoid homelessness.

The access of migrants to economic, social and cultural rights is not a matter of charity. Migrants are entitled to have their human rights respected, protected and fulfilled wherever they are, and regardless of their legal status. Such protection is an indispensable precondition for their social inclusion and integration, which in turn enables migrants to lead economically productive and culturally and socially enriching lives. Ultimately, the welfare of migrants and their successful participation in the life of the host country, benefit society as a whole.

Before concluding, I wish to note that the issue of migration is one of the priority areas for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights over the next two years.  Our work on this topic will focus on the impact of xenophobia, racism, exclusion and intolerance of migrants; on their economic, social and cultural rights; on criminalization of irregular migration; and on detention of migrants.

Our Office now chairs the inter-agency Global Migration Group and we will lead efforts to promote and mainstream a human rights approach to migration within the United Nations system.  We also look forward to the fourth Global Forum on Migration and Development, which will be held in Mexico in November.

In this year, when we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Office will seek to make use of this anniversary to draw attention to the situation of migrants.  It provides a good occasion for a concerted effort to raise awareness about this important Convention and promote its ratification.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Having just assumed my position as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, I thank you for your support in establishing this important post and I look forward to working closely with all of you to further mainstream and integrate all human rights in the work of the United Nations in New York.   

Thank you.