Migrants are more than their immigration status. While politicians are talking about who can legally cross a border, migrants are wondering: Will the boss underpay me again? Is it safe to call 911 if grandma falls? Who will look after my children if I am deported? Will the color of my skin affect my chances in court? Will they let me out of detention in time for my ninth birthday?
Earlier this month delegates from countries around the world met at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to begin a long process toward negotiating a Global Compact on Migration. Countries are hoping that in 2018 they will have the first United Nations agreement covering all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner. This is an ambitious undertaking at any time, but especially in an age when migration policies and xenophobia are becoming increasingly contentious.
As a representative of the International Migrants Bill of Rights Initiative, I had the honor of speaking at these meetings. I reminded national delegates that while the Global Compact is an opportunity to more clearly formalize migrants’ rights, many of those rights already exist in treaties and other sources of international law that are not specifically about migrants.
I want to explain that I am using the term “migrant” because it refers to all people living outside the country where they are a citizen or national, or where they were born or a habitual resident in the case of people without any citizenship or nationality. This captures people coming, going, and in transit as opposed to the word immigrant, which only refers to people coming to a country to live there permanently.
Migrants are entitled to human rights by virtue of their humanity, and they do not become any less human when they step across a border. However, these rights are currently codified in a scattered patchwork of treaty and customary international law, which does not establish the rights for individuals crossing borders with sufficient clarity—nor is this law consistently respected by countries. The International Migrants Bill of Rights and the associated legal commentaries provide a guide on how international law applies to migrants, serving as a resource for countries, international organizations, advocates and migrants. The International Migrants Bill of Rights Initiative seeks to ensure that, in their efforts to find compromise, nations do not backtrack from existing human rights law.
It is promising that the preparatory processes for the Global Compact started with two days of discussions focused on the human rights of all migrants, recognizing that migrants’ rights should always be part of the conversation when talking about how to handle the flow of people across borders.
While talking about the human rights of migrants can feel abstract, the violation of these rights is a struggle that real families living in the United States and around the world deal with every day.
At the New York Legal Assistance Group, it is not uncommon for a domestic violence survivor without legal immigration status to ask if it is safe to call the police or go to court to seek protection from a violently abusive husband or to fight for custody of her own children because she is afraid that immigration officials might show up at court. The same holds true for a hyperventilating mother asking if she should sleep with her toddler on a park bench instead of in a domestic violence shelter on a winter night because she is terrified immigration officials will find her and separate her from her U.S. citizen child.
In the immigration advocacy community, these are difficult questions to answer right now. Although there are protections that exist for immigrant survivors of domestic violence in the United States and advocates have not seen signs of widespread immigration enforcement against men and women in these situations, there are no definitive answers in the current political climate.
However, there is no question that fear of the very police, courts, and service providers meant to protect migrants is a sign that we are failing to protect the human rights of migrant victims of crime and vulnerable migrants in critical ways.
At the meetings, countries affirmed their commitment to the human rights of migrants. However, as Ben Lewis of the International Detention Coalition noted, national delegates’ remarks tended to fall into two categories: “Migrants have human rights, and…” and “Migrants have human rights, but…” The “but” comments largely focused on countries’ rights, especially the right to decide who can cross a border, while the “and” comments recognized that nations can regulate their borders while also respecting the rule of law and protecting human dignity.
Although it will be difficult for countries to overcome their differences, the very existence of these meetings should be beneficial for migrants. Several speakers noted that it was hard to imagine a frank conversation about migrants’ human rights at the United Nations even just ten years ago. Over time, the process through which civil society and migrants raise concerns and nations share best practices slowly advances progressive developments in human rights law.
As countries pursue this historic agreement, it is important that the Global Compact not fall below the baseline human rights that already exist in international law. Migrants and advocates need to keep reminding nations that both regular and irregular migration have existed throughout history—and this is unlikely to change. Given this reality, it is essential to remember that no matter why or how they crossed a border, migrants’ rights are human rights.
For more information on how international human rights law applies to migrants, see the International Migrants Bill of Rights legal commentaries.