At the UN, Steps Toward Ending Mistreatment of Migrants

The issue of migration takes center stage at the UN this week. Lives are on the line—the lives of millions of migrants working under inhumane conditions and enduring life-threatening journeys across borders and oceans while attempting to improve life for their families.

Take for instance Duglas Javier Valdes Venegas, a 35-year-old migrant from Honduras, who was trapped under a derailed train car in Mexico for five hours last August along with a cousin, who later died at a hospital. Or Ganesh Bishwarkarma, a 16-year-old Nepali migrant who recently died after only two months on a construction site in Qatar. The examples of abusive and dangerous conditions are countless—and unacceptable.

The stakes are high for all of us. The societies where migrants live and work, as well their countries of origin, benefit from the contributions of migrants. The movement of people between countries has a positive economic effect, according to studies such as a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This is only the second time in history that the UN General Assembly has focused on international migration. The first such summit, in 2006, led to the creation of an unprecedented platform for coordination and collaboration—the Global Forum on Migration and Development. That forum has allowed states, international agencies, civil society, and other interested parties to identify common ground and a set of issues they can work on together.

During the six years since that first summit, many of us have witnessed important progress. The most significant for me has been seeing civil society evolve into a formidable force. Organizations from all over the world—such as Migrant Forum in Asia, Migrant Rights International, the Global Coalition on Migration, and the Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrant Rights—have held more than 20 regional meetings to propose practical solutions with a unifying voice. Not an easy feat given the incredible diversity of organizations and views involved.

The process leading up to the High-Level Dialogue has resulted in a Five-Year Action Plan that delegates representing migrants will present when they address the UN this week. The plan includes items such as:

  • integrating migration into the post-2015 agenda to eliminate extreme poverty around the world;
  • protecting migrants stranded in distress;
  • creating and implementing standards to regulate the migrant labor recruitment industry;
  • guaranteeing labor rights for migrant workers equal to the rights of nationals.

A recent report by the UN Secretary-General for the High-Level Dialogue also identifies actions for member states to consider. They include:

  • protecting migrant rights by implementing relevant conventions and creating greater opportunities for legal migration channels;
  • taking collaborative action to reduce the costs of migration such as lowering the transfer costs of remittances and fees paid to recruiters, especially by low-skilled workers;
  • better protecting and assisting migrants stranded in humanitarian crises such as the conflicts in Libya and Syria;
  • eliminating migrant exploitation in all forms, especially human trafficking.

“Governments should come to New York to make commitments, not just statements,” said Peter Sutherland, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for International Migration. He aims to make this happen by focusing on a series of concrete initiatives such as ensuring that migration is given full consideration in the post-2015 development agenda, reducing the costs of migration, and banning the detention of migrant children.

Sutherland will also expand his advocacy on the Domestic Workers Convention, which extends the labor and social rights of some 53 million domestic workers around the world.

Expectations are very high. But the solutions that all sides are proposing are practical and have the greatest possibility of success.

The question is: Will states translate those ideas into action? Can this UN summit lead to real strides toward a safer, less exploitative environment for migrant workers? 

Add your voice