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Keynote address: Side event “Migrants in transit” by Ms. Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

Monday 14 March, 14:00-16:00
Palais des Nations, Room XXVII

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I wish to thank the Governments of Mexico and Greece for co-sponsoring this side event with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and it is my great pleasure to welcome all the distinguished panellists and participants to this important side event and presentation of OHCHR’s study on the situation of migrants in transit.

As we take stock of recent events in Europe, and also in other regions of the world, I hope you will agree with me that this study couldn’t be more timely. Women, men and child migrants are in increasingly precarious and indeed perilous situations in transit, as they move in search of a safer and better life, a life with dignity and respect for their fundamental human rights. During the course of last year, more than 5,000 people perished along migratory routes around the world. Hundreds more have lost their lives this year. And further uncounted thousands suffer serious injuries, deprivation of liberty, xenophobic abuse and attacks and life threatening discrimination as they move.

Let me be clear; this is a human rights crisis. Yet because the victims are marginalised and poor, because they do not share the citizenship of the countries through which they are transiting, they are largely invisible or worse, seen as security threats and a danger to receiving communities.

What is transit migration? Today, even as technological advances have made travel faster and safer for many of us, the journey for those migrants compelled to move from their homes is long, dangerous and even multi-directional. Some will never reach their intended destination at all and will get stuck in transit locations, unable to move forward or back. Our study concludes that there exists today a critical protection gap for migrants in transit.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In using the word ‘migrant’ our intention is not to exclude refugees or other more precisely defined legal categories of persons such as victims of trafficking but rather to use a neutral umbrella term for a group of people who have in common a lack of citizenship attachment to their host country. In addition to persecution and conflict, today the reasons for ‘non-voluntary’ movement include extreme poverty, discrimination, lack of access to education, health and decent work, violence, gender inequality, the wide-ranging consequences of climate change and environmental degradation and separation from family.

Migrants who move out of necessity rather than free choice are less likely to be able to freely make choices or to formulate exit strategies if their migration doesn’t go according to plan. When it comes to forced migration in the 21st century, we should guard against dividing human beings into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories, juxtaposing one vulnerable individual against another.

We see the evidence if the precarious nature of transit migration in the news on a daily basis. And today, transit migration is linked in many ways to increasing barriers to international migration generally. Stringent migration control measures, coupled with a lack of regular channels for entry are increasingly restricting the options for movement and compelling many to seek out irregular channels. Such control measures include legislation that criminalizes irregular emigration, age and sector-specific bans on the movement of potential migrants and the externalization of migration controls such as carrier sanctions and onerous visa requirements.

Migrants are then compelled to turn to smugglers and brokers as the only viable means of completing their journeys, putting them at heightened risk of abuse and exploitation. Here it is noteworthy that migrants who lack access to financial and material resources or are otherwise at risk of discrimination are more likely to experience dangerous journeys and a lengthier, more precarious time in transit than those who are able to pay for faster and safer transport to their destination.

Corruption also emerges as a key element in the experience of migrants in transit,
including along smuggling routes. It can exacerbate risks and prolong journeys; it is an enormous obstacle to the realization of human rights and has a disproportionate impact on the poor.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I think it bears repeating that transit migration is a much more dangerous and discriminatory endeavour for those migrants who are already marginalised and stigmatised. It is absolutely imperative that we bring a human rights lens to bear on our responses to this phenomenon and to examine closely the circumstances of each individual in these movements as we are called to do by the international human rights framework. Relying on profiling based on nationality, place of embarkation or what a migrant looks or sounds like will not lead to rights-based outcomes.

We are concerned that the response to transit migration is increasingly militarized and security-centred. Sizeable industries have been created to build fences and border walls, and provide surveillance systems, drones and other equipment in border areas. Naval assets are increasingly charged with preventing the entry of migrants across maritime borders. Militarization of the border results in increasing deaths. The securitization of the response to transit migration enables States and other actors to employ a range of intrusive, non-transparent and even arbitrary actions in border zones, with limited scrutiny and oversight. Worryingly, any harm resulting from such measures tends to be viewed as an unfortunate side effect of national security, rather than a significant human rights concern in its own right.

Our study calls on States and stakeholders to urgently put in place a number of rights-based practical measures to ensure protection and promotion of the human rights of migrants in transit if we are to be able to address the critical protection gap.

Such measures range from ratification and implementation of all core international human rights instruments, to developing mechanisms at international borders in order to uphold human rights prohibitions against collective expulsion and non-refoulement. There is a specific need to operationalise the principle of the best interests of the child for migrant children in transit, particularly for those who may not be entitled to claim asylum. Specific measures should ensure that women and girls who have experienced rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence during their transit are able to access protection and treatment appropriate to their circumstances and situations. States are called on to make targeted efforts to end immigration detention of migrants in transit, by, for example, establishing a presumption against such detention in law; and to expeditiously end the immigration detention of all children regardless of their status. The lack of research and data on the situation of migrants in transit is an important gap and a major obstacle to the formulation of effective, sustainable and rights-based policy responses. Issues in need of further research and data include the human rights impact of migrant smuggling and improved data on violence against migrants and fatalities in transit.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many migrants stay in countries of transit for long enough to make significant contributions to the economies and societies of host communities. All have specific human rights which States are obliged to protect, respect and fulfil. Rather than our charity, they need us to raise our voices with theirs to confront policies of marginalisation, stigmatisation and exclusion that view them as burdens, security threats and ‘undeserving’, rather than as human beings with human rights.
I wish us all productive and constructive discussions today, and in the difficult weeks and months that lie ahead as we seek to improve the human rights situation of migrants in transit.