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Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the “Migration: Why human rights matter”, Austrian Federal Ministry for Science and Research, 29 April 2016

Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

It is always a privilege to participate in discussions in this city, with its profound traditions of enlightened humanist thought. Indeed, it was here, 23 years ago, that the discussions took place which led to my Office being set up.

What was said in that Vienna Declaration was that human rights always matter. They are “universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated” – all human beings have all human rights. They are not reserved for the enjoyment of a happy few, coddled securely behind an imaginary velvet rope that cordons them off from other, somehow less deserving people. Every woman, man and child has an equal right to human dignity.

Today we are seeing unprecedented numbers of people leaving their homes and everything they have ever known, because the places where they live are manifestly no longer safe for human life. Because of conflicts – which have been fuelled and enabled by external powers; persecution; and the silent, and preventable, human rights crises of poverty and deprivation – in other words, from no fault of their own – we are seeing hundreds of thousands of people making long journeys across deserts and on the high seas. In the words of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for migration, Peter Sutherland, this could be called desperation migration. They know that they are putting their lives, and the lives of their children, at risk, and  I think it is safe to assume that they feel they have no other choice. You and I, if we were to face this terrible choice, might well do the same.

There is death at their back. Just two days ago, we saw the latest, despicable attack on Al Quds hospital in Aleppo. Once again, we must insist that the Security Council at last refer Syria to the ICC; there must be deterrence against these and other nauseating actions. And today, the people who flee, who very clearly have death at their back, are finding a wall in their face. It is a wall of hostility, built out of fear. Many people in Europe, in some of the world’s most prosperous and privileged societies, fear economic insecurity, and change.  There is fear that a certain moral order is falling apart, that national values and freedoms are under threat from diversity.  Fear of economic globalisation – an inevitable force, which enriches many, but creates pain and loss for many others. There is also the fear of a terrorism, which is real, but which also needs to be kept in perspective: our societies, which are bound together by deep and enduring values and by the rule of law, are stronger than the demented and pathological hatred of the fanatics.

These fears stampede us towards simple explanations. We rush to identify scapegoats, preferably a weak, outsider group. They are the cause of everything we fear, and we can fixate our anxiety on them –­ evading the complex, lucid, multi-level reflection that produces real progress. We leap towards  the certainty of the demagogues, their facile demarcations of “us” and “them”, the flush of power that emanates from those easy solutions they hold out to us, in words whose force comes from hatred and division.

The history of this city warns us where this will lead. Expressions of intolerance, and incitement to hatred or violence based on ethnic origin or religious belief, can set off an uncontrollable, ferocious escalation of discrimination and persecution. There is a road to violence – and hate speech, which incites violence, is on that road. When we permit the rule of hate to undo the rule of justice, there will be blood.

True courage means defending the historical values of Europe, grounded in humanism. Abusing vulnerable people is the work of cowardice. Refusing to assist them is not European patriotism – it is a betrayal of Europe and all it stands for.  Open and fair societies are poles of sanity in a world of turmoil. We should be nourishing our most precious force, which are the values of human equality, dignity and freedom – not manipulating people's anxieties to create scapegoats and division.

The migrants who seek entry into Europe are women, men and children just like us. Exactly like us – except that many of them have endured suffering so intolerable that they have been forced to leave their homelands. They have come here partly because the world’s wealthy societies are unwilling to offer real and sustainable solutions closer to their homes. They are not a threat. They can be part of the story of Europe – the story of hope. Every society on this continent – and elsewhere -- was built with the help of women and men who came from somewhere else, bringing their values and viewpoints to the common task and melding their culture with others.

The policy disarray that we are seeing among so many States is generating unmanageable chaos, and it is multiplying avoidable human suffering. We need more coherent and principled migration governance, at global, regional and national levels. No matter what their administrative status, migrants are human beings, with rights, and the primary aim of systems to manage migration should be the protection of these people, who have already endured intolerable pain.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to turn to more specific matters.

I have serious concerns about the EU-Turkey agreement – concerns which I share with many others in the human rights community. First, it has led to increased detention in hotspots in Greek islands. I am concerned that much of this detention is arbitrary  and is often in conditions that can simply never be justified, particularly as concerns migrant children, both accompanied and unaccompanied.

Depriving migrants of their liberty – in places that may be called hot spots or registration or reception centres, or prisons –­ migrants who have not committed a crime, but seek only refuge from violence or despair: this would be deplorable. 

I am also not convinced that Turkey could be, in legal and practical terms, a “safe third country” for many people whose return is envisaged. I call on the EU and the Turkish authorities to establish independent monitoring mechanisms, including unfettered access to pre-removal detention centres, for all people who are returned to Turkey, whether under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal or other agreements. I must emphasise that States are obligated to ensure that every non-national in a migratory movement is able to access an individualized examination of all arguments against his or her expulsion. Moreover, I must warn that the implementation of the agreement may lead to undesired consequences. Its declared intention is to deter migrants and refugees from arriving to Greek islands, it may instead lead them taking different, if not more risky, channels of entry.

All migrants, including those who are not entitled to claim the protection of the Refugee Convention, are entitled to protection of their human rights, and States need to ensure that this protection is effective and meaningful.  My Office is building up a framework of guidance regarding protection of migrants in vulnerable situations and in large-scale migratory movements.

As regards Austria:

I acknowledge Austria’s efforts during the migratory crisis, including the reception of almost 90,000 asylum-seekers last year – when many wealthy countries in Europe and the Arab world are refusing to accept even a small or respectable percentage of the migrants received by Austria, and we must urge them to reconsider their position for the sake of humanity and the future.  I am, however, very concerned at the amendments to the Austrian Asylum Law and the potential human rights consequences it will have if implemented. For instance, all individuals have the right to an examination of their particular case by qualified professionals, and to due process and judicial safeguards as a corollary to the prohibitions of refoulement and arbitrary and collective expulsions. Detention must be avoided, and in particular migrant children should never be detained as it always constitutes a violation of the rights of the child. Family reunification should always be considered in light of the best interests of the child.

I have also raised my concern over the extraordinary agreement by police chiefs along the western Balkans to limit the movement of migrants and refugees through Europe. Let me insist: border restrictions that do not ensure due process and judicial safeguards or permit determination of the circumstances of each individual will violate international and European law.

As Austria concluded its first round of Presidential elections of 24 April, I am also alarmed by the prevalence of an anti-migrant and anti-Islam discourse among social commentators and politicians. Migrants and refugees are not collectively responsible for the social wrongs in the country and they are certainly not “illegal”. No human being can be illegal. Demagogues are exploiting the current migrant crises to foster bigotry for their personal and political benefit - and even centrist political parties are hardening their positions.

In this context of escalating divisiveness and xenophobia against migrants and refugees, an evidence and rights-based narrative on migration is vital. Political parties and the media have a role to play in this: they must find the courage to break the downward spiral in the predominant discourse that tends to oversimplify problems and solutions. They must be advocates of international norms that do not distinguish people according to their ethnicity, nationality, national origin or migration status.

I thank you for your attention

The event was organised by the Research Centre Human Rights of the University of Vienna and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights