Migrant workers, people trafficking, xenophobia and human rights

Published: 15 April 2008

Statement by Ms Mandisa Kalako-Williams, IFRC Governing Board Member and Secretary-General of the South African Red Cross Society, at the 118th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in Cape Town

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies welcomes this opportunity to address the issue of migration and human rights.

This dialogue comes at a critical time when, in the political discourse on migration, the so called “fight against illegal immigration” often takes centre stage, pushing humanitarian and human rights concerns to the sidelines.

The IPU’s active contribution to the defence and promotion of human rights is therefore essential.

Humanitarian concerns generated by international migration were highlighted in the last International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in November 2007 as one of the greatest challenges facing the world today.

The Conference noted that migration itself is generally a positive feature of national growth and development, but governments and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies expressed their concern that migrants, irrespective of their legal status, may live outside conventional health, social and legal systems and may not have access to processes which guarantee respect for their fundamental rights.

The Red Cross Red Crescent has accepted this challenge for many years, and the Conference declaration notes several examples of action taken by National Societies, always on the basis of humanitarian needs and vulnerability.

This acknowledgement of the role of our National Societies is based on the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s fundamental principles of humanity and impartiality, and through it the governments of the 194 States parties to the Geneva Conventions recognise the role and responsibility of National Societies to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable migrants, irrespective of their legal status.

The acknowledgement, coming as it does in the Conference Declaration entitled “Together for Humanity”, recognises that humanitarian concerns generated by international migration are a challenge which is beyond the capacity of any one government or other organisation, and partnerships are essential for addressing the challenges effectively.

It is our belief that Parliaments have a vital role to play in establishing and nurturing such partnerships. The subject matter is of direct concern to parliamentarians all over the world, as your agenda shows so clearly.

The International Federation is committed to addressing the humanitarian consequences of migration by adopting a global approach while recognising that national action will depend on national law, systems and cultures.

Our National Societies’ action ranges from humanitarian assistance with regard to –

• health care and the provision of psycho-social support;

• assistance in restoring family links, which includes judicious referral where legal advice or specialised social services are required (in the latter case, especially in respect of unaccompanied or separated foreign children);

• integration and re-integration advocacy;

• protection in the form of monitoring detention conditions (noting that ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) provides invaluable support for this function);

In all cases, we are guided by the need to ensure respect for the dignity of the migrants and their families.

With our world-wide membership of 186 National Societies, we seek to improve cooperation between National Societies in countries of origin, transit and destination in order better to protect and assist migrants and returnees and to strengthen partnerships with relevant external actors.

This is one area where we as an International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies can add significant value to the work of governments.

Our National Societies have an auxiliary role to their public authorities in the humanitarian field. Within the framework of their obligation to abide by the Red Cross/Red Crescent’s fundamental principles of neutrality and independence, and the authorities’ commitment to respect this modus operandi, the auxiliary status offers a platform for a formal partnership with Governments.

As local organizations with community-based trained volunteers, who do not take sides and act in a non-discriminatory way, our National Societies also enjoy the trust of migrants themselves.

In addition to providing humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, the unique and privileged position provided by their auxiliary role enables them to bring a humanitarian perspective into policy-making and promoting the rights and dignity of all migrants.

It is our hope that Parliaments will also benefit from greater contact with National Societies as they expand their own interest in issues affecting migrants.

The International Federation promotes respect for international human rights law, refugee law and international humanitarian law.

We call upon all States to accede to and to implement fully the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and other relevant treaties including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

In keeping with the mission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Our advocacy also focuses on ensuring effective and unconditional access to all vulnerable migrants regardless of their status for the purpose of providing humanitarian assistance, without being criminalised or otherwise penalised for that action.

Taking up the challenge of promoting and protecting the dignity and human rights of migrants in need, we welcome the support of the IPU and Parliaments world-wide.

Parliaments have a crucial role in reaching out to local constituencies and in holding Governments to account.

You, as Parliamentarians, can foster increased cooperation between countries, enable joint action in addressing the humanitarian consequences of migration and increase the understanding of its causes.

This is a subject we will develop with Parliaments at all levels, and I should record here our thanks to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for inviting us to bring our perspectives to its deliberations.

We are ready to do the same with other regional parliamentary assemblies, utilising the most appropriate resources each time, including those available from our National Societies.

Finally, we would like to reiterate our strong commitment to combating discrimination, racism and xenophobia against migrants.

We must all, everywhere, change our perception, and see - beyond what differentiates us - our common humanity, in order to develop a world where diversity is not only respected, but celebrated.