Migration takes center stage at UN General Assembly

About one in seven people now are immigrants, but migration policies are lagging behind, officials say

Migrants rescued from a boat that sunk off the coast of Lampedusa arrive at the harbor, Wednesday.
Nino Randazzo/ASP/Reuters

On the same day that more than 100 migrants drowned and 150 were pulled from the waters around a capsized boat near Lampedusa island off Italy, global leaders were discussing rules for safer migration during a two-day conference at the United Nations in New York on Thursday.

A record one billion people have moved away from their original birthplaces to seek better lives elsewhere, and nearly a quarter of them have crossed international borders – but overarching measures to facilitate their movements remain largely elusive.

Thursday, members of the General Assembly were looking into measures to protect the one in seven people who become migrants. Eight recommendations dominated the agenda, such as protecting the human rights of all migrants, eliminating human trafficking and improving the public perception of migrants, who often are branded as straining local economies instead of enriching them.

Almost half of migrants are women, while one of every 10 migrants is under the age of 15. Four of every 10 migrants are living in developing countries, Ban Ki-Moon, U.N. Secretary General said. "Given these complex realities, we need to work together, with courage and vision, recognizing that our actions will have an impact on millions of women, men and children." 

"Too often, migrants live in fear -- of being victimized as the so-called 'other'; of having little recourse to justice; or of having their wages or passports withheld by an unscrupulous employer," he added.

The convention emphasized migrants' contributions to economic growth and development in a globalizing market. Migrant remittances to developing countries amounted to an all-time high of $401 billion last year and represent a flourishing market in times of crisis. They were three times as great as official development assistance, the U.N. reports, but high transfer fees impede the market from developing further.

At the convention, leaders reconfirmed their commitment to reduce fees from 10 percent to 5 percent, and called on countries to reduce the costs of labor migration in general, by taking measures such as promoting the mutual recognition of diplomas.

Labor rights

In a world where more and more people are seeking better job opportunities abroad, the enforcement of international labor rights in healthy economies is beginning to take center stage. Domestic workers, a particularly vulnerable group, are all too often subjected to various forms of abuse.

In September, the International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, a treaty that extended the labor and social rights of some 53 million domestic workers around the world, came into force. It provides basic rights to employees, such as the right to days off each week, set hours and a minimum wage.

Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labor Organization, told Al Jazeera the international community is “somewhat overdue” in drafting a framework for migrant workers.

“Their rights are at the center of the agenda,” he said.

Since the treaty was adopted, 10 countries have ratified the convention, including the Philippines, South Africa and Italy. Several more have passed new laws improving domestic workers’ rights. Costa Rica and Germany have initiated the process of ratification, the U.N. reports. “That’s a relatively small number, but the pace of ratification is encouraging,” Ryder said.

The conference, he said, “gives us a platform to campaign for this convention.”


Aside from economic worries, many have political reasons to seek a better fortune in a foreign country.

More than one million Syrians have registered as refugees since the beginning of the country’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, and more are expected to follow. And as migration numbers rise, xenophobia often does too.

A couple of days before the high-profile arrests of Greece's Golden Dawn party leaders following charges of a series of homicides and racist attacks against immigrants, the country's deputy prime minister told the U.N. General Assembly migration is a key national concern.

"That is an example of I think where we see negative stereotypes and victimization of migrants," Bela Hovy, migration chief at the U.N.'s population division, told Al Jazeera.

"And through the meeting here hopefully countries will be inspired to inform the public opinion," he said.

Al Jazeera

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