The Responsibility to Protect Migrants


By: Peter Sutherland

somalilandsun – Migrants face countless perils. Vicious mafias smuggle them across borders with reckless disregard for their lives. Rapacious recruiters fleece them of their earnings. Abusive employers exploit their labor. And, adding insult to injury, anti-immigrant sentiment erodes the political will to confront these challenges.

Yet, when it comes to protecting migrants’ well-being and rights, smart practices abound – and should be promoted more widely and implemented more frequently. With the number of international migrants on track nearly to double in the coming decades, such practices must become reference points for action.

The plight of migrants is particularly tragic when its source is violent conflict, like in Syria and Libya, or natural or manmade disasters. In crises like these, migrants’ lives and physical safety are jeopardized through no fault of their own. Yet the world has no clear guidelines for how to protect them.

Libya’s civil war placed the vulnerability of migrants in stark relief, with hundreds of thousands caught in the crossfire. And, while Libyans were badly affected by the war, foreign workers were even more vulnerable, as they were largely left out of schemes aimed at protecting civilians. What stood out were the very different fates migrants faced. Most were left to their own devices to escape the violence, and many died trying. Some were killed after being falsely targeted as mercenaries (largely owing to the color of their skin).

Other groups, however, fared better. High-skilled migrants employed by Western oil companies, for example, were airlifted to safety. Nationals from countries with robust protection protocols, and sufficient financial resources, were efficiently evacuated (the Philippines was exemplary in this regard).

Libya was thus a vivid reminder of the serious gaps that exist in helping migrants in life-threatening situations. Their vulnerability is heightened due to their legal status and other obstacles – restrictions on exercising their fundamental rights, language barriers, constraints on their movement, and limited social capital and networks.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, were heroic in going above and beyond their mandates to protect migrants at risk in Libya, as were many NGOs. The World Bank also acted quickly to provide funds to evacuate Bangladeshi nationals.

But international organizations alone cannot solve the problem. Before the next crisis erupts, we need to clarify the critical roles that all key actors – including countries of origin and destination, neighboring states, businesses, and civil society – should play.

Last year, I began urging states and others to define a framework for action on helping migrants caught in crisis situations. It would include a set of principles, such as this fundamental one: During a crisis, emergency assistance should be afforded to citizens and migrants alike, without discrimination.

I am grateful to the United States and the Philippines – working closely with the IOM, the UNHCR, and civil-society groups – for offering to help lead an initiative to address the situation of migrants caught in acute crises. Georgetown University and the MacArthur Foundation also are playing indispensable roles.

Already, some countries have identified measures that stakeholders can take before, during, and after crises in order to keep migrants out of harm’s way. Countries that are especially experienced in protecting their workers abroad offer a blueprint for action.

An early warning system in the Philippines, for instance, mobilizes government agencies to react quickly to crises, while a special fund pays for emergency evacuations. The government also provides compulsory pre-departure and post-arrival orientation, so that migrants know what to do in an emergency. Registration systems, such as Mexico’s matricula consular, help to ensure that countries know the location of their migrants – including those who are undocumented – in a crisis.

Destination countries have equally profound responsibilities in crises. Evacuation from danger zones and humanitarian aid should be provided regardless of legal status – as the United States did last year in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Likewise, after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Japanese authorities broadcast information in 17 languages, assuring migrants that they could seek emergency services. Migrants also typically need emergency travel documents after a crisis, as well as legal assistance to help them recover lost assets.

Neighboring countries have a vital role to play, too – for example, by keeping borders open so that migrants do not become trapped, as Egypt and Tunisia so generously demonstrated during the Libya crisis.

Employers, meanwhile, are linchpins during a crisis. They should be obliged to repatriate foreign workers, as required in the standard migrant employment contract used by the Philippines. They also should have evacuation plans for employees at all levels, not just executives.

It should be self-evident that we need to help all migrants in distress – not only those affected by conflicts and disasters, but also those abandoned by smugglers, countless more left in limbo for years in transit countries, and the millions working in slave-like conditions. The principles and plans that we put in place to protect migrants in life-threatening situations eventually could – and should – be expanded in order to protect a much broader array of vulnerable migrants.

We need not be overwhelmed by the dizzying array of problems plaguing migrants. With small groups of states, experts, international organizations, and civil society working together to trail-blaze solutions that might become global practices (a model that could be applied to other international problems), we can address the challenges facinPeter Sutherlandg migrants one by one and with the necessary resolve.

Peter Sutherland, Chairman of Goldman Sachs International and the London School of Economics, is UN Special Representative for International Migration and Development.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.