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Migration

'Stigmatization of migrants must stop'

This year on International Migrants Day, the number of migrants worldwide is higher than ever. Still, attitudes remain ill-informed, says Jean-Philippe Chauzy from the International Organization for Migration.

DW: It's been 22 years since the signing of the UN convention protecting the rights of migrant workers. What is the situation like for migrants across the world today?

Jean-Philipp Chauzy: Each region where migration is occurring has its own special situation, involving internally displaced peoples, people fleeing conflict or natural disaster or just people on the move looking for more financial rewards. What we are seeing in many parts of the world though, especially during the economic downturn, is that migrants are being stigmatized and scapegoated. We notice that especially in discussions in many industrialized countries. Migrants are being made responsible, in some cases wrongly so, for the current state of the economy.

It's time to stop that. Migrants often contribute actively, even in times of economic downturn, and they make social contributions to the receiving countries and to the countries where they come from. They are also incredibly important for their families that have been left back at home. There are many myths that surround migration. Many believe that migration only takes place from countries in the southern hemisphere to those in the north. The reality today is that there is as much migration from the north to the south as well. Another myth is that migrants are stealing jobs in their receiving countries. But migrants actually often fill jobs in the job market that are not being filled by nationals.

Nepali migrant workers rest after a day of work on foam mattresses (Photo: Sam Tarling)

Migrant workers in the Gulf state of Qatar often have to put up with cramped living conditions

To what extent has the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families really taken effect?

The convention was signed on December 18, 1990, and came into force in 2003. The number of countries which have ratified this agreement still remains very small. There have been only 20 ratifications from countries around the world. So far, they have mainly been nations that are origins of migrants - think of Mexico, Morocco or the Philippines. Migrant-receiving countries in western Europe and North America have not really ratified the convention. Nor have countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council or South Africa or India.

Considering the low number of ratifying nations, is it right to assume then that many industrialized countries don't really care about the rights of migrant workers?

No, in many countries you have fundamental rights firmly anchored into the legislation, including the right to health. The reality though is that undocumented migrants, because of their lack of status, are at risk of being exploited. One of the ways of promoting the rights of migrants is that you open up as many legal channels for migration as possible. If a migrant arrives in a country with a proper work contract, with proper documentation, this person has recourse if the employer doesn't stick to contractual regulations. A person who is working as an undocumented migrant has very few avenues of recourse, and is therefore open to abuse and exploitation.

African migrants demonstrate on the the streets of Rabat

African migrants hit the streets in Rabat, Morrocco, demanding more rights in the workplace

Is climate change a factor for worldwide migration at the moment, or is it rather an issue the media just likes to focus on?

This type of migration is becoming an issue. Still, one of the main challenges is getting hard data on the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on migration now and their effect over the next decades. Obviously, migration has always been a form of adaptation to degraded environments. It has happened in West Africa for centuries, for instance. The populations in a number of countries would migrate to the coast in the dry season, and then they would return to their areas of origin in the rainy season.

Now, this not really happening anymore. We are seeing increased numbers of people settling into urban settings in West Africa, who have relatively little chance of returning and sustaining themselves on their ancestral lands. Everyone always focuses on small island states around the world, like Tuvalu. Obviously, these are the most hard-hitting stories about the impact of climate change on migration. But the vast majority of migration related to climate change or extreme climactic events - such as floods, droughts or typhoons - is actually already happening.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy is the spokesperson of the International Organization for Migration in Geneva.

Interview: André Leslie

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