Wednesday 18 September 2013

Migrant rights: The pot calling the kettle black

In my previous blogpost, I expressed skepticism on the question whether the upcoming High Level Dialogue (HLD) on Migration and Development will yield any concrete result, mainly because governments of wealthy countries are unwilling to protect the rights of the lower skilled and refugees and to commit to more liberal immigration policies.

In a reaction, Barbara Harrell-Bond, the founder of Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre, wrote to me that it is equally important to remind governments of developing countries that they also receive migrants and refugees.

She pointed out that major emigration countries such as Egypt and Morocco ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families "for very self-interested reasons, because they were concerned with their emigrants, not because they ever expected to deal properly with their immigrants". Governments of emigration countries should therefore be challenged to behave themselves.

Harrell-Bond's argument is based on her experience living in Egypt for eight years, where she established the Refugee Legal Aid Project (now known as AMERA-Egypt), and also through her work with NGOs in Morocco on legal aid for refugees.

I could not agree more. Countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia often have an appalling record when it comes to dealing with immigrants and refugees on their own territory. In Morocco and Egypt, for instance, migrants and refugees often lack access to protection, residency, basic health care, education, and often suffer from racist violence, discrimination and exploitation on the labour market.

In Egypt, refugees from Syria (and elsewhere) meet with open hostility. In Morocco, over the past years police has regularly raided immigrant neighbourhoods, irregular migrants have been arbitrarily imprisoned and deported to the Algerian border. Even recognized refugees have difficulties to obtain residence permits.

In November 2012, the Moroccan weekly Maroc Hebdo ran a cover story representing the few tens of thousands of sub-Saharan immigrants in Morocco as the 'Black Danger' (PĂ©ril Noir, see image above), portraying them as a major security threat. Some Moroccan politicians have also started to play the race card by blaming immigrants for problems such as crime and unemployment.

Such harsh treatment, open racism and abuse of the migrant rights in countries such as Morocco and Egypt obviously undermines the case for protection of their own emigrants living in Europe and the Gulf. This is exactly the argument that human rights activists in Morocco have used: It is hypocritical to blame European governments for racism and discrimination as long as we treat our own immigrants so badly.

Perhaps such criticism have inspired the immigration reforms that have recently been announced by the Moroccan king Mohammed VI, following from a report submitted by the National Human Rights Council (CNDH). Although it remains to be seen whether this will result in any concrete policies, the proposed measures include the regularisation of sub-Saharan and European immigrants.

If Morocco really embarks upon these immigration reforms, this would signify a significant breach away from the past decade, during which Morocco was put under pressure by the European governments to take on the role of the EU's 'border guard'. As part of their self-proclaimed 'fight against illegal migration', European governments have been all too happy to turn a blind eye to the bad treatment of migrants and refugees on Moroccan territory.

In the same vein, the EU has not only tolerated but actively encouraged severe violations of migrant rights in other countries in Africa and the Middle East like Senegal, Libya, Egypt and Turkey - through the supply of 'aid', border patrolling equipment and 'technical assistance' on how to best detect, round up, imprison and deport migrants.

It is time to go beyond the false distinction between 'immigration' and 'emigration' countries. Most countries are both. This implies that it is difficult to separate the protection of the rights of emigrants from the rights of immigrants, and from the protection of human rights more generally. Such attempts are ultimately self-defeating, as they undermine the credibility of governments calling for the protection of 'their'  emigrants while violating the most basic human rights of migrants on their own territory.

It would therefore be a major step forward if governments of major emigration countries start to recognize that their calls for the protection of their citizens abroad can only be legitimate if they also behave themselves. 

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