• Alex

The right to migrate or not to migrate

#HumannRights #WomeninMigration | October seems to have been a month about Migration: In a general training on human rights, I learned that there is a human right to free movement, sometimes referred to as a human right to migrate. One week later ADES held a forum on the right to migrate and the female experience during migration in Central America and Mexico. And another week later, I could make use of my right and re-enter El Salvador after a short week in Mexico for visa purposes. Because of my passport, I can actually make use of my right to migrate and encounter very few restrictions. Once again, my reality is far from representative of the region – but I am extremely happy to at least have the opportunity to learn about other people’s realities.


Cronicas del Barrio, Exvotos mexicanos contemporanos. by Alfredo Vilchis. I came across an exposition on migration and other current issues while in Mexico.

The second week of October ADES hosted the event “Migration in the Central American Region and experiences of female migrants in Mexico”. The event is part of a project and campaign by ADES and the “Meso-American Network Mujer, Salud y Migracion”. ADES’ project aims at 1) informing people of their right to migrate and their rights while migrating, and 2) giving as much information as possible on risks and safety measures so, if people choose to migrate, they can do it as safely as possible. The audience were school classes between the ages of 14 and 17, as well as interested community members.


The campaign message of ADES’ project is simple: You have rights, also while migrating and even if you entered a country “illegally”. The campaign defends the human right to migrate, which guarantees you the choice to migrate, but also contains the right not to migrate (ergo that you have conditions in your country that permit you to stay and don’t force you to migrate). It recognizes that most high-risk migration is not a voluntary migration, but often the last resort. By positioning it as a human right, it prevents the criminalization of migrants. In theory.


Female migrants in Mexico: amongst the most vulnerable?

We’ve all read about the caravans moving from Central to North America. Diana Damina Palencia works for FOCA, a Mexican Women’s Rights Organisation, and refuses to call it a caravan. “It’s an exodus! A caravan implies something voluntary. What we are seeing is a state of emergency, with debt, poverty, and violence by state and criminal organisations, but also domestic violence, as the driving factors”, she explains to the students and community members at ADES.


About 2’000 people per day cross the Mexican border “illegally” from Honduras and Guatemala, which makes it the busiest border of the world. Amongst them 40% are women, and 60% are men.

“Women often become invisible when talking about migration. One imagines a young, able male adolescent or man. And they are the ones that are in the train, “la bestia” – the one we see in the news. Women usually aren’t in this fast-moving train; they can’t keep up”. Her next question to the youngsters in the audience seems out of context: “How many girls play football?” Only one girl raises her hand. “And that’s why women are more vulnerable when they migrate: we don’t teach girls to be agile, to run. In a flood, women are more likely to drown because we don’t teach them to swim or climb trees! We also don’t consider their education to be important, we don’t teach them to read, to be independent, to know and defend their rights.”


One example she gives is about the difference between a Honduran woman that passes through Mexico, and a Cuban woman. Based on her experiences working in and with safe houses, the Honduran women is most likely illiterate, hardly has any funds, is possibly malnourished, and likely to be wounded due to an experience of physical violence. She is amongst the most vulnerable. The Cuban woman on the other hand knows her rights, knows the administrative processes, and isn’t afraid to claim them in front of migration officers. She will also have funds, contacts to Cubans living in Mexico or NGO’s she can ask for support if necessary. What is the key difference between them? The system they grew up in and the knowledge that was accessible to them. While the same may be said of men from these two countries, gendered societies (or patriarchy) will worsen the fate of women.

You might have noticed that I haven't touched upon the topic of gender-based violence or human trafficking - of which once again mostly women and children are victims/survivors - but that topic is just too big to discuss in a short paragraph.


When we talk about an increased vulnerability of women, it’s not because of our genitals, breasts, or raging hormones and menstrual cycles (although I imagine having your period while fleeing bears some additional difficulties and health risks). Granted, our bodies are different, but our abilities depend primarily on what we are taught. And the system we grow up in (whether in Switzerland or El Salvador, the question of how many adolescent girls play football will have similar results) still treats girl and boy toddlers, children, adolescents, and adults differently and teaches them skills that – in the case of migration – are less useful to women.


FOCA focuses on training women on their rights during migration, and offers direct support to female migrants either as a point of information or a safe house, and psychosocial support. They have a network of women all across Mexico and along the border that help and orient female migrants. The network is convinced of and defends the right to migrate. “We need to have empathy with these women, with people that are fleeing, not criminalize them!”

There is a human right to migrate?!

While I was listening to the presentations, I kept asking myself "How is it possible I don't know about this human right?!" In Europe and the US, the practice seems to be the complete opposite. Migrants are being criminalized and vilified daily as we distinguish between “legal” and “illegal” entry into a country, as are people that try to help migrants along the way. So, are all these countries violating human rights?


As it turns out, that discussion has been ongoing for some time and there seems to be no easy yes/no answer.

Legally, the right to freedom of movement, as well as the right to leave any country and return to your country, is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

This Declaration was signed and ratified by around 154 countries. In addition, there have been further conventions that particularly address migrant workers’ rights and non-binding agreements, but only very few countries have signed them. Interesting fact: the US has never ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which means that it’s not bound to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights. This does not mean that people within the US or US citizens don’t have these rights.

Human rights are universal (everybody has them) and inalienable (nobody can take them away).

Anyway, back to migration: There are two interpretations of the right to freedom of movement and to leave any country.

The proponents of the right to migration believe that, if the right to leave your country is a human right, then logically so is the right to enter another one as this is usually what happens when crossing a border. The right to movement is an inalienable right and part of the basic human rights. Thus, even though it is not explicitly stated as a right to migrate, we all possess that right. Latin and Central American civil society, and even some countries, recognize, fight for and defend the right to migrate as a human right.

The other (and currently more widely applied) interpretation is that the declaration only guarantees the right to leave your country, but doesn’t give you the right to enter another country without the state’s permission (as this would violate the sovereignty of states).


Regardless of the interpretation of the right to migrate, migrants still have other rights:

All states have the duty to protect everybody’s basic human rights without discrimination regardless of their nationality (whether they are “illegal” migrants or citizens), including against torture, degrading treatment, or forced labor.

Unfortunately not only do states not protect migrants against violations of their existing human rights, but they become perpetrators of human rights abuses.





I can migrate, so why shouldn't others?

Reflecting back on my families’ long history of migration, we’ve never experienced anything comparable to these human rights abuses. We’re of European descent (English, French, German…) and only considering my parents’ generation, they have migrated, and worked, and later raised families in Uruguay, Peru, Italy, South Africa, and Switzerland. These were all voluntary migrations (some driven by political conditions where the lines between voluntary and forced are blurred). They followed the procedures, applied for entry, residency, work permits etc. and were granted them. And the reason they were granted the permits is because a) they had the right (European) passports, b) they had enough economic resources, c) they had a recognized profession/educational background and d) that educational background allowed them to understand the administrative procedures – or hire a lawyer to help.


In countries with high rates of immigration, we paradoxically find people with a history of migration asking for stricter immigration laws. “My case is different; I followed the procedures, I entered legally. They’re entering illegally!” But distinguishing between legal and illegal migrants blurs the fact that our legal and political systems don’t give the same legal options and protection to all. They clearly discriminate against poor people, people that were born with the “wrong” nationality, people that don’t have the right education. We conveniently forget, that it's never a first choice to enter a country "illegally", but a last resort.


I would love for our countries, and each individual, to show compassion and respect, to offer help and time and their resources to people that see migration as their only way of surviving or supporting their families. But that might be a bit much, so the least I’m asking for, is that we recognize that everybody has the same rights – regardless of their economic status, their passport, or their education.



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