Monday, 21.06.2021 - Tuesday, 13.07.2021 - Online

Pursuing Migration Justice through the UN Human Rights Council

Laurel Townhead from the Quaker United Nation Office in Geneva on the Council's role in protecting the human rights of migrants and refugees.

Why does the Quaker United Nations Office work on migration justice?  

Our work is grounded in a belief in the inherent worth of every person and over 70 years’ experience of working with multilateral processes to uphold that.  Many aspects of the treatment of migrants around the world are both causes and consequence of a dehumanisation of migrants in direct contradiction to this belief. Our statement on migration, written with other Quaker organisations working on migration and sanctuary, says:  

We are committed to working for a world where dignity and rights are upheld regardless of migration status and not on the basis of citizenship or perceived deservedness.   

It goes on to set out the context, examples of migration injustice and a vision for migration justice.  

What role can the Human Rights Council play?  

Strengthening the promotion and protection of the human rights of migrants and responding to violations of their rights are core to migration justice and the Human Rights Council has an important role to play. For over 20 years Mexico has led resolutions in the Council (and the Commission on Human Rights before it) creating and maintaining a Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, providing both guidance and monitoring, and clarifying standards.  We welcome these resolutions, however, violations of the human rights of migrants persist and it is important to consider what more the Human Rights Council could do.  

Lethal Disregard: Persistent Widespread Violations of the Human Rights of Migrants  

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has consistently expressed concern at what she described as lethal disregard for migrants’ lives and has called for independent monitoring. The most recent report from the Special Rapporteur on human rights of migrants focusses on pushbacks at borders on land and at sea and concludes:  

The practice of “pushbacks” is widespread and exists along most migration routes. Pushbacks manifest an entrenched prejudice against migrants and demonstrate a denial of States’ international obligations to protect the human rights of migrants at international borders. 

The Human Rights Council previously adopted resolutions on migrants in transit (2015), migrants and refugees in large movements (2016), and a Presidential Statement on protection at sea,  but has not acted directly in response to the concerns raised by the High Commissioner and the violations documented by this and other Special Rapporteurs.  

Evolving impact of COVID-19 

COVID-19 has resulted in huge disruption to migration, whilst never halting it completely. Existing violations are being exacerbated and new challenges to human rights in the context of migration are emerging, including equitable vaccine access and potential risks connected to immunisation certification to enable cross border travel.  The High Commissioner’s report on COVID-19 and on the role of States in responding to pandemics make reference to the impact on migrants and the recently mandated report on vaccine access should include migrants, but these do not explore the breadth of issues nor cover new violations in the face of evolving border restrictions and pandemic response measures.   

What next for the Human Rights Council?  

The Council has several possible functions, including:  

  • Guide and monitor human rights based migration governance during/post COVID-19 

  • Increase monitoring of and accountability for widespread and systematic human rights violations 

  • Centre migrant expertise and experience and protect civil society space 

  • Develop further standards to fill gaps 

  • Guide and monitor human rights based implementation of Global Compact for Migration  

  • Ensure technical human rights input to significant UN migration processes 

These are not mutually exclusive options and resolutions could contribute to several of these functions. Indeed, the Council is currently considering a resolution that focuses on preventing and addressing vulnerabilities and on the impacts of COVID-19.  We welcome this focus and the role the requested activities (a report and a panel discussion) could play in meeting several of the functions above and contributing to informing future work by the Council, especially if they centre migrant expertise and experience, hearing those most affected.  

However, we believe that more can and should be done to respond the Special Rapporteur’s report and the close linkages between pushbacks and these topics provides a good basis. We would like to see the Council contribute to the visibility of and accountability for human rights violations through investigation, monitoring and reporting building on and complementing the work of the Special Rapporteur. A Council mandated independent monitoring mechanism investigating into human rights at borders in all regions would signal that the Council takes the scale of violations seriously and demonstrate its ability to respond to human rights violations wherever they take place.


Laurel Townhead is Human Rights and Refugees Representative at the Quaker United Nations Office (Geneva).  


From June 21 to July 13, 2021, the 47th regular session of the Human Rights Council is taking place in Geneva. The FES Geneva Office follows the work of the council closely and has been collaborating with the Quaker United Nations Office on a multitude of issues, including human rights of migrants. The Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends, date back to the 17th century. Their work is rooted in the Quaker testimonies of peace, truth, justice, equality, and simplicity. 



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