IPI MENA and Key Players Call on the International Community to Ensure Accountability for Abuses against Migrants

Event Video 

Government officials, diplomats, private sector representatives, human rights institutions and key players gathered on October 24th to call upon international organizations, NGOs, global law organizations, and other stakeholders to work together to create resilient communities that work in tandem with security dimensions of executive and judicial organizations to end the intolerable human rights violations suffered by irregular migrants.

Opening the webinar on “Irregular Migration in the MENA Region,” IPI MENA Senior Director Nejib Friji highlighted the importance of terminology: “It is vital that we avoid the term illegal migration as most irregular migrants are not criminals.” He quoted the distinction drawn by the UN, European Union, and Council of Europe, stating that “illegal” is used to refer to the status of a process, and “irregular” when referring to a person.

Highlighting the plight of irregular migrants, Mr. Friji pointed out that irregular border crossing creates a category of people “unknown to the state,” rendering them especially vulnerable. They are removed from the protection of the law and fall into the informal economy, where exploitative practices can – and, unfortunately, do – take place.

“Each and every act of exploitation must be documented with the purpose of bringing those perpetrators…to justice,” he emphasized.

IPI MENA Intern Anuja Jaiswal pointed to frequent headlines reporting on capsized migrant boats on their way to Europe, emphasizing that this is only one tragic part of the story. She proposed a more holistic, human rights-based approach to migration that examines the treatment of migrants in countries of origin, transit, and destination.

“We must highlight the legal tools available to advocate for migrants,” she stated, explaining the legal distinction between human trafficking and migrant smuggling. “We hope that by evaluating the legal tools available, we can build an understanding of how to apply them to complex realities.”

She underlined the consequences of cross-border partnerships on irregular migration, pointing to recent reports which reveal that such agreements can result in widespread human rights violations. “A solely preventative approach to irregular migration makes migrants more vulnerable to human rights abuses and overlooks their frequent victimization in trafficking and smuggling networks…Ultimately, everyone responsible for abuses against migrants must be held accountable.”

Moussa Mara, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Mali emphasized the importance of understanding two main truths when dealing with irregular migration on a global scale: Firstly, migration represents a point of concern for countries of destination. Secondly, migration functions as an obligation, rather than choice for people in countries of origin. “Nobody will leave his own town with happiness…they will go out only to try to live.”

Regarding Mali, Mr. Mara stated that the combination of significant land loss due to climate change and rapid population growth creates a “scissor effect” on local economy, driving greater migration. He pointed out that the situation will not change soon, stressing the importance of international cooperation and convening around this issue: “It is a global concern that needs a global solution.”

In closing, he emphasized the importance of accountability: “We need to use all means against traffickers, smugglers, and the mafia…all the people who are drinking the blood of the migrants.”

Zoi Sakelliadou, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer on Trafficking in Persons and Migrant Smuggling at UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) spoke about the international legal framework against human trafficking and smuggling of migrants, and the challenges in its implementation. “The current global environment is one of turmoil,” she stressed. Several factors, such as armed conflict, environmental disaster, climate change, and poverty, force migrants to leave their homes and many turn to smugglers in the absence of alternatives. Citing a UNODC study, Mrs. Sakelliadou revealed that smuggled migrants are often subjected to extreme violence, torture, and rape.

“Migration is no crime – but smuggling of migrants is,” she clarified, emphasizing the importance of treating migrants humanely with the full respect of human rights. “There is an imperative need to talk to the migrants and listen to them…migrants that have suffered in the hands of smugglers are entitled to assistance.”

Mrs. Sakelliadou also highlighted the widespread nature of migrant smuggling: “There is no country in the world that is immune to this crime.” Referencing UNODC data, she stated that unfortunately, the level of convictions for migrant smuggling and human trafficking is still very low and “we need to bring those responsible to justice.”

Abdelbasset Hassen began by acknowledging that there are many ideas, programs, and strategies implemented by various civil society organizations and migrant and refugee communities. He stated that the MENA region is suffering from a lack of policies and shared vision on the issue of irregular migration.

He pointed to the narrow security-based lens applied to issues of migration and refugees, suggesting that it indicates a perspective grounded in fear. Looking forward to the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he quoted the objective to “free people from fear and want,” emphasizing the need for a different approach.

“We need to move to a rights-based vision that will take into consideration the deep causes and roots of this issue,” he stated, referring to economic, social, and political problems driving migration around the world. “We need to invest in this holistic and rights-based approach, which is not at all in contradiction with security issues.”

In closing, he proposed, “it is time we make human rights the way to address these issues.”

During the open floor debate session, Anna J. Louis, ambassador of the Philippines, raised the fluidity of categories in this issue, pointing out that one can begin as a regular migrant but become irregular through the course of events. She emphasized the importance of grassroots-level participation, describing the prevalence of local government units in the Philippines.

Mr. Mara stated that there is a lack of political will within some countries of origin because migration is seen as a “solution,” reducing the pressure of people on leadership. “We need to face this reality. Migration is not a solution…migration means death for our youth. We need to tell the truth inside our countries.”

Abdulnabi Alekry, correspondent at the Delmon Post, spoke about the issue of “forced emigration” in the context of forced displacement, referring to the Palestinian and Rohingya communities. He asked about the responsibility of the UN and other stakeholders in addressing this issue.

In response, Mr. Hassen reminded the audience that human rights is one of the foundational values of the UN system, and any political solutions must be based on a recognition of the rights of people.