States must protect human rights defenders assisting people on the move

GENEVA – States have an obligation to protect human rights defenders who often put their own lives on the line to assist the hundreds of thousands of people on the move[1] each year, a United Nations expert has told the Human Rights Council.

Introducing his latest report* in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, said defenders of people on the move are currently facing unprecedented threats and restrictions to their work, as well as pervasive disqualification and criminalization. He said States are failing to address these concerns.

It has been two years and a half since the sordid image of the body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year old boy fleeing war in Syria and found lying lifeless in a Turkish beach, galvanized popular opinion around the world. Today, such images continue to emerge, deeply shocking our conscience. As many regions are facing devastating humanitarian crisis, human rights defenders help prevent similar tragedies and protect the rights of some of the most disenfranchised groups of our societies,” Forst said. 

“The main aim of my report is to underline the importance of incorporating the issue of defenders in the current discussions on policies about people on the move,” Forst said. “This includes notably the negotiation of the two global compacts on refugees and on safe, orderly and regular migration.” 

According to the study, defenders face obstacles to their work mainly stemming from restrictions to access people on the move, criminalization and stigmatization, and threats by non-State actors, such as organized crime or State-outsourced entities providing services to people on the move.

Defenders of people on the move are very often people on the move themselves, sharing the vulnerabilities of the people they defend,” Forst said.

“The challenges faced by defenders are marked by the commodification of the people whose rights they champion, the shift in public discourse towards a securitized approach to people on the move, and the use of the notion of citizenship to deprive people on the move of their basic rights.

“This report is a call to States and global stakeholders to protect the work of those who are not only shocked by the death of Alan Kurdi and those sharing his fate, but who decide to take a step forward and actively defend the rights of people on the move.”

(*) View the Special Rapporteur’s report:


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