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The Right to Mobility: a New Human Right for the 21st Century

Translated Monday 4 January 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

The right to mobility must be democratized, as a human right of the 21st century.

Catherine Wihtol de Wenden is president of the scientific committee of the SSAE (support, solidarity, action for migrants), director of research at the French national center for scientific research (CNRS) et at the center for international studies and research (CERI). She is here assessing the evolution of legislation concerning migrants after the International Migrants Day.
The twentieth anniversary of the 1990 UN convention on the rights of all migrant workers and their families is drawing near, and a third world forum on migrations and development was held in Athens in November 2009. What has been the evolution of migrants’ rights beyond the diversity of migrations?

On international migrants day, what conclusions should we draw concerning pertinent legislation?

Only 42 countries have signed the 1990 convention, all of them southern countries, for the convention grants rights to irregular migrant workers too. It was enforced in 2003, after 20 countries had signed it. Already the 1948 universal declaration of human rights proclaimed the right for any person to leave a country, including his own. Since the end of the 20th century, migrations have become a global phenomenon, with no fewer than 200 million international migrants all over the world, or 3% of the world population. Nearly all countries are concerned by migratory movements, whether outflows, or inflows or transit, or - for some of them - by all three at the same time. The 2009 UNDP report published in October insisted that mobility has become the main factor of human devolopment, thanks to remittances (305 billion dollars in 2008, three times the total of public aid to development), the improvements they afford (education, health and access to water), to the productive economic impact in home countries (as in India and China), and for those who consider that there is no hope for them in their home countries.

The possibility to hold a passport has become almost universal, which is synonymous with free egress; the fall in the cost of transportation has made travelling more widely accessible; transnational family, economic and cultural networks have drawn together countries that were considered distant: all these factors fuel the desire for mobility. Migrants, now more often city-dwellers, and better educated, no longer leave only in order to support their families, but to fulfil their individual projects.

If egress is easier, entry has become harder, and may be deadly perilous. For host countries have stepped up border and clandestine immigration checks. Walls have been set up, at Ceuta in Morocco around the Spanish enclave, and along the US-Mexican border since 2006. Detention centres in Europe and near EU borders have been multiplied; thousands of migrants have died while crossing the Mediterranean since the 1990s. The right to mobility is granted only to nationals of rich countries who do not need visas to move freely or can easily obtain tourist visas. But two thirds of the world population cannot circulate freely and are suspected, in the name of what is called "migratory risk", of intending to settle down each time they desire to leave their home countries: asylum, marriage, family reunion, tourism have become systematically suspicious.

The democratization of the right to mobility is far from being real: nationals of poor countries are put under "home" arrest, and only the most qualified or the most affluent of them can get multiple entry visas and residence permits owing to their attractive profiles for host countries. The least qualified, those that do the hardest, the ill-paid, the dangerous jobs, and for irregular periods in any one year, and must work in bad weather, often have no status and no documents. At best they will have the status of seasonal workers, for the host countries fear they may become a burden on public finances once their work term is over, or that they may find it harder than for others to integrate.

It is high time the right to mobility were recognized as a human right in the 21st century , in view of the fact that mobility has become the main factor to narrow the global gap between rich and poor.

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