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"Standing Together for Migrant Rights,"

by Cathi Tactaquin January/February 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Despite the negative media reports about the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia (WCAR) – and the as yet unresolved official outcome documents – the South Africa conference and the preparatory process provided a unique opportunity for highlighting the critical role of migration in the globalized economy, and for establishing broad guidelines for rights protections for a broad cross-section of people in migration. Moreover, the conference process helped to engage and bring together a much more representative gathering of the fledgling international migrant and refugee rights movement, including U.S. participants from community-based, labor, legal and advocacy groups around the country.

The backlash and repression against immigrants and people of Middle Eastern backgrounds in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks has reinforced the need to step up international awareness and commitments to rights protections, such as those articulated in Durban. Energized by their experience in South Africa, many immigrant rights activists had returned home not only to the horror of the September 11 tragedy, but to communities fearful for their own safety from an anti-immigrant backlash and heightened national security measures to protect American borders. When public officials announced that civil liberties would have to be sacrificed in order to effectively fight terrorism, it was clear that not everyone would have to “sacrifice” civil liberties; as in decades past, the civil liberties of targeted groups – especially defined along lines of nationality, racial or immigration status – would simply be taken away.

Migrant and refugee rights NGOs from the U.S. and elsewhere had shared with colleagues from other arenas the frustration and disappointment of WCAR’s failure to solidly address today’s varied issues of racism. Nonetheless, the scope of the issues, the presence of NGOs in lobbying on both broad and highly specific language, and stated commitments for follow-up mechanisms – which had not been specified in the two previous world conferences on racism -- should be taken as gains and potential organizing tools for the international movement against all forms of racism.

The World Conference was especially significant for the migrant and refugee rights movement. In light of the conference’s focus on racism and xenophobia, migrant rights advocates internationally had identified the conference as an important vehicle for raising the profile of the migration issue, and for bringing together far-flung organizers and advocates for migrant rights. In the end, while the 45+ paragraphs pertaining to migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons that were included in the governmental conference documents fell short of the stronger and more inclusive language favored by rights advocates, the provisions established a solid baseline of protections for a broad range of people in migration, and contributed to more clearly defining the range of international protections.

Going into the conference, migrant and refugee rights advocates had identified a number of goals for the conference documents, such as: inclusion of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons as specific references wherever possible; rights protections for all migrants, regardless of immigration or legal status; specific reference to the link between racism and xenophobia; and the call for more state ratifications and bringing into force of the International Convention of the Protection of Rights for All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. A number of these issues had been lobbied in preparatory conferences, particularly in the Americas preparatory meeting in Santiago, Chile. Preparatory meetings in Europe, Asia and Africa identified a similar range of concerns.

Moreover, during the governmental conference and the preceding NGO Forum, as well as in various preparatory activities leading up to the September events, NGOs working on migrant and refugee issues came together for the first time as an international NGO Caucus on Migrants and Refugees, and worked closely in preparing a conference lobby document and in coordinating a variety of activities in Durban. For many of the poorly-resourced organizations around the world working on migrant issues under often desperate conditions, the conference provided a vehicle for networking and for developing the seeds of an international strategy. For example, out of the preparatory process in the Americas, a new South American migrant rights network has emerged, and in Africa, a pre-Durban conference brought together migrant and refugee NGOs, many meeting for the first time.

Over 60 diverse representatives from immigrant and refugee rights organizations in the U.S. traveled to Durban as a delegation coordinated by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. An Immigrant Rights Working Group, which had come together in the year prior to the WCAR to organize preparations and mobilize participants, developed a “shadow report” for the conference, coordinated trainings, and participated in conference preparatory activities, including meetings in Santiago, Quito and Geneva.

Released in the U.S. prior to the Durban trip, the shadow report, “From the Borderline to the Colorline: A Report on Anti-Immigrant Racism in the United States,” was based on a survey of conditions for immigrant communities conducted by 25 community-based organizations. It provided an overview assessment of a wide range of issues in the areas of immigration enforcement, employment, women’s rights, welfare, housing, and hate violence, among others, and attempted to articulate the “race edge” to anti-immigrant policies and practices. The report found that:
  • Immigrants are increasingly the targets of racial profiling by law enforcement officials;
  • Immigrants of color are often victims of hate crimes, and anti-immigrant racism imperils lives – often as a result of biased immigration policies;
  • Immigrants, and those perceived as immigrants due to their race, continue to suffer from employment discrimination, are vulnerable to workplace abuse and often face greater challenges in fighting for fair working conditions;
  • Heightened military presence and law enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border have escalated human rights abuses of migrants and people of color in the Southwest and other regions;
  • Immigrants and refugees suffer unequal treatment within the legal and criminal justice systems and face standards of evidence and punishment unequal to those of citizens;
  • Immigrants and refugees are the fastest-growing incarcerated population in the U.S.

Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and U.S. ratification of the Convention Against Racial Discrimination in 1996, obligating the protection of individuals against human rights abuses and racial discrimination, specifically in the realm of civil and human rights, the shadow report states: “Despite these international guarantees, U.S. immigration policies engender racism and xenophobia against immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants. Racist and xenophobic hostility directed at immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and other non-nationals in the U.S. demonstrates that current policy fails to provide these protections, and in many cases, legalizes a program of racial discrimination and human rights violations.”

For a number of the delegates, the trip to South Africa was their first international trip, or their first international conference. For many of the delegates who had themselves migrated to the U.S., the South Africa experience was particularly unique, as they found themselves among other migrants from countries around the world. At Durban, the delegates organized workshops, were active in caucusing, held a successful press conference and rally on the grounds of the WCAR – much to the consternation of conference security personnel – and were among the active NGO lobbyists in the conference itself.

In a recent post-Durban assessment, U.S. migrant and refugee rights delegates reaffirmed their commitment to pursue the aims of the Immigrant Rights Working Group in preparing for the South Africa conference: to continue to raise grassroots community awareness of international protections, and to remain connected to and engaged with international migrant and refugee rights colleagues in pressuring for the broad range of protections spelled out in the Durban conference documents.

Cathi Tactaquin is Senior Research Associate at the Applied Research Center, 25 Embarcadero Cove, Oakland, CA 94606 (510/534-1769). She is also a member of the International Migrant Rights Watch Committee, headquartered in Geneva. She attended last September's UN Cairo Conference on Population & Development.


Cathi Tactaquin (, a PRRAC Board member, is Director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, an alliance of community-based, advocacy, labor, faith, legal and other groups and coalitions working for fairness and justice in immigration policy. She is a founding member of the Geneva-headquartered Migrant Rights International, and participated in the NGO Caucus on Migrants and Refugees for the WCAR.

“From the Borderline to the Colorline: A Report on Anti-Immigrant Racism in the U.S.” (81 pp., 2001) is available ($18 individuals, $38 libraries/institutions) from the Natl. Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights, 310 8th St., #303, Oakland, CA 94607.


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