Immigration and Globalization: The UN Conference Against Racism Takes on Migrant Issues

When the United Nations convenes the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance over the next week, it will spotlight some of the most persistent issues on the world stage - racism, in all of its many forms and manifestations. The two previous conferences on racism, in 1978 and 1983 focused international attention on apartheid in South Africa. This time, South Africa will host the conference, which will examine a broad scope of racism-related issues and, as in other recent world conferences, consider the growing impact of globalization.

The conference has been controversial from its inception. It has received a less than warm reception from "Western" nations such as the U.S. It has also garnered both criticism and praise for incorporating various forms of discrimination under its umbrella. Some believe this broad inclusion undermines the need to focus on racism, and in particular, on white supremacy. Others insist that the modern world needs to acknowledge the many forms of racism and related discrimination, as these problems take varying forms in different countries and regions around the world. Several significant issues have shaped the preparations: the rights of indigenous peoples, reparations and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, migrants, the situation of the Roma, casteism, the role of gender, among others. In fact, special sessions within the preparatory meetings have focused on the "list" of "victims" of racism -- a significant concern in identifying not only who has been oppressed, but in acknowledging who has rights to protection from such oppression.

Criticism over the treatment of the Palestinians in the Middle East has been a lightning rod for controversy, and the U.S. made continuous threats to pull out of the conference if the Middle East issue is pursued, before sending a low level delegation.

Debates have ensued during lead up to the conference about the role of globalization in exacerbating conditions that fuel racial discrimination, and in undermining anti-discrimination activity. Many governments have resisted the introduction of harsh condemnations of globalization's role in draft conference documents, insisting on embracing language that notes some of the "negative impacts" of globalization.

But NGOs want this world conference to acknowledge a direct relationship between globalization, the growth of poverty and discrimination, and the suppression of rights. In the Americas preparatory meeting held in Santiago, Chile last December, NGOs declared that, "States should condemn policies and actions of transnational corporations, international development and financial institutions, and governments that, in some cases have resulted in the worsening of economic, social and cultural conditions of racially and ethnically marginalized people." These conditions, say the NGOs, heighten "inequality among and within states, increase pressure to migrate, and impede efforts to fight racism and racial discrimination." Similar messages have emerged from NGO gatherings in other global regions.

Significantly, the United Nations approved a focus on "xenophobia," or the fear of foreigners, as an important issue that has emerged throughout the world as migration has become more widespread.

Participating along with more than sixty U.S. migrant rights groups will be representatives from Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa and elsewhere -- voices not often present in international gatherings. However, an international migration caucus of conference participants has been created to organize migrant rights advocacy, education and networking both at the NGO Forum and at the governmental World Conference.

These migrant rights activists are working to heighten awareness about the multiple dimensions of the migration issue, which has been increasingly shaped by the discussion over globalization. It is in this context that the migration issue is particularly relevant and challenging, capturing the intersection of globalization, race and poverty: as globalization has proceeded, as more people have been excluded from meaningful participation in the market economy, and have been denied their economic, social and cultural rights. Indeed, international migration has become a critical feature of globalization:

  • The severe breakdowns of economic, political and social structures, leading environmental destruction among other ills, have made it more difficult for people to survive in their traditional communities, or countries.

  • Skyrocketing debt and national budget deficits have produced fiscal crises in many countries, while structural adjustment programs, imposed as a condition of international loans, have undermined social programs and supports - contributing to out-migration flows from many countries and regions (Redefining Migration in the 21st Century, by Pat Taran, Network News, Winter 2000.)

  • The modernization of communications and transportation has actually made it more possible for people to migrate, particularly for those needing to leave intolerable conditions.

The over 150 million people in migration every year are contributing to a "demographic shift" in countries throughout the world. At the same time, globalization's impact in migrant-receiving countries, such as in the United States or in Europe, has stirred economic uncertainties and heightened racial and anti-immigrant hostilities as predominantly white native populations seek economic security. Political pressures have brought about greater restrictions on immigration as well as on the rights of current immigrants, while immigration enforcement resources and practices have been enhanced. In turn these policies and practices have further stigmatized migrants and fueled anti-immigrant activity and institutional discrimination, particularly against those without immigration documents.

The global challenges surrounding migration are considerable:

  • One of every 50 people worldwide is in migration, more than twice the displaced during World War II1. The United States receives less than 2 percent of the world's migrants and refugees.2

  • Trafficking in people is the fastest-growing business of organized crime and "the biggest human rights violation in the world."3

  • Since 1990, more than 30 million women and children have been trafficked within and from Southeast Asia for prostitution and sweatshop labor in "the slavery of our time."4

  • Most of Europe, Japan, South Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States face declining working-age populations and need "replacement" migrants to support their aged.5

  • The majority of refugees stay within their own countries or neighboring regions. Half of all Gaza Strip residents are displaced (798,400 refugees); 1 in 3 in Jordan (1,518,00); 1 in 11 in Lebanon (378,100); and 1 in 76 in Tanzania (413,000). In contrast, the ratio is 1 in 427 in the United States (638,000 refugees), 1 in 530 in the United Kingdom (112,000), 1 in 577 in Canada (53,000), and only 1 in 316,750 in Japan (400 refugees).6

  • Some 500,000 undocumented migrants enter the European Union each year, up to 50 percent of global traffic in immigrants--a $3 billion business for organized crime networks in Europe.7

  • On average, one migrant dies each day of the year crossing the militarized U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. Border Patrol reported 366 migrant deaths in 2000 in California, Arizona, and Texas, up 57 percent from 1999 -- and the figures for the first half of 2001 have been even higher. Human rights groups have documented at least 654 border deaths since 1995.8

  • Historical relationships of colonialism, conflict and trade compel migration. Today's leading sources of U.S. immigrants--Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and China -- have deep economic and military ties with the United States.9

Meanwhile, over sixty representatives of immigrant rights groups in the U.S. are participating in the UN World Conference as part of the "Immigrant Rights Working Group" organized by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. They have contributed to a new report for the UN conference entitled, "From the Borderline to the Colorline: A Report on Anti-Immigrant Racism in the United States."

The report, based on a survey of conditions in immigrant communities by twenty-five organizations, finds that immigrants "are increasingly the targets of racial profiling by law enforcement officials" and "are often the victims of hate crimes, where they are targets of civilians acting on racist and xenophobic motives legitimized by the state." The report also raises concerns about the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border, the lack of due process for immigrants and refugees, and the growing number of immigrants and refugees in prisons and detention facilities.

Despite the rise in anti-immigrant activity, the U.S. and European Union countries have expressed the greatest resistance to expanding recognized rights for migrants not in regular status -- the so-called "illegals." Nonetheless, the world conference provides a timely opportunity to expand and to standardize protections for migrants, including those without legal immigration status. Migrant rights groups have lobbied hard for the inclusion of all migrants among the lists of "victims" of racism and xenophobia in all sections of the draft documents, and have worked to clearly define the protections they should have. A stumbling block to guaranteeing the rights of migrants --including those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- is that there is no internationally recognized legal definition of a "migrant." Thus, while there is an assumption that everyone enjoys basic human rights -- it is actually not the case for migrants, as well as other marginalized communities.

One of the issues that migrant rights groups are supporting in Durban is recognition of the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, approved by the UN General Assembly in 1990. Indicative of the international controversy over migrant rights, this agreement still has not been "brought into force," with fewer than twenty countries having ratified it. Several countries, including the U.S., have indicated that they would not sign the treaty.

Yet, the convention stands as one of the few international instruments that can help to clearly define the rights of migrants -- a crucial element of an international human rights program in the era of globalization. As important as the official documents that come out of both the NGO and governmental meetings, are the alliances forged between groups that can carry the fight for migrant rights forward.


  1. International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report 2000, Center for Migration Studies, New York

  2. United States Immigrant and Naturalization Service, Annual Report 1999, Washington DC 1999

  3. Arlacchi, Pino, Director General, UN Office for Crime Control and Drug Prevention, quoted in Migration World, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, New York, 2000, page 4.

  4. Helton, A.C., and Jacobs, E., "Combating Human Smuggling by Enlisting the Victims," Migration World, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, New York, 2000.

  5. UN Population Division, Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Aging Populations?, United Nations, New York, 2000.

  6. U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2000, Washington, D.C., 2000.

  7. International Organization for Migration, Geneva; cited in Migration World, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, New York, 2000.

  8. American Friends Service Committee Mexico-US Border Program,, San Diego, CA, 2000

  9. Sassen, Saskia, "Why Migration?", Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Urban Habitat Program, San Francisco, CA, Summer 1993

Catherine Tactaquin is the Executive Director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, based in San Francisco.

AMP Section Name:Globalization
  • 104 Globalization

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