Defending the Weakest: The Role of International Human Rights Mechanisms in Protecting the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Migrants

Pia Oberoi

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Across the world, vulnerable migrant communities are denied access to public health care, adequate housing, and essential social security. Migrant children are barred from attending school and migrant workers are often to be found toiling in dirty, dangerous or dull jobs with little or no protection of their labour rights. While the popular media and other critical voices are stridently raised to condemn migrants for taking jobs from national workers or jumping public housing queues, little is said about the myriad ways in which such economic, social and cultural rights are denied to migrants. Migrants, it can often seem, have no ESC rights, only duties. Yet the international regime of human rights norms and standards is quite clear that all migrants, wherever they are and regardless of their legal status, are entitled to enjoy all human rights, including ESC rights, by virtue of their humanity. This article seeks to situate the ESC rights of migrants in the context of the international mechanisms which monitor and interpret international human rights instruments. It examines the reasons why ESC rights have historically been misunderstood and marginalised. Having traced this difficult history, it details recent guidance by the human rights mechanisms on the ESC rights of migrants, and welcomes this relatively new development. It calls on advocates of the human rights of migrants to pay greater attention to their ESC rights, noting that while the “jigsaw” of normative standards that protect ESC rights has achieved greater cohesion and definition in recent years, much remains to be done to ensure that existing standards are clarified and then implemented in order to better protect the human rights of all migrants.

Suggested bibliographic reference for this article:

Oberoi, Pia. Defending the Weakest: The Role of International Human Rights Mechanisms in Protecting the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Migrants. IJMS: International Journal on Multicultural Societies. 2009, vol.11, no.1, pp. 19-35. UNESCO. ISSN 1817-4574. www.unesco.org/shs/ijms/vol11/issue1/art1

About the author:

Pia Oberoi is an independent consultant on human rights and migration. Between 2002 and 2007 she was employed with the Refugee and Migrants’ Rights team of the International Secretariat of Amnesty International, based in Geneva (Switzerland). She has also previously worked as the Coordinator of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Programme of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, and within the Research and Right to Development Division of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She received her D.Phil. in International Relations from St Antony’s College, Oxford University (United Kingdom), and has published widely on issues relating to displacement, migration and human rights. E-mail: oberoi.pia(at)gmail.com

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