Migrants’ Rights & International Solidarity

Catherine Tactaquin
By Felicia Gustin
Dec 18, 2012

International Migrants Day: Interview with Catherine Tactaquin Part 1

December 18th is International Migrants Day, when in 1990 the U.N. General Assembly signed the Migrant Workers Convention, an agreement that establishes the rights of one of the most vulnerable global populations within a framework of human rights. The problem is the only countries that have actually ratified the convention are mostly countries in Global South, countries of origin for many migrants that experience the negative consequences of mass migration. Neither the United States, nor China, nor a single EU member have signed. The work of migrant rights activists has been cut out for them.

We mark this International Migrants’ Day with an interview with Catherine Tactaquin, Executive Director and co-founder of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR). For over three decades, she has been working to defend and expand the rights of immigrants and refugees, regardless of status. She recently traveled to the Philippines where she participated in the 5th World Social Forum on Migration along with more than 1000 people from over 70 countries. War Times’ Francesca Fiorentini and I spoke with Catherine about the experience and her thoughts on work globally as well as here in the United States.

CT: The Social Forum on Migration was very timely, well-attended and I thought a really good conference both in terms of what is taking place around migration – there’s a lot of debate among governments and within different countries on migration today – as well as connecting to what we are all facing at the domestic level. What’s great about the social forum is that it makes no apologies about a critique of neoliberalism and how global economic restructuring has really contributed to migration. It also contextualized different national and international responses of to migration.

Walden Bello, a well-known scholar in the United States and the Global South and now a congressman in the Philippines, was the keynote speaker and he really set the tone for the discussion, talking about what needs to be changed fundamentally to address the root causes of migration. There were three plenary sessions, which addressed everything from what’s taking place at the grassroots level to reimagining the future.

We had a great selection of speakersincludingSalahSalah, a leading Palestinian activist who really challenged the social forum to include war and conflict as a central issue at the next social forum. This topic was addressed in some of the workshops but I think some groups internationally don’t necessarily make that a part of their agenda. NNIRR does because when we were founded back in 1986, among​

What’s great about the social forum is that it makes no apologies about a critique of neoliberalism

our core organizers and members were folks from the Philippine movement, from the Central American struggle who very much connected the questions of migration to civil strife and war and conflict. But its been a challenge to address the war in the Middle East and I think what our colleagues from the Palestinian movement were raising is that we can’t avoid that. And that’s something that internally within the immigrant rights movement in different countries needs to be addressed and to recognize the hundreds of thousands and millions are displaced because of war and conflict, including Palestinian refugees for over 50 years.

Henry Saragih, general coordinator of Via Compesina spoke and that was significant because the global peasants movement still had not made the connection on migration. Over the last year, we’ve been working with them and had a number of opportunities to talk about the shared conditions of migrants and peasants. We do have common roots and they really see themselves joining in this global movement so that was very exciting that they participated in the social forum.

We had Pablo Solon, the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and former Bolivian ambassador, under the Evo Morales government, to the United Nations. Solon talked a lot about climate change and its global impact, especially in a number of island states and low-lying areas where we now have up to 25 million people displaced directly from climate change and that number is growing exponentially. So it was just that kind of spectrum of speakers was so exciting and I think really enlightening for all of us.

WT: What were some of the other issues taken up at the social forum, including the different causes of migration?

CT: We looked at a lot of the different dimensions of the migration experience. So, for example, we had organized a workshop on violence against migrant women which was examined the whole phenomena of women and migration today. Women make up over half the refugee population and half the migrant population in general. We talked about the fact that migration policies are not gender neutral but what that also means is that there are multiple oppressions that women face and that there is a disparate impact on women and families in the enforcement and especially in repressive enforcement like here in the United States but in other countries as well. 

Migration policies are not gender neutral. There is a disparate impact on women and families in the enforcement

There were opportunities to compare our national experiences. So for example, looking at borders, we had a number of discussions where we compared international border situations. For example, looking at Africa and the particularities of migration there, there is an emerging network of civil society groups addressing migration. Representatives from a new Pan African Migrant Network came to the social forum which is significant as Africa is one of the main sources of migration around the world today. But the conditions under which people migrate and why varies.

WT: There is certainly war and conflict there.

CT: Yes, and there are also religious differences. There is a particular impact on women. There’s the political economy so when you look at the differences between countries, historic tribal issues, language issues – English speaking and French speaking Africans as well as their own particular languages - there are a lot of challenges to being able to build a Pan African migrant rights movement there.

WT: One of the conference themes focused on looking at models and alternatives. Can you share with us what some of those were?

CT: It was at different levels. We did talk about the emerging global movements and I think that the challenge and also the progress over the last five years frankly is, for example, the alliances forming around the work in Africa. The last plenary panel looked at a range of movements - migrant and peasant movements, movements around the environment and climate change, women’s movements, labor. There were a number of folks from the global labor movement with whom we’ve been working for a number of years. Grassroots organizing is key and something that we in the United States are always talking about. In some other countries it’s not consistent across the board.

I think we’re looking at ways we can organize in which we can be self-sustaining. Certainly around the world, building capacity for groups is still a huge issue. There are uneven resources so you can imagine how difficult it is. We think we’re under-resourced here in the U.S. but it’s so much more difficult in other countries. So some of the models we’re looking at that we’re sharing are actually fairly basic – organizing among migrant associations, how we build capacity, how we build leadership, just sharing that type of work was very valuable.

WT: Tell us more about Migrant Rights International (MIR).

CT: MRI was formed in 1994 at the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. This eventually became an association of migrant rights and advocacy groups from the different global regions. Our main mandate is pushing a human rights framework, specifically advocating for universal ratification of the U.N. Migrant Workers Convention. But over the years, other initiatives have come out of MRI and it really does bring together networks from Europe, Latin America, Asian, the U.S. and Africa. We’ve worked in partnership with faith-based groups, with the global trade unions, and with other migration advocacy groups.

What’s exciting is that over the last five years, MRI has been organizing parallel events to the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which is an intergovernmental annual meeting that’s taken place since 2007. That’s helped to expand the movement and to inform it. Actually for 2 days after the Social Forum in Manila, we had a meeting of what’s now called the Global Coalition on Migration which includes MRI, who is anchoring this, but includes a lot of the global networks: faith-based organizations like the International Catholic Migration Commission, think tank and policy oriented networks. But we have a fairly strong unified vision that is rights based and does have a critique of the sources of migration. That’s a fairly new movement but that’s also why it’s very exciting to see this evolving at this point.

WT: December 18 is International Migrant Day. Coming off of the Social Forum what are some of your hopes as a leader in this country for that day and what are some of the international efforts that are taking place in conjunction with that date?

CT: We’re having a celebration here in Oakland that will be spotlighting international developments from the World Social Forum on Migration. We’ll be taking about what’s happening with the intergovernmental discussions on migration and how we’re actually challenging some of their thinking. The governments are still very much into what they call “circular migration” which is essentially global guest worker programs. That’s something that we’ve been challenging for a number of years. We’re going to highlight a big campaign taking place next year in New York that includes a high level dialogue in the fall at the U.N. 

We’re kicking off a renewed campaign to pressure the U.S. to ratify the Migrant Workers Convention 

We’re going to use that as a vehicle to open up a whole global conversation on the causes of migration, a people’s dialogue. So we’re already planning a series of events a year in advance. New York is a global city so we want to try and capture the media’s attention, rally the migrant communities there, as well as labor and other allies, to really open up the discussion on the global context. We think that will also coincide with whatever is taking place in the U.S. on immigration reform.

We’re also kicking off the launch of a renewed campaign to pressure the U.S. to ratify the Migrant Workers Convention. This is an uphill battle but we think is really important to spotlight the Convention and what is says about recognizing the rights of all migrants regardless of citizenship, nationality, immigration status and to recognize that all migrants have human rights and that there are standards that we should adhere to. The U.S. tends not to ratify rights, treaties and agreements. In Manila, at the World Social Forum, we had a great conversation with delegates from Australia and we’re going to be comparing notes on what it means to try and ratify the convention in migrant-receiving countries. So we’re hoping to kick off a great attention to active ratification efforts in the migrant receiving countries.

WT: What are the main barriers to countries ratifying the Convention.

CT: The United States has still not ratified The Rights of the Child or the Convention on the Rights of Women. So we’re not surprised that it hasn’t ratified the Rights of Migrants. They have said that they believe that Convention is too prescriptive, too detailed. The United States, and a number of other countries, don’t like international institutions interfering with the creation or influencing of national laws.

They also believe that the U.S. has standards that are higher than what’s contained in the Convention. We beg to differ on that. But that is the response they have given with respect to the Migrant Workers Convention as well as The Rights of the Child and the Rights of Women. They believe that protections here outstrip what’s in the international agreements.

One of the reasons why we want to revisit ratification and open it up now is that in past years, treaties have to go through the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and certainly when those committees are chaired by extremely conservative, hard-nosed Republicans, it wasn’t even an option to move it there and to bother having a hearing. We want to at least attempt to engage Congress on this, especially the Senate and use it in our congressional education efforts as part of the immigration reform fight here. We really want to push, along with a number of our allies, the importance of rights-based principals and provisions in immigration reform.

WT: Does the Convention on Migration look at the root causes?

CT: No, it’s still just dealing with the manifestations of the root causes. It’s elevating human rights standards. That’s why we have to take this up on multiple levels. Whenever we engage governments in discussions on migration and development, pushing that human rights framework has to be central to any discussion on development as well as understanding what they mean by development and challenging it.

Governments think the win-win scenario is migration for development. You encourage this through bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. This is their circular migration scenario – people leave their home countries, they work on a temporary basis only in developed countries, they learn from their experience there, they make money, they send it home and then they return to their home country. But guess what – that doesn’t work.

They do send the money back but they don’t go back themselves. It’s the myth of temporary work. They become undocumented. Whether they’re skilled or 

No one is talking about permanent migration programs. They’re all taking about temporary programs and migration for development.

non-skilled. So we engage with governments against this whole scenario but this is the kind of scheme that they are discussing at the global level. No one is talking about permanent migration programs. They’re all taking about temporary programs and migration for development. They’re talking about remittances and the whole remittance industry is part of that conversation. It’s a huge industry itself – the financial institutions that facilitate remittances. Those remittances are used as an engine for development in the developing countries instead of dealing with sustainable development and job creation.

In the developing countries – and this is why it’s so important to be working with labor - where there is economic growth, it’s also important for people to get organized. As countries are evolving economically, who’s paying for that? The workers. So it’s getting basic worker protections in place, the right to organize as workers – these are just fundamental issues. So we are addressing the root causes in some ways but it’s really evolutionary, it’s transformational and most of us are just doing transitional kind of work.

To be continued– in Part Two of this interview with Catherine Tactaquin, we’ll look at the work ahead around immigration reform here in the United States.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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