Solidarity January 07, 2021

Migration, human rights, and the importance of solidarity

Chris Stone
Principal Moderator

Migrants, better than most of us, know the state of human rights protections because they generally lack the protections of citizenship. When human rights institutions fail, they fail migrants particularly severely; with state after state retreating from their obligations, it should be no surprise that 2020 was a particularly bad year for migrants worldwide.

The consequences for migrants of the failure of the post-World-War-Two human rights institutions were brought home to me late last year when Akwe Amosu and I took up an invitation from Alex Aleinikoff to join him and others in teaching a free, online course, Human Rights and Migration at The New School. What became clear as the course unfolded was that repeatedly calling out states’ failure isn’t working. A more useful path may be to put more power behind the demands of migrants and those supporting them — in short, to invest in solidarity.

Neither Akwe nor I is an expert on migration; but, fortunately for the hundreds of students who signed-up as well as for us, Alex had recruited an all-star team of instructors.

The genuine migration experts had many messages for the students, but what I found striking was how all of them were despairing of the weaknesses (and often the complete failure!) of the instruments and institutions designed to protect migrant rights. In the very first class, Harold Koh told the students: “a lot of our post-World-War-Two international organizations are creaky and failing.” And in the second class, Gerald Neuman explained, yes, “there are forums to go to, but these don’t guarantee that states will comply.” As the course continued, the students heard from Ian Kysel that the Global Compact on Migration was deliberately “unmoored from existing law” because the states signing up to it did not want to acknowledge any migrant rights at all, resulting in what Shikka Silliman Bhattacharjee termed “non-enforceable international standards.”

Worse, states are claiming affirmative legal rights of their own to harm migrants. Tendayi Achiume explained the dire consequences, especially for the struggle against racism, of a conception of sovereignty that gave states a “right to exclude” the migrants of their choice.

Even Felipe González Morales, who tried his best to be encouraging about the international infrastructure, finally agreed that “it’s very tough in the current context, and I’m not referring only to the pandemic but to the effort that has been going on for the last few years to convince states about the need to regularize migrants. It’s quite a challenge.”

All of which provided the best possible set-up for the final class, which Akwe and I led. Our focus was not the international mechanisms of human rights, but the role of civil society activists and organizations. As Daniel Kanstroom had told the students in an earlier class, “rights arise out of political struggle. They arise out of organizing and advocacy.” In a world where the formal mechanisms of rights protections are failing, what tools do activists and organisations outside of government need to build respect for rights? What will make today’s organising and advocacy in civil society effective?

The students gave us many answers to that question, from better communication strategies to the mobilisation of street protests. It was inspiring to see the rich list of tools and strategies, especially from the many students already working in roles to support migrant rights. For us, the key to putting those ideas into effective practice lies in solidarity.

Solidarity is on everyone’s lips these days, with calls for greater solidarity on behalf of every cause. Often, however, what is being sought is the weakest form of solidarity: a signature on a petition or an on-line statement of support. Akwe and I challenged the students to consider more demanding conceptions of solidarity: practices of solidarity that included deference to the tactics and goals chosen by those suffering the violations of their rights or those risking their lives to assert their rights. Deference, in short, to the migrants themselves.

The weaknesses in the existing institutional protections for migrant rights are not limited to their enforceability. The rights at stake, as the students heard from several experts, have not been shaped by migrants themselves. Audrey Macklin described the international institutions as an “imposition form the Global North about how things ought to be done.” Leah Zamore explained: “This idea that refugees should be included in decision-making about refugees; it seems common sensical and yet it’s not how the regime has operated. It’s a very top-down regime.”

Our acts of solidarity are most powerful when we join in the strategies chosen by those whose rights are at stake. Our solidarity with migrants is strongest when we respond to calls from the migrants themselves, even if we might have preferred a different strategy ourselves. This question of who decides the strategy arises in all movements for rights, so it is useful to learn from experience. In the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, we’ve been drawing on the writings of Steve Biko during the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa and the debates that divided SNCC during the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. The lesson from both of those struggles is that those whose rights are denied must take the lead, and those supporting them should defer.

At the same time, deference is not silence. Participation in solidarity can include full engagement in debates over strategy, and then respecting the decisions of those bearing the brunt of the violations or risking their lives in struggle.

The students in our class, joining from every continent, seemed ready to embrace a stronger form of solidarity, despite the challenges that solidarity-with-deference presents for political movements of every kind. Perhaps the dismal failure of the international institutions intended to protect migrant rights has made the need for a more demanding solidarity in civil society especially clear. Whatever the reasons, Akwe and I came away from that class hugely encouraged by the possibilities within civil society and among our students for energetic activism, creative advocacy, and demanding solidarity.