The most rewarding outcome of learning human rights is undoubtedly the realisation that efforts, determination, vision and passion can actually turn into concrete action for change. Rights! talks to Migrants Matter, a group of human rights advocates who decided to take their ideas out of the classroom and into the world.
Rights! (R): Migrants Matter, the name says it all: witty, short, to the point…
Migrants Matter (MM): We wanted to find something catchy and easy to remember that could work well on social media platforms. We thus sat at a table and we started a “brain-writing” session. Each one of us wrote an idea, a word, on a piece of paper and then we tried to put the different contributions together. There was a very open (and fun!) debate on which name would have worked better and finally we reached a consensus on “Migrants Matter”! We also thought about adding a hashtag to it, something powerful yet straightforward: this is why we chose #endexploitation. The message we want to convey through our name is mirrored in the logo we have: two hands bringing together different colours to represent our members’ different backgrounds, nationalities, cultures, just like migrants, forming a butterfly, as a symbol of freedom, that freedom that we strongly believe migrants workers should have.
R: So let’s try the elevator pitch test: you are on your way to a meeting in Brussels and accidentally find yourselves in the elevator with an important representative of the European Commission. How would you introduce Migrants Matter in a couple of sentences?
MM: Migrants Matter is an advocacy campaign started by a group of students of the European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation (E.MA). It aims to improve conditions for migrants in Europe through raising awareness and conducting lobbying for effective policy change for migrant workers, specifically through promoting the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW).
R: And if it was an ordinary member of the general public who asked you about your work?
MM: We are a group of young professionals, postgraduate students, and emerging leaders from more than 30 different countries. We are passionate individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds united by a common concern about the treatment and status of migrants in Europe today. Much of our work focuses on advocating for the ratification of the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMW). We believe that social media is a great tool to spread our message, so this is why we are very active on Facebook, Twitter and through our blog and website.
R: The language of advocacy, a tricky business, powerful and empowering. How would you explain Migrants Matter to a migrant, then?
MM: Migrants Matter was created to harness the dreams, strengths and motivations of over 20 students coming from all over the world and hoping to make a difference. We wanted to try to speak up on behalf of migrants; them, us, you, in the end everyone who is moving and crossing borders on the surface of the Earth. But the real need was to speak up for those who actually cannot raise their voice. Because irregular migrants live in the shadows and in constant fear, trapped and often forced to work in unlawful conditions and consequently ending up being silent victims of violations of the most basic human rights. Hence the Migrants Matter campaign was born with the goal to try to make the world a better, safer and more just place for migrants.
R: How did you come up with the idea of an advocacy campaign instead of, say, a petition, a documentary, a conference …
MM: An advocacy campaign was appealing because it would allow us to put in place different instruments directed to the same goal and to combine mid-term as well as long-term strategies. To identify a suitable topic, we broke into small groups, researching specific issues such as Asylum for Afghanis that have worked as interpreters for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan; health care for irregular migrants; the situation for children in detention centres; the ICMW; and migrants in Venice. These exploratory activities were taking place against the background of the Lampedusa tragedy on 3 October 2013, when more than 350 migrants died at sea while trying to reach European shores, a catastrophic event which lent the issue of migrants’ rights and migration more generally an even greater sense of urgency and importance. Following the brainstorming and research activities, each group presented on the topic it had been researching. The presentations gave rise to some spirited and robust exchanges and at the end of the evening, when all those present voted for the issue they thought most suitable for an advocacy campaign, the topic of the ICMW came out on top.
R: Why the focus on that specific Convention and on its ratification?
MM: We decided to focus on the UN ICMW, one of the 10 core international human rights instruments, since no EU country has signed or ratified it so far. Choosing ratification of the ICMW as a long-term goal seemed to make sense as it is a clear, easily-explained and easily-measureable goal (though not necessarily easily achievable!). Furthermore, advocating for ratification can have lots of immediate benefits such as raising awareness of the issue of migrants’ rights and highlighting the disconnect between the EU’s stated human rights ethos and goals and the failure of EU Member States to ratify this key human rights treaty. Migrant workers form a vital part of the European labour force and community. However, their working conditions in Europe and elsewhere have been notoriously difficult and violations of their rights to fair and decent working conditions have been widely documented. Migrants Matter aims to put the Convention back on the EU political agenda. We are aware that the ratification of the Convention is not a simple issue and the absence of EU Member States among its parties has deep political roots. For this reason, we also consider it important to “mythbust” some of the most common beliefs concerning migrants, and especially migrant workers, as part of our awareness-raising activity aimed to challenge stereotypes not only among the politicians but also among the public, whose support and cooperation is essential.
R: Tell us a bit more about your awareness-raising activities…
MM: We organised several events in 2013/2014, such as ‘The Silent Walk for Migrants’ in Venice on December 18th (International Migrants’ Day) and the Brussels 20k, to spread the message that migrants do matter. Thanks to the support of new E.MA students, we were able to repeat both events in 2014/2015 as well.
In 2013 we organised a mini flash-mob during the European Development Days in Brussels and a round table with an Italian politician during the E.MA Film Festival in Venice.
In 2014 we also launched the ‘100 pictures because Migrants Matter’ initiative: we asked our followers to send us a picture of themselves holding cards with their name, country of origin and country of residence. We were overwhelmed by the support we received, since we flew past our goal of 100 pictures, and we created a video to celebrate it.
In 2015 we launched a postcard campaign (the first of a series) to call on the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, to support ratification of the Convention in its 25th anniversary year.
At the moment we are working on the creation of an illustrated comic entitled “Illustrate Our Rights.” The comic will explain the Convention on Migrant Workers in simple, easy to understand language, using cartoon illustrations. Illustrate Our Rights is expected to be released at a launching event in Brussels held on International Migrants Day, December 18, 2015. As this day is also the 25th anniversary of the ICMW, it is the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of MM, gain support for migrants’ rights, and promote the ratification of the ICMW among EU Member States.
R: When it comes to lobbying and targeted actions, who are your main interlocutors?
MM: Our wide international network enables us to be uniquely placed to build pressure across Europe to push for migrants’ rights to be a part of the European agenda. For us, newbie lobbyists in the “EU jungle”, concrete actions basically means writing informative letters and requests for meetings to MEPs, and then enthusiastically following up with (annoyingly) persistent phone calls and (regular) reminder emails. Even though our main interlocutors are MEPs, we also foster regular contacts with partner NGOs, which we inform about our initiatives so as to spread more effectively our message. Since the very beginning, we have been in contact with PICUM and now, with the postcard initiative, we have been able to forge links with many other NGOs dealing with migrants’ rights.
R: Has this strategy paid off in your experience so far?
MM: Indeed, it has. Early in 2014 we managed to arrange meetings with, among others, the former Spanish MEP Iñaki Irazabalbeitia Fernández. We talked about a useful political tool at the EU level, the parliamentary question to the European Commission (EC). He said “draft me a question and I will ask it for you”. A few days later, our question was ready and sent to the MEP, who then presented it to the EC. A few months later, we received the answer from Cecilia Malmström, the then EU Commissioner for Home Affairs. What we learnt from this first experience, was, mainly, to continue chasing our goals.
As for the postcard campaign, a total of 826 e-postcards were submitted to the EU Commissioner in 30 days! This great result would not have been possible without the support of several NGOs that shared the initiative among their network.
R: Any engagement with actors outside the EU?
MM: Engaging actors outside of the EU is a fundamental outreach principle for Migrants Matter. When Migrants Matter was still in its early stage, we managed to arrange a Skype conference with Prof. François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. It was a unique opportunity to discuss the Migrant Workers Convention with a high profile expert, who showed support for our work.
During the conference on the Migrant Workers Convention organised in Venice in July 2014, some of us were able to discuss our advocacy strategy and other issues related to Convention with experts on migrants’ rights issues (like Dr. Ryszard Cholewinski of the ILO), experienced advocates and leading experts on the Convention (like Ms. Mariette Grange), the Argentinian member of the Committee on Migrant Workers (Mr. Pablo Ceriani Cernadas), as well as students from all the Regional Masters which make up the EIUC Global Campus network.
The team behind Illustrate Our Rights is currently trying to engage a wide variety of actors both inside and outside the EU. Alan Desmond is currently attempting to convince cartoonists primarily based in the US and Europe to join our campaign as illustrators. Anita Chaudhary Pratap is attempting to persuade Facebook, an organization based in San Francisco, to develop a tool in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the ICMW. Lavinia Spennati works on reaching out to guest blog writers who have varying areas of specialisation and who have varying geographic origins. John Lee is leading an initiative on documenting stories of migrant workers from all around the world. Some of these stories are coming from migrant workers from Asia, Africa and North America and who could be a better expert on the migrant experience then migrant workers themselves? Vincent Hauquier is currently in the planning stage of initiating contact with Canadian Prof. François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. Louise Bonneau is currently leading a translation initiative to ensure that the Illustrate Our Rights campaign is accessible to all individuals regardless of the language one speaks. This global reach is only possible due to the linguistic diversity of Migrants Matter members – over 10 languages are represented via MM members. Anita Chaudhary Pratap and Silvia de Benito are working towards developing a #selfiewithamigrantworker initiative, which will also have a global reach. Engaging actors outside of the EU is a fundamental element to the Illustrate Our Rights campaign and will continue to play a fundamental role in future Migrants Matter campaigns.
R: How did your studies help forge the project and give it weight internationally?
MM: Without the multicultural and exciting E.MA environment, with its worldwide network and key contacts especially in the human rights hubs of Brussels and Geneva, Migrants Matter would not have been possible. Migrants Matter was born from the need to put in practice our academic knowledge on human rights, to act concretely and to stand up for the protection of the most vulnerable. This advocacy campaign benefits from the different backgrounds and expertise of our members, which intertwine and complement each other. This diversity is reflected in our work and in the variety of activities we carry out. At the same time, our efforts have a common goal: advocating for better conditions for and fairer treatment of migrant workers.
R: These seem to be difficult times to convince States to ratify yet another Convention limiting their sovereignty and recognising rights for non-nationals, with all the alleged risks that they say this would entail. Human rights work, however, calls for courage and action precisely in such difficult times. Would you consider the current situation and debates as a challenge or a motivation for your campaign?
MM: In a moment in which migration is a highly politicised issue and very often also misrepresented and manipulated by unscrupulous politicians and cynical, sensationalist media outlets, we think it is important to reaffirm the values of human dignity and human rights. This is particularly crucial for the EU, which is supposed to be founded on values including the protection and the promotion of human rights. We want to bring real meaning to the concept that migrants’ rights are human rights. The current situation concerning migrants and attitudes towards them is simultaneously a challenge and a motivation.
The best time to fight for the rights of the vulnerable is always now. It is not a fight that will be won today or tomorrow, but we are persistent, patient and incurably optimistic. Nothing’s going to stop us! Do you want to join us?
Follow Migrants Matter on