The UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) in December 2018 by the vote of 152 states, over a quarter of which are African states, marked a significant milestone in global commitment to protect the rights of migrants, reduce the risks and vulnerabilities they face, and improve systems, policies, and practices responding to migration.
In advance of the first Africa regional review, Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to provide input on the status and human rights dimensions of the implementation of the GCM in the region, in response to the UN Network on Migration’s call for stakeholder submissions.
Consistent with our mandate as an independent international nongovernmental organization dedicated to investigating, documenting, and exposing human rights violations worldwide, Human Rights Watch has chosen to focus this submission on challenges to progress on several rights-focused GCM objectives, listed below. We aim to build on a number of Africa-led efforts to advance the human rights of migrants, including the work of the Special Rapporteur on Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Displaced Persons and Migrants in Africa and commitments within the AU Migration Policy Framework for Africa and the Common African Position on the GCM.
Much of this submission looks at challenges to implementation of the following GCM objectives under Thematic Area 2, “Protecting migrants through rights-based border governance measures”:
- GCM Objective #4: “Ensure that all migrants have proof of legal identity and adequate documentation.”
- GCM Objective #10: “Prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons in the context of international migration.” States committed to “investigate, prosecute and penalize trafficking in persons, discouraging demand that fosters exploitation leading to trafficking,” to “enhance the identification and protection of, and assistance to migrants who have become victims of trafficking, paying particular attention to women and children.”
- GCM Objective #13: “Use migration detention only as a measure of last resort and work towards alternatives.” States committed to ensuring that any detention “follows due process, is non-arbitrary, is based on law, necessity, proportionality and individual assessments, is carried out by authorized officials and is for the shortest possible period of time”; “to prioritize non-custodial alternatives to detention that are in line with international law, and to take a human rights-based approach to any detention of migrants.”
- GCM Objective #21: “Cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as sustainable reintegration.” States committed to “guarantee due process, individual assessment and effective remedy, by upholding the prohibition of collective expulsion and of returning migrants [refoulement] when there is a real and foreseeable risk of death, torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, or other irreparable harm, in accordance with our obligations under international human rights law.” Regarding reintegration of returning migrants, states committed to “create conducive conditions for personal safety, economic empowerment, inclusion and social cohesion in communities.”
For one case, we also look at issues linked to the following GCM objectives:
- From Thematic Area 3 – GCM Objective #15: “Provide access to basic services for migrants.” States committed to “ensure that all migrants, regardless of their migration status, can exercise their human rights through safe access to basic services” and to “establish and strengthen holistic and easily accessible service points at local level, that are migrant inclusive.”
- From Thematic Area 4 – GCM Objective #17: “Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration.” States committed to “condemn and counter expressions, acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, violence, xenophobia and related intolerance against all migrants in conformity with international human rights law.”
This document presents an overview of Human Rights Watch’s key findings relating to the above objectives in six states that voted in favor of the GCM in December 2018: Cameroon, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania.
While violations of migrants’ rights also took place in many other states, we have focused this submission on contexts where we recently carried out relevant research. Our findings are grounded in research conducted through in-person and telephone interviews with migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, human trafficking survivors, children, aid workers, witnesses to violations, government officials, and others, as well as analysis of videos, photos, injuries, legal documents and other evidence.
Several of these countries took some positive steps in line with GCM objectives, such as Senegal and Nigeria expanding efforts to combat human trafficking, and South Africa’s president announcing the government would provide Covid-19 vaccine access to all adults, regardless of migration status. However, we documented a range of practices by all six countries that both contravene their commitments under the GCM and violate international and regional human rights and refugee law.
Human Rights Watch documented the following abuses between 2019 and mid-2021:
- Persistent and widespread practices of human trafficking in Nigeria and Senegal, with inadequate support to victims and survivors.
- Arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers, often in squalid and unacceptable conditions, in Mauritania and South Africa. In Mauritania, children were among those arbitrarily detained.
- Forced returns: Summary or collective expulsions or forced returns (including pushbacks at land borders) by Mauritania and Tanzania of migrants, asylum seekers or refugees, without due process, in some cases accompanied by violence; and arbitrary detention and other abuses in Cameroon against returned asylum seekers (deportees).
- Discrimination, xenophobia, insufficient access to services, and inadequate documentation for migrants in South Africa.
Details on the documented violations are presented by GCM objective and by country below, followed by an overview of international and regional law prohibiting these practices.
Human Rights Watch urges participants of the Africa regional review in July, including members of the UN Network on Migration, state representatives, and stakeholders such as civil society and other organizations, to address these points during the relevant roundtable sessions. We invite the governments of the countries covered in this submission to respond to the allegations listed below and detail how they will address the issues cited, in order to work towards better implementation of the relevant GCM objectives.
II. Human Trafficking
State actions contravening GCM Objective #10: “prevent, combat and eradicate trafficking in persons”
An August 2019 Human Rights Watch report provided detailed accounts of how human trafficking operates in Nigeria, documenting how traffickers deceive women and girls, transport them within and across national borders, and exploit them in various forms of forced labor. The report also found that Nigerian authorities had failed to provide the assistance survivors needed to rebuild their lives and had unlawfully detained many of the already-traumatized women and girls in shelters.
Nigerian authorities have taken some important steps to address the country’s widespread problem of trafficking, including establishing shelters, assisting with medical care, and creating skills training and economic support programs for trafficking survivors. However, the documented government practice of detaining trafficking survivors in shelters, often for many months, violated their rights to liberty and freedom of movement and risked their recovery and well-being. “I have been here for almost six months… I want to go home,” an 18-year-old woman at a National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) shelter told Human Rights Watch.
We also found that many survivors of sex and labor trafficking struggled with unaddressed mental and physical health problems, poverty, and social stigma after return to Nigeria, where they struggled to get comprehensive and long-term support and services. Survivors reported long waiting periods without assistance after they contacted service providers for help, and they said providers often gave them insufficient information and did not actively involve them in decisions about their own assistance and recovery.
Recommendations: The Nigerian government should take steps to address the serious health conditions, social exclusion, and poverty faced by human trafficking survivors. Authorities should work urgently to improve assistance and services for repatriated survivors, including by developing and providing resources for individual and collective community-based rehabilitation and reintegration programs for survivors of trafficking; ensuring that no one is detained in shelters; and ensuring that shelter policies and practices respect survivors’ human rights.