EU Agency holds conference on fundamental rights of undocumented migrants

By Devin Cahill,
PICUM Program Officer.

Last week a momentous conference took place in Warsaw, Poland which focused on the fundamental rights of undocumented migrants and for once, it was not a PICUM event but it was sponsored by a European Union (EU) agency. On the 21-22 November 2011, around 300 policy makers, practitioners and civil society representatives attended the Fundamental Rights Agency’s (FRA) 4th annual Fundamental Rights Conference (FRC) titled “Dignity and Rights of Irregular Migrants”.

The two day conference consisted of keynote addresses from high level policy makers from the EU and the United Nations (UN), panel debates with policy makers from the national level and practitioners, and working groups on four thematic themes: rights of accompanied children in an irregular situation, labor exploitation, detention of irregular migrants, and solutions for protracted irregularity.

The FRC also served as the launch of the comprehensive report, “Fundamental Rights Situation of Irregular Migrants in the European Union (EU)” which looked at the fundamental rights situation of undocumented migrants in the EU 27 on six issues; family life, education, health care, adequate standard of living, workers’ rights and immigration law enforcement.  It is an important report as for the first time, there is a clearer picture on the legal entitlements and barriers in practice that undocumented migrants face; as well PICUM was one of the research partners in the consortium. The comprehensive report served as one of three reports produced by the FRA, the other two being case studies that looked at ten EU countries in regards to undocumented migrants employed in domestic work and access to health care.

There are three exciting points to highlight during the days; the first being the great input and questions that came from civil society during the various question and answer periods in the conference. It was clear that civil society was informed and eager to challenge the inputs from some of the presenters. Particularly compared to the number of government representatives, civil society was not a large group however, this was not apparent in the comment periods and Q&A!

The second highlight from the event was when PICUM Director Michele LeVoy provided commentary during the presentation of the FRA’s findings for the report. In a limited amount of time Michele clearly stressed points from the FRA’s findings, evidence that PICUM is receiving from its network and the importance that the FRA’s opinions are taken further by European governments. Her presentation along with some of the other speakers is available online.

The background paper that PICUM prepared for the workshop on accompanied children in an irregular situation which was chaired by UNICEF-United Nations Children’s Fund, was the third highlight of the event. The paper and workshop focused on four themes affecting undocumented children; birth registration, access to education, access to health care and access to housing.  Preparing the background paper gave the opportunity to strengthen PICUM’s current project on undocumented children and as well explore other emerging issues, such as birth registration.

The perspectives of undocumented migrants were intertwined throughout the FRC. Besides having some organizations actually bring someone that is or was formerly undocumented to the event, PICUM coordinated with some of its members to produce videos, allowing undocumented migrants to say in their own words what they thought the European Union and national governments need to do to strengthen the rights of undocumented migrants. The videos were showed at the event and were also made available on the FRC website. As well, for those that were unable to attend the event, a Discussion Forum was created where people could share their opinions, experiences and personal stories. One of the first people to post was PICUM member organization PROSAUDESC, regarding the integration of migrants in Portugal and how current legislation only addressed access to basic services for pregnant woman or children until the age of 12 years old and disregarded other undocumented migrants.

Furthermore, PICUM was one of the 11 other organizations which participated in the Market Place of Ideas, where organizations were able to showcase their work and current projects. PICUM used the opportunity to show two chapters from our upcoming web documentary titled “Undocumentary”. Additionally, excerpts from “Undocumentary” were used by the FRA when preparing a short teaser video for the FRC and the video was also shown at the beginning of the event.

The FRC served as a truly significant event as the FRA, an EU agency, took on a leadership role in addressing and bringing visibility to what PICUM sees as one of the most pressing and urgent fundamental rights issues in Europe today. In his closing remarks, the Director of FRA, Morten Kjaerum, stated that the work of the FRA did not stop with reports because evidence gathering was only one aspect of the work and that it was necessary for the next phase to begin. PICUM will certainly play a key role in this important next step and that is using the work from the FRA when advocating for policy improvements. As well, the FRA mentioned that it would have a meeting in 2012 with health care practitioners regarding access for undocumented migrants and hopefully PICUM will be able to play some sort of role in that gathering. As PICUM builds its work schedule for 2012, we will undoubtedly look for ways to integrate the evidence backed by the FRA into our work and we encourage for other organizations to do the same!

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