This section comprises a selection of major international and regional human rights treaties, non-treaty standards, international case-law and OSCE commitments which together constitute an international framework for addressing migration-related challenges and protecting the human rights of vulnerable groups, including migrant workers, refugees, displaced persons, returnees and stateless persons. This section also holds examples of national legislation on voluntary and forced migration, asylum-seeking and the status of foreigners. For more information on this topic browse through additional useful resources, such as legislative guidelines, legal opinions on selected national legislation and links to governmental agencies and international institutions dealing with migration issues.

Migration is the movement of a person or a group of persons, either across a recognized international border, or within a State. In terms of causes, two types of migration are distinguished: forced and voluntary. Forced migration refers to asylum-seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons. It may be the result of, e.g., conflict, human rights violations, state fragility, development policies and projects, and natural and man-made disasters. Voluntary migration includes labour migrants and persons moving for other purposes, such as family reunification. The current complex political and socio-economic conditions, which often structurally underpin migration, however, render this distinction increasingly difficult to apply in practice. 

Today, human mobility is greater than at any other point in history, as globalization has enabled more people to move across borders in search for safety and better livelihood opportunities. Due to economic development, many states, including OSCE participating States, have transformed from countries of origin into countries of destination. Urban migration and displacement has grown in proportion, and climate change, environmental deterioration and development projects account for increasingly more migratory movements. According to IOM estimates, there are about 192 million people living outside their country of birth. Altogether, migrants would thus constitute the fifth most populous country in the world.

In the OSCE region, the last two decades have seen the disintegration of former state structures and the creation of new states, which led to a new surge of both forced and voluntary migration in this part of the world. Armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia caused mass displacement, while the break-up of both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union resulted in millions of former internal migrants becoming foreigners or stateless1  persons in the successor states. In addition, differences in socio-economic development in many of these new states have led to increased economic migration in the region.

It is likely that the global movement of people will continue to grow in the future. This will be underpinned by economic liberalization (sustaining the flow of capital, goods and services, and highly skilled workers, while attempting to limit the flow of workers with lesser skills), as well as advancements in transportation and communication technologies, economic crises, and differing levels of population growth between developed and developing countries. Conflict and human rights violations, as well as natural and man-made disasters are also likely to continue to uproot considerable numbers of people across the globe.

While it is important to address and solve displacement situations and prevent further forced migration, the voluntary movement of people should be facilitated, as it offers an opportunity to foster economic development and exchange of skills and to promote cultural diversity. The positive aspects of migration are, however, frequently disregarded in public discourse and migrants may then be subject to xenophobic attitudes. Amid the highly politicized debates, international migrants, in particular, seem to serve as scapegoats for socio-economic problems.

In order to address the challenges related to migration, the international community has developed a body of international migration law, which encompasses a network of legal relationships among persons, groups and States. The rights to seek asylum and to leave and return to one’s country of origin are referred to in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and are generally recognized as binding norms of customary international law. The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air are important examples of binding legal instruments pertaining to the rights of different categories of migrants.

There also exist a number of normative, non-binding UN standards, in particular, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration.

Major international and regional human rights treaties, whose key guarantees are not citizen-specific, are also of paramount importance to migrants. All persons within the territory and/or jurisdiction of signatory states, regardless of the duration of their stay, enjoy fundamental rights, as enshrined in the European Convention on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (1950) (ECHR) and its protocols, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (1966) (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, (1966) (ICESCR). In line with these international treaties and domestic legislation alike, sovereign states are obliged to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of all persons, including migrants. Insufficient political will of competent government authorities, however, may sometimes stand in the way of implementing the relevant legal provisions.

There also exist a number of specific OSCE commitments related to migrant workers, as well as refugees, displaced persons, returnees, stateless persons and women. These commitments outline the pledges OSCE participating States have made to address challenges related to migration and to protect the human rights of migrants. In view of the specific challenges faced by female migrants, as well as their particular vulnerability, the need to make OSCE participating States’ migration policies more gender-sensitive was considered especially important.

Finding solutions to migration-related concerns and displacement is indispensable for ensuring political stability and security in the OSCE region. Therefore, ODIHR co-operates with OSCE participating States on a variety of migration-related activities, while paying particular attention to the integration of migrants and the development of gender-sensitive migration policies. ODIHR supports participating States in developing humane integration policies and facilitates the exchange of good practices that exist at the national level. Furthermore, ODIHR addresses the challenges posed by forced displacement across the OSCE region.

1Statelessness refers to the condition of an individual who is not considered as a national by any state.


Introduction prepared based on contributions received from Mikolaj Wrzecionkowski, Legal Consultant