International AIDS Day, International Women’s Day, and International Labour Day – you might have heard of these but many of you have probably never heard of the 18th of December as International Migrants Day (IMD). One of countless official UN holidays. IMD is also one of the youngest UN days as it has only been celebrated since 2000. The day was inspired and suggested by a group of Asian countries who started celebrating a day of solidarity with international migrants back in 1997. The 18th of December was chosen since it was on that date that the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families was adopted back in 1990. There are numerous events planned this year around the world; International Organization for Migration in South Africa is celebrating “I am a Migrant, too” and in the UK NGOs are hosting different “Our Day” events across the country.
So why should we celebrate International Migrants Day? Is it even necessary or possible to celebrate 214 million people, purely for the fact that they have crossed an international border from one place to another? Why should it be a cause for celebration and recognition? These are all valid questions particularly at a time when mass immigration is often causing unease and resistance. The current economic crisis and austerity measures have exacerbated that unease and in certain places turned it into outright hostility as is the case in Greece at the moment.
Furthermore, human migration today is more complex than ever before, involving many more countries, and numerically larger populations, who move for many different reasons. And while human migration will never be without consequences or issues, it is also a fundamental part of our shared history ‒ globalisation has only made that more evident. International migrants as a group cannot be considered homogenous, they represent people from all walks of life and every conceivable nationality – the one thing they do share is their willingness to move, to cross international boundaries, and often the courage to start anew.
From the perspective of the United Nations, International Migrants Day is an attempt to recognize the positive contributions made by the approximately 214 million international migrants worldwide and to recognize the human rights and fundamental freedoms that they still possess often despite their immigration status. As the General Secretary of the United Nations Kim Ban Moon said
“Attention to the rights of migrants is especially important at this time of global economic and financial distress. As budgets tighten, we are seeing austerity measures that discriminate against migrant workers, xenophobic rhetoric that encourages violence against irregular migrants […] During economic downturns, it is worth remembering that whole sectors of the economy depend on migrant workers and migrant entrepreneurs help to create jobs.”
It is exactly these tendencies, the scapegoating and hostility to migrant populations, which makes it necessary to celebrate and recognise the contributions immigrants make worldwide both economically and culturally and to defend their rights. Defending their rights is part of defending everybody’s rights, while most of us remain sedentary, the lack of rights afforded to migrants or the curtailing of their rights affects all of us.
While hesitations and unease about immigration should be taken seriously and addressed in policy-making and integration debates, fear-mongering and scapegoating is never acceptable. The current economic crisis was not brought on by immigrants, and they should not be blamed for it, however easy it is to target them.
We cannot assume that all 214 million migrants are beyond reproach, but it is no more ludicrous to celebrate their contributions and sacrifices, and defend their rights than it is to celebrate the contributions made by women on International Women’s Day – an even more diverse group. Migrants, all 214 million of them, would make for the world’s fifth largest country if they all lived in the same place. Each of their stories is unique and diverse, but together they make invaluable contributions to families, communities as well as countries and economies. Like every other human being on earth migrants deserve respect and dignity and that is why there is cause for celebrating International Migrants’ Day. While it may not make a huge difference in the everyday lives of migrants all over the world, it does send a message that they and their contributions are valued globally.
 Not to be confused with International Migratory Birds Day on the 12/13 May.