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Learning the language of social rights

The difference between a child and an adult is that adults are held responsible for their obligations and rights. Children don’t go to prison; adults can go to prison or join a union to demand their labour rights. Adults also decide where they want to live. 

When we travel, we unknowingly carry our experience, positive or negative, as rights holders. Some people cross borders escaping from a total lack of rights and war. The line of human rights existence usually coincides with countries’ physical borders. Where there are rights, there is well-being.

In European countries, rights and well-being are taken for granted. The first generation of human rights of 1948 is so deeply attached to the skin of European citizens that it seldom occurs to anyone to demand the right to political participation or freedom of religion. 

The first experience many of us have of a European country involves getting off a plane; later, we see the sign written in English that divides the passengers in front of the immigration queue: Europeans on this side, rest of the world on the other. The passport is stamped, and we go from one place to another, but we are all different. 

On the other side, we can read in the newspapers the concerns of the day: a commission has been established to force large multinationals to respect the right to privacy of their users; a company is forced to return money to its customers; another company is fined with millions for tax evasion, organised citizens appeal for their right to work from home, LGBTQ groups accuse a company of discrimination, etc. Many of us look with surprise at these headlines while we think that in our countries, companies are the ones who take governments to court; companies are free to do what they want with the privacy of their users and indigenous minorities are ignored except when they can be used for commercial purposes or political manipulation. Europe’s concerns seem to us to be “first-world problems”, but they are not.

Looking carefully, these problems have evolved in this direction because social rights are guaranteed to every inhabitant of these countries, and these are set in a way that can be realistically capable of being demanded by citizens. These rights, called social rights (or third generation), are referred to when talking about the right to live in a pollution-free environment, to have a dignified life and access possibilities to do so, etc. Thus, the fact that the concern of the citizens and the public debate is oriented towards these issues means that the citizens’ collective efforts, such as campaigns, the collection of signatures to demand a measure or challenge someone in public office or the organisation of rallies, point to the emergence of new challenges or threats to the country’s democracy: technology companies that provide jobs but evade paying taxes, the growing influence of extreme right-wing groups, the increase in pollution from the installation of a new international airport or threats to privacy in an increasingly interconnected world. 

All these constraints challenge the well-being of European societies, and those of us who come from the Third World can easily understand it since, in our countries, people’s well-being has been mortgaged or openly handed over to companies by inbred national oligarchies. As we can see, the right to access a dignified life in European society rests on a tense balance: the enforceability of social rights and the demands of economic growth. 

Neither has a value by itself; both are sides of the same coin. Nobody here would install a factory with burning chimneys and say it is good for the economy because they will employ local people. Well-being lies in the rights and the capacity that each of us has to participate in a democracy that values and respects them. Unlike national citizens, we as migrants must learn this relationship between citizens and the state that is new to us, the same as we learn a new language. Why is it important to us? Because in this learning process, the health of democracy and our ability to live fully and with dignity in this country is at stake.

Photo Sebastian silva







One response to “Learning the language of social rights”

  1. 100 Country Trek Avatar

    Such a tragic time. 😥


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