On 14 March an academic event was held in honour of Padre Solalinde. He received this years Geuzenpenning for his dedication to the protection of migrants on their dangerous journey from Central and South America to the USA. His shelter, Hermanos en el Camino, was founded in 2007 and is located in Oaxaca, where many of these migrants pass.
Padre Solalinde opened the event with a speech. Following his speech, three scholars of Erasmus University from different disciplines and a policy adviser from the city council of Rotterdam offered their reflections.
Padre Solalinde's speech through the eyes of Master International and EU Law students; Michelle Duin and Ayça Türkeri
While pointing out the signs of positive change in the Mexican society, Padre Solalinde emphasises the need for enhanced inclusiveness and support for the most vulnerable. The state may increasingly recognise that migrants are entitled to human rights, and the right to equal treatment, their vulnerable position in society make them an easy target for severe human rights violations, such as abduction and human trafficking. This shows that having rights and recognition can only do so much to offer them protection and security from the potential dangers they face.
Hence the question arises: what happens if law is not enough to protect these people? Where and who should they turn to? Padre Solalinde calls attention to the social dynamics of the Western world, where people are always busy with working for more money to buy a better car, a bigger house, nicer clothes. What would they do when all of that is taken away from them? In such a case, we are all dependent on help and goodness of others. It is not always easy to get that help, he notes, as there are various factors involved. Padre Solalinde talks about the many challenges he faces while maintaining his shelter, not only from the inhabitants of the village where the shelter is situated, but also from the local authorities. There have been times when the people of the village attempted to attack the shelter because they believed an alleged rapist was hiding there. By telling his story, Padre Solalinde showed that it does not matter what someone did prior to seeking safety; no one is inherently bad or less worthy of protection than others - we must also seek to understand the position of these people, where they came from and the traumas they carry with them.
In Padre Solalinde’s view, we are in the midst of an era for change, where migrants escaping political pressure, poverty and aggravated violence are receiving more and more respect. Collective action, he says, could defeat any kind of threat, regardless of the immense power that threat represents (pointing inter alia to Trump and the wall he is now attempting to build). To act collectively, we, as human beings, have to focus more on human dignity, empathy, and helping others. Our dedication should especially involve the most vulnerable: refugees and migrants. It is vital to see these people as what they are, he concludes, being human beings in need of protection.
Reflections by Scholars and City Council of Rotterdam
Estimado Padre Solalinde, es un gran honor de darle la bienvenida aqui a Rotterdam. Tratare de conectar humildemente su historia sobre la lucha continua para la justicia a favor de los migrantes mas vulnerables, con mi experiencia academica a saber los derechos fundamentales.
[Dear Padre Solalinde, it is a great honour to welcome you here in Rotterdam. I will humbly try to connect your story about the ongoing battle for justice in favour of the most vulnerable migrants, to my own academic expertise concerning fundamental rights]
My reflections on Padre Solalinde’s inspiring speech are developed in three interrelated steps.
First, and most importantly, Padre Solalinde’s account of his work, the shelter he runs and the underlying motivation of his relentless battle for justice for South American migrants on their often dangerous path to the US, is that migrants, also illegal migrants, are human beings, and as such entitled to human rights. Especially in these polarised times, often depicted as a crisis, an asylum crisis, a migration crisis, it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that human rights are exactly that: rights for every human being, irrespective of characteristics like race, ethnicity, religion, language, and mostly irrespective of nationality and legal status.
States have always been very keen to assert their sovereignty and have been particularly jealous to guard their sovereignty in relation to the control of their borders, and the related migration policies. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that once (illegal) migrants are in the territory and thus in the jurisdiction of a particular state, these migrants are entitled to human rights and the state concerned has to respect these human rights. Indeed, when states ratify human rights conventions they consent to limit their sovereignty accordingly. Unfortunately, states sovereignty concerns in relation to migration and migrants regularly takes the upper hand, as becomes also visible in differential rules for citizens by birth and naturalised citizens in relation to family reunification.
State obligations to respect human rights even imply positive state obligations to protect individuals against interferences by private parties (such as criminal organisations, traffickers etc.). Admittedly, most human rights are not absolute, and state obligations are similarly not absolute. Nevertheless, it remains important to highlight that the baseline position is that states need to respect the fundamental rights of all persons in their jurisdiction, irrespective of nationality and legal status. Interestingly, even in relation to conventions on social rights, that had originally excluded illegal residents from their scope of application, the quasi jurisprudence of the official supervising body has slowly but surely extended basic social rights protections to illegal migrants. Indeed, the European Committee on Social Rights has boldly underscored that the European Social Charter is ultimately about the protection of human dignity, which would mean that also illegal migrants are entitled to at least the protection of minimum (basic) levels of social rights. The landmark decision in this respect happens to concern a case against the Netherlands, concerning illegal migrant children (DCI v the Netherlands).
Secondly, and relatedly, Padre Solalinde’s approach towards the migrant communities that he assists can be seen to confirm the underlying rationale of the UN Global Compact for Safe Orderly and Regular Migration, that was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 18 December 2018. The Compact promotes a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions, which according to some can be understood as implicitly recognising that there are no crystal clear dividing lines between refugees, migrants and illegal migrants. It has been welcomed that the Compact is strong on human rights, as rights for everyone, and contains several promising objectives, such as those that are aimed at reducing vulnerabilities that migrants face at different stages of migration. Similarly, the Compact urges responsibility sharing among states in relation to the multiple migration streams.
However, the Global Compact also confirms state sovereignty. When the different values that are supported by a document potentially pull in different directions, it will come as no surprise that different actors on the international scene contest which value weighs more heavily.
Several states, including the Netherlands, emphasise that the Global Compact basically reaffirms state sovereignty in relation to migration policies, and the related distinction between regular and irregular migration.
Thirdly, it should be highlighted that the international consensus about the importance of human rights defenders has been growing, and thus also the need to honour, protect and support these human rights defenders. In this respect, I want to give credit to the long tradition of and the excellent work by the Geuzenpenning organisation. Interestingly, on the same day as the UN General Assembly adopted the Global Compact, it also recalled the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders of 1998. Deploring the more than 300 deaths of human rights defenders in 2018, the General Assembly calls on member states to be more serious about their commitments towards human rights defenders.
Differently from its lukewarm attitude towards the Global Compact, the Netherlands wholeheartedly voted in favour of this Declaration and underscored the central role of human rights defenders for fostering inclusive, just and peaceful democracies.
Ostensibly, states are torn between their sovereignty concerns in relation to border control and their commitments in relation to fundamental rights.
Clearly, we have a long way to go still, but fortunately people like padre Solalinde, and his shelter Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers under Way), show on a daily basis what it means that all human beings are worthy and entitled to a dignified life.
The Geuzenpenning, with which we honour padre Solalinde today, is a distinction bestowed on ‘human rights defenders around the world’. In padre Alejandro Solalinde’s case, it is for vital support to migrants in Mexico who live, travel, and sojourn in precarious and vulnerable circumstances. He is on the side of what King Lear called ‘unaccommodated man’, men and women who are, in Shakespeare’s phrase, ‘in the poorest thing superfluous’. Or as another defender of the downtrodden half a century ago has put it, he takes up the cause of ‘the wretched of the earth’, ‘les damnés de la terre’ (‘los condenados de la tierra’). In Padre Solalinde’s justified complaint that “the powerful have no feeling for the people – they do not reckon where the people go, where they breathe, in what domains they roam”, we find echoes of Frantz Fanon’s haunting denunciation of how the colonisers look at the colonised, and the colony: ‘They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how.’
El padre Solalinde is a ‘misionario itinerante’, someone with a mission that indeed cannot be pinned down or restricted to one place, one area, one domain – because the refugees to which he provides assistance are necessarily itinerant as well. Not because they so choose, but because powers that be leave them no choice but to be ‘on the road’. Therefore it is fitting to honour Padre Solalinde today, as someone who is on the road with them, providing protection in word and in deed. And in this way ‘keeps the faith’, in a way that includes, yet goes beyond religion and human rights: by showing that we should not, and cannot, be indifferent.
We could say that padre Solalinde is honoured for his ‘work’ – and undeniably he spares no effort or trouble in serving a worthy and important cause, putting himself in harm’s way in doing so. Yet I believe it would be even more appropriate to say that he is honoured for his way of being, his way of life. In his case, this means above all “being with the people, identifying with the people” – as padre Solalinde characteristically said: ‘me saqué la lotería estando entre la gente’ – the real prize you can win in the lottery of human life, is living among the people. Being with the people, I think, is the essence of what padre Solalinde calls keeping the faith, in his view the most important challenge facing the catholic church today.
We could say that padre Solalinde receives the Geuzenpenning for ‘defending human rights’. And it is certainly true that he stands up for those who are outlawed: those who are stripped of elementary rights and who are denied the protection of the law, not for any crime they have committed, but – one might say – simply for being human, for having nowhere else to go. Yet we could here easily miss the crucial problematic aspect that ‘human rights’ also possess – the fact that they are out of reach whenever you most need them. “So near, and yet so far”, as the common expression goes. Philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose own life was on the line when she was persecuted as a Jewess in nazified Europe, for this reason referred to human rights with the enigmatic formula ‘the right to have rights’: an apt phrase, as it reflects the bitter truth that those in real need of rights will not be served by law – they don’t have rights, but merely “the right to have them.” When one is really hungry, what one needs is bread – not merely the right to have it; to eat – not merely the right to eat. Thus human rights are real only when there are people willing to act in their name, to ‘practice as they preach’, as we say – or better: people who preach by practising. By going out to provide shelter and protection to those who are ‘in the poorest thing superfluous’.
We could therefore also say, and we would be right, that padre Solalinde’s defence of human rights is pertinent and necessary, but ‘not enough.’ Human rights not only tend to be absent when needed – “far when near”. Even when they are present, they are ‘not enough’ - as philosopher, historian and lawyer Sam Moyn has remarked, in a recent book by that title. In a way, human rights are “second best”: important as they are, they stand in for something better but – as yet – impossible to reach, such as political or social self-determination. The defence of human rights is therefore more than the demand for rights; it is to bring complaint, to accuse, to testify, that there are people who have been robbed of the culture or circumstances in which they can collectively and individually control their own lives.
And then we may also say that padre Solalinde is more than a priest, a padre – or maybe better: he is a priest precisely by being more than a priest. Someone who is – by his own admission –‘not that religious’, ‘no tan religioso’, but I would venture that he is ‘not that religious’ by doing more than religion requires. He is one who speaks truth to power. Even better: someone who not only speaks truth to power, but also acts truth to power. Someone who in word and deed reminds others of what they in fact already know, but fail to acknowledge. And actually also someone who even without speaking or acting can make a difference, by simply ‘being there’ – one whose mere presence silently disqualifies the oppressive powers that be. In these capacities – speaking, acting, being present – he represents what Albert Camus referred to as “l’homme révolté”, “el hombre rebelde”: the person who says “no” – not a ‘no’ of rejection, but a ‘no’ of intervention and engagement; an ‘upright’ person who resists injustice and who emphatically marks his distance, his opposition even, to the powers that be.
Sam Moyn, whom I referred to just a minute ago, has characterised the appeal to human rights in the present era as ‘the last utopia’: when we no longer dream of revolution we envision an international law of human rights which we consider, in Moyn’s phrase, ‘the steward of Utopian norms’. Human rights are, in a way, the last thing we believe in, when we have lost faith in revolution, and in similar transcendent ventures, and adventures. When you are engaged with and committed to human rights, as Padre Solalinde is in an extraordinary way, you could thus properly be called a ‘Utopian’ – an honorary title!, if you realise that those serious about utopias are not only contributing to a better world in some imaginable future, but also, and maybe even more importantly, are dedicated to starting to work on this project right here and right now. Or in fact, have done so already yesterday, and the day before that. For Utopians, there is never time to lose. A better world requires so much work, that we simply must believe in it and simply must start here and now. And not give up. This is the kind of utopia that Padre Solalinde makes me believe in.
Living together is a matter for all citizens of Rotterdam, regardless of their origin, sexual orientation, religion (or not), colour, age, income, favourite football club or music preference. We believe it is important that every inhabitant of our city is seen and heard and may and can participate. Our local actions we initiate and stimulate are aimed at the entire Rotterdam society and have the main goal: accepting diversity and learning how to deal with it in a good way. We strive for a relaxed and safe city for everyone.
For some people in Rotterdam it is difficult or not easy to participate and be themselves. That is why we pay extra attention to specific groups where necessary. This includes LGBTIs, but for example also people from Rotterdam who are visibly different because they have a handicap, a different skin colour or a certain religious belief.
There is also a vulnerable group of new Rotterdam residents who need extra attention. To ensure that they can participate in our society as quickly as possible to the best of their abilities, we invest in this disadvantaged group of people and ask them to fully commit themselves.
I am talking about asylum migrants and their family members who join them later. Some of them come from outside the EU and are obliged to integrate. The city of Rotterdam offers guidance for this group in the areas of housing, care, education and working. Social guidance and Dutch language courses are also being offered.
In return, these groups need to sign the participation declaration as a compulsory part of the integration process. With the participation declaration, the person in question commits himself to integrate and that he is aware of and respects the norms and rules of the game of the Dutch society
In preparation for the signing of the participation declaration, a series of workshops is being offered in which the themes of freedom, equality, participation and solidarity are discussed, with the help of a range of work forms. These values, partly anchored in the constitution, are the conditions for being able to live together in our city in a relaxed way
The most vulnerable inhabitants of Rotterdam are supported with intensive tailor made work in order to promote their language level and participation in society. With "vulnerable" we think of:
- newcomers who live on social benefits, have debts or are completely dependent on a partner with low income.
- homeless people
- undocumented persons