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Former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the English version of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949.

Former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the English version of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949.

December 8, 2023

The UDHR at 75: Migration and Human Rights

We must imagine and voraciously work toward a world in which all students feel as though they belong, where comradery, respect, and sharing of knowledge are tantamount to testing.

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By Adam Strom and Meisha Lamb-Bell

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Forty-eight out of the 58 member states at the time signed a vision statement that outlined rights applicable to all people, regardless of their identity, government or location. Like the Declaration of Independence, the UDHR is not a legal document; therefore, it should be read as an aspirational vision for humanity and not a list of enforceable laws. Why then, 75 years after its signing, should it matter to our students, our schools and the world today? 

The UDHR in Context

In 1948, World War II had recently ended, leaving behind the devastation of the Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war forcibly displaced millions of people from their homes. Recognizing the need to address the relief and support for displaced people and refugees, including survivors of the Holocaust, international officials established the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1943.

The Allies conducted war crimes trials to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed by the Nazis and the Japanese military. These trials set legal precedents and emphasized the importance of holding perpetrators accountable and ensuring justice for victims. Beyond ensuring that there is no impunity for war criminals, what other measures were necessary to prevent such horrors from recurring?

Despite the audacity of such aspirations, diplomats in the newly formed United Nations took the question of prevention seriously. With 75 years of hindsight, this can seem like an impossible task. Instead, let’s help learners reconnect with the hope and sense of possibility by asking them how we can reimagine the possibilities of a more equitable world in which countries adhere to that vision. One way to help students engage with the daunting task officials at the nascent United Nations faced is to encourage students to take up the challenge. What needs to happen to ensure that crimes on the scale of the Second World War never occur again? Create a space in which students are able to think critically and make suggestions. Ask them to consider who should be involved in prevention efforts, and explore what it would take to turn their vision into reality.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the U.N. Human Rights Committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approached her work with a unique insight that came from her involvement with displaced people and refugees from Nazi terror. In a speech before the Women's Division of the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Roosevelt drew from her understanding of the lives of Americans during the Great Depression, her sense of racial injustice, and what she witnessed at the Zeilsheim Displaced Persons Camp. 

Standing among the survivors of the Holocaust, she asked herself, "What would happen to us if suddenly we had no real right to appeal to a government of our own?" The UDHR is more than a list of aspirational rights; it provides a standard that everyday people, groups and governments can point to when their grievances are ignored. Although the vision staked out in the UDHR is not a law, 193 countries have signed on to its vision, and it has been the inspiration for numerous international covenants that are legally binding, including the Refugee Convention.

Human Rights and Human Migration

Today, three articles in the Universal Declaration directly address human movement and migration issues:

  • Article 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
  • Article 14: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.
  • Article 15: Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

In a time of demographic change, when debates surrounding the rights and responsibilities of migrants often spark polarization, misinformation, bias and myths, it is crucial for our students to understand the connection between migration and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights, in many ways, are a test of the larger declaration. Despite migration being so central to our history, anti-immigrant hostility remains a through line of the American experience

At the same time, migration has been an integral part of human history, literature, and even our genetic makeup. Yet, when large numbers of people are on the move, concerns about demographic change, often stoked for political gain, can lead to intolerance and backlash. This is particularly true when newcomers and established communities do not have the opportunity to interact and get to know each other. As educators, we can foster understanding by intentionally creating interactions and groupings within our schools.

Helping students understand migration and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers brings the Universal Declaration to life in classrooms. Re-Imagining Migration offers resources and guiding questions to explore these stories as well as resources to help educators plan their curriculum.

The UDHR, Schools and Creating Cultures of Belonging

Beyond classroom content, creating a culture in our schools that builds belonging and respects the rights of all students is essential. Consider starting with Article 26, which guarantees the right to education.

Article 26 reads in part, “Everyone has the right to education… . Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”

Schools are potent sites of belonging and community building and are often one of the first institutions where immigrant families can build immersive relationships within their new communities. Learning environments grounded in responsive equity have the potential to be catalysts for a true paradigm shift in which we view humanity as a species on the move that must rely on and cherish one another in order to thrive. Further, schools are often where young people significantly develop their personalities, their sense of possibilities and their vision of the future. We must imagine and voraciously work toward a world in which all students feel as though they belong, where comradery, respect, and sharing of knowledge are tantamount to testing. Where understanding of one’s self, one’s peers and one’s community history is as integral to the curriculum as one’s ability to read critically, write creatively and compute logically. The drafters of the UDHR dreamed with compassion for a world of equity. As educators, we must not only foster an environment for students to expand upon and realize that dream, but we must also join them. In that way, we can ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains relevant and meaningful to our students, their communities and the world today.

Adam Strom

Adam Strom

Adam Strom has a proven track record of leveraging education to build belonging and develop an understanding of the roots of polarization and hate. He is the Executive Director of Re-Imagining Migration, a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the understanding and habits of heart and mind that are necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive communities. Before helping to found Re-Imagining Migration, Adam was a long-time member of the senior leadership team at Facing History and Ourselves, where he led the content development team. The educational resources developed under Adam’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students worldwide, including numerous resource books, study guides, and films on identity, immigration, and prejudice. 

meisha lamb-bell

Meisha Lamb-Bell

Meisha Lamb-Bell is the Program Director at Re-Imagining Migration. Meisha is a dedicated educator with a profound commitment to expanding social impact through fostering equitable access to education, vital resources, and purposeful programming. As a Questbridge scholar, Meisha’s unwavering dedication lies in cultivating inclusive academic environments that not only ignite a lifelong passion for learning but also galvanize collective action. Throughout her academic journey at Brown University, Meisha actively engaged in endeavors aimed at enhancing college access and facilitating successful matriculation. After graduating from Brown, Meisha started her career in public finance, optimizing funding for the higher education and nonprofit team. Before joining RIM, she served as a classroom teacher where she prioritized student joy, community building, and illuminating and eliminating covert and compounding barriers to equity.

Re-Imagining Migration

Re-Imagining Migration'smissionis to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive com

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