Today is International Migrants Day, as inaugurated by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 to mark the adoption, on December 18, 1990, of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Decades on, transnational migration is ever more prevalent – with the UN estimating 244 million people fall into the category – and attracts increasingly negative attention in public discourse and policy.

New hope for Hong Kong’s vanishing languages and cultures?

December 10 marked Human Rights Day, observed annually to commemorate the General Assembly’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognising our basic rights as humans: the rights of the individual, such as the right to life; the rights of the individual in civil and political society, such as freedom of movement; spiritual, public and political freedoms, such as freedom of thought and religion; and social, economic and cultural rights, such as the right to health and education.

“Language” is mentioned just once: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.”

Cantonese dominates, but Hongkongers speak myriad languages - old and new

The intervening decades have seen a more direct correlation drawn between language and human rights, for instance, with the 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, and International Mother Language Day, celebrated on February 21.

Language rights are particularly relevant in situations of transnational migration, in arenas such as education, employ­ment, legislation, health – areas where basic human rights may be upheld, or denied, and to which language mediates migrants’ access. More insidiously, linguistic discrimination can sometimes substitute for racial or ethnic discrimination.

Hakka academic spreading the word on saving languages

The provision of opportunities to acquire a host country’s language or languages enhances access and prospects for migrants. However, a comprehensive strategy for culturally and linguistically diverse societies should be based on the recognition of these (usually minority, often disempowered) language communities, and provision of services in their community languages. This represents action towards uphold­ing human rights, and to achieving social inclusion of all groups in societies, and ultimately to fulfilling our global goals for sustainable development.