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Migration & Refugees

The Dark Side of International Migration

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 2 2013 (IPS) - The number of international migrants continues its inexorable climb even as reports of slave-like conditions continue to proliferate.

There are now a record high of 232 million people living and working outside their countries of origin, generating over 400 billion dollars annually in remittances, and counting.

"It is exceedingly unlikely the upcoming dialogue will result in anything more than nice words." -- Joseph Chamie

Migrant earnings were nearly four times the 126 billion dollars in official development assistance (ODA) from rich to poor nations last year, according to figures released by the United Nations.

The river of cash flowing into developing countries, including India, Bangladesh, Morocco, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Egypt and the Philippines, is one of the more positive effects of migration.

But what is a blessing for some is a calamity for others.

On the darker side is the continued exploitation of migrants, mostly in the Middle East, because of an increase in “slave labour” where workers suffer from low wages, inadequate medical care and atrocious working conditions.

Joseph Chamie, a former director of the U.N. Population Division who has written extensively on international migration, told IPS that while there is generally universal condemnation of such migrant “slave” labour, prohibitions are difficult to enforce, as it often takes place in households and small work sites.

One strategy to address this is the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Worker’s Convention, aimed at stopping the abuse of domestic workers, which went into effect last month.

Speaking on the eve of a high-level dialogue on international migration and development, Abdelhamid El Jamri, chair of the Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers (CMW), stressed Wednesday that migrants are not commodities but human beings.

“Changing patterns of migration and the exploitation and discrimination faced by migrant workers in sectors such as construction and agriculture have made protecting their rights more crucial than ever,” he said.

The International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families (ICRMW) is one of the core international human rights treaties. However, the convention, which has been in force for 10 years, has been ratified by just 47 of the U.N.’s 193 member states.

No major destination countries, among them the United States, the member states of the European Union (EU) and Gulf countries – where millions of migrants live and work – have ratified it, El Jamri said.

Asked about the U.N.’s high-level dialogue, scheduled to take place Oct. 3-4, Chamie said given current political realities and the continuing rift between labour-importing and exporting nations, “it is exceedingly unlikely the upcoming dialogue will result in anything more than nice words.”

The sharp division between the two sides, he said, relates mainly to family reunification, migrant rights, undocumented migration and responsibility sharing.

Kul Gautam, a national of Nepal and a former U.N. assistant secretary-general who was deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told IPS migrant earnings are now the number one source of national income in his home country.

Remittances comprise about 25 percent of Nepal’s gross national product (GNP), or four billion dollars per year, he said.

Of the 400,000 young adults who enter the job market annually, about 300,000 seek jobs as migrant labourers. The largest concentration of Nepali migrant workers are in Qatar and Malaysia (about 400,000 each), followed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

Gautam was critical of the harsh treatment meted out to migrant workers, specifically in Gulf countries.

He said the latest allegation of modern-day slavery comes from one of the richest countries in the world, Qatar, where large numbers of migrant labourers from one of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal, have reportedly been mistreated in a high-profile construction project to build the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup football games.

A recent investigative report by the British newspaper The Guardian paints a chilling picture of thousands of migrant labourers forced to work in inhuman conditions, without getting paid for long periods and lacking safety equipment.

The Nepalese government announced this week that 70 Nepalese migrants have died working on World Cup construction sites in Doha in the past two years.

Regarding the strengthening of international norms, Gautam said “it was hard to tell if the high-level dialogue [this week] will have significant impact – but it should.”

In Nepal, very few people have heard about it, he said, adding, “I do not think the Nepali delegation is well-prepared with specific proposals.”

“But I think migration for development is far more important than say, aid, trade, foreign direct investment, etc. in Nepal’s current context, and in the context of many countries that depend on remittances as a key source of their income.”

To be fair, he pointed out, it is certainly not the policy of the government of Qatar to practice or condone slave-like conditions. Rather, it is unscrupulous private companies, contractors and middlemen, both in Qatar and in Nepal, that are responsible for such inhuman practices.

Asked whether the United Nations was doing enough to prevent abuses, Chamie told IPS the issue of international migration has not been brought “front and centre” at the United Nations.

In contrast to other global issues, such as children, trade, environment, finance, women and ageing, all of which were the focus of U.N. world conferences, international migration is the U.N.’s “neglected stepchild”.

“It is now – and for the foreseeable future – outside the U.N. system, and addressed via the Global Forum on Migration and Development,” he said.

Asked why, he said: “The destination countries, especially the more developed countries, wish to keep it outside the United Nations.”

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