Economic crisis should not be used to further exploit migrants
Interview with Ms. Rabab Fatima, the Regional Representative for South Asia at the International Organisation for Migration
This year December 18 has been observed as International Migrants Day with the theme of “Dignity and justice are the rights of migrant workers”. On that occasion Ms. Rabab Fatima (RF), Regional Representative of IOM for South Asia spoke to Law Desk of The Daily Star (LD). A career diplomat, Ms. Fatima has extensive experience and specialisation in migration, human rights, humanitarian issues.
World Migration Report 2008 (WMR), launched by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), stated that people are becoming increasingly mobile within and across borders to meet the social and economic challenges of globalisation with the search for employment at the heart of most movement in the 21st century. IOM is the leading inter-governmental organisation in the field of migration and works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners and is dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. It does so by providing services and advice to governments and migrants.
LD: According to IOM Dhaka, what are some of the major issues faced by Bangladeshi migrant workers? What role does IOM play in addressing these issues?
RF: Labour migration is a very important livelihood option for many Bangladeshis. In 2007 alone, a total of 832,000 Bangladeshis left for foreign employment and this number is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Remittances earned by Bangladeshi migrant workers are also of great importance. During the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the country earned approximately US$ 9.91 billion as remittance.
The exploitation of the labour migration process and malpractices of unscrupulous recruitment agencies, and the ignorance and often lack of awareness of the labour migrants, who are in most cases naive and innocent first-time travellers, make them particularly vulnerable. At the policy level, IOM has been supporting the Government of Bangladesh (GOB) to develop a mechanism to prevent the reported abuse and exploitation in the labour migration process. The fact remains that there is a great demand for Bangladeshi workers abroad. In general Bangladeshis have a very good reputation abroad as honest and hard working workers. However, along with newer opportunities everyday, the international labour market is also becoming increasingly competitive, and it is therefore essential for Bangladeshi migrant workers to develop their skills. IOM has been providing support for skill development programmes in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh. Another concern faced by Bangladeshi migrant workers are that they often lack the awareness about proper migration channels and procedures, their rights, the available support systems, etc. This obviously makes them vulnerable at all stages of the emigration process, including in the destination countries. To address this problem, we have been carrying out information campaigns to create awareness amongst migrants, their families as well as the community in general, about safe migration procedures and processes; regular channels to send remittances; their rights in the destination countries and so on.
LD: Fine lines differentiate human trafficking, smuggling of migrants and safe migration. In our domestic situation which one is the most common and challenging phenomenon?
RF: Yes, it is true that there is a fine line distinguishing these different forms of exploitation, and it is very important for those dealing with such situations to be able to make that distinction and come up with appropriate interventions.
In contrast to trafficking in persons and human smugglings, which are the different manifestations of irregular migration and leads to an exploitative situation, safe migration is a process of human mobility where there is no exploitation. In such a situation, an individual is in a position to enjoy his/her human rights and be entitled to enjoy the benefits of the whole migration process. In order to ensure safe migration and prevent irregular migration, it is important to have a strong legal framework as well as institutional mechanisms. At the same time, there is a need for raising peoples' awareness on safe migration vis-à-vis trafficking in persons. And also expand the opportunities for regular migration. In Bangladesh, we have been working closely with the Government and other partners in the areas of counter-trafficking and facilitating safe migration.
LD: What steps does IOM Dhaka take to reintegrate the survivors in the society? Do you see this as a rights-based solution?
RF: IOM has been working in close collaboration with partner organisations for the economic integration and social protection of the trafficked survivors. IOM has supported a number of shelter homes to provide survivors with a range of services including legal, medical and psychosocial assistance. We also provide support for sustainable livelihood options for the survivors, through skills-development and financial support, and have been actively promoting public-private partnership initiatives to assist in the successful reintegration of survivors into the mainstream of society.
LD: What is your opinion about the possibility of ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families by our government and what role can IOM play in this regard? How will this benefit us?
RF: The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 1990 (MWC) has created new grounds by extending protection to the migrant workers and members of their families globally. It also goes beyond simply applying existing human rights legislation to a specific category of individuals.
The MWC advances the opportunity on how the international community can conceive of the application of human rights in its provisions for equality of treatment between different groups of migrant workers including male/female and documented/ undocumented. Bangladesh has signed the Convention and we hope that soon Bangladesh can join the ranks of other leading labour migrant countries by ratifying it. I understand the issue of ratification is under the active consideration of the Government. I believe that beyond the symbolism of ratification, which will demonstrate Bangladesh's firm commitment to the rights and obligations embodied in this human rights instrument, it would also bring a range of tangible benefits for the labour migrants.
LD: Do you think we have a well-equipped complaint mechanism/domestic instruments to deal with the recruiting agencies or other transnational/organised groups who deceive and are mostly liable for the human trafficking, smuggling and irregular migrations?
RF: IOM has commissioned a study in 2008 to review the existing complaint mechanisms with regard to abuse and exploitation in the labour migration process. The study observed that the existing procedure and legal mechanism is not completely effective to deal with the problem in the present context. There is a need for a comprehensive law covering all aspects of internal and cross-border trafficking of labour and men. IOM is committed to support the development of such a law.
LD: According to the World Migration 2008 report, what is the position of Bangladesh and South Asia?
RF: In South Asia, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka remain the major countries of origin of migrant workers. While the labour migration flows have become more diverse to include Southeast Asian countries and Europe, but the Middle East continues to remain the major destination for all South Asian countries. It is estimated that there are 8.7 million temporary Asian workers in the Middle East and Bangladeshis account for 21% of them. In terms of the impact of migration, Bangladesh is in the top 11 of highest remittance receiving countries of the world.
LD: Has the global financial crisis affected Bangladeshi migrant workers and the inflow of remittances?
RF: The global economic crisis is still unfolding and its full impact on the migration process and remittances have not yet been fully ascertained. As of now, fortunately there is no evidence that it has affected Bangladeshi migrant workers and the remittance inflow. According to latest figures from the Bangladesh Bank, Bangladesh is receiving a monthly average of $700 million per month for the past 5 months (2008-2009 fiscal year), which is not lower than last year. However, the World Bank has estimated that remittances to developing countries in 2009 may be less than what was projected earlier due to the economic crisis. Therefore, IOM globally is urging destination countries to not close their doors to migrants. Not only would this negatively impact the remittances flow to developing countries, but also drive a large number of migrants to use irregular channels to reach their destinations, which are often exploitative and abusive. IOM has also urged that the economic crisis should not be used to exploit migrants by lowering or not paying the wages.
LD: Please tell us what can be done to uphold safe migration?
RF: The efficient management of the international migration is an important issue. It is essential that all the stakeholders work together collaboratively to comprehensively address the problems of migration management. While it is important to curb irregular migration, at the same time, the opportunities for regular migration also needs to be made available.