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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 148
December 19, 2009

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International Migrants Day: 2009

Ensure human rights of migrants

Barrister Harun ur Rashid

On 4 December 2000, the UN General Assembly, taking into account the large and increasing number of migrants in the world, proclaimed 18 December International Migrants Day.

Member States, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations observe International Migrants Day through the dissemination of information on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of migrants and of their protection

Migrants from developing nations are keys to economic growth in industrialised countries. They are the backbone of economic development but they are often deprived of rights and 18th December is an awareness day of their rights across the world.

The UN has created a post of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

Why migrate
Migration involves people moving from one country to another. Cross-border migration is to be considered in the context of social-economic development. Historically migration occurred since the dawn of human civilisation. In present days, the issue of cross-border migration to foreign countries is largely linked to the integration of global labour markets and easy transportation.

However, one thing must be made clear that ordinarily people do not move from their home country unless there are compelling reasons to do so. Migrants in foreign land face discrimination, alien culture, foreign language and a different way of life. They live far away from their near and dear ones and their emotional strain is often stressful and deep.

There are several reasons for migration and some of them deserve mention:
(i) Economic and demographic factors in labour-sending countries
(ii) Promotion of entrepreneurial skills in labour-receiving countries
(iii) Employment opportunities thought or known to be available in labour-receiving countries
(iv) Civil-wars, harassment or discrimination in labour-sending countries from where migrants want to leave for personal reasons.

Migrants are largely of three kinds: (a) contract workers, (b) permanent migrants and (c) illegal or undocumented migrants. Migrants of (a) and (b) types possess proper documentation from foreign countries.

The third (c) takes the risk of migrating to another country without proper documents. Most of them are semi-skilled or unskilled, either lured by recruiting agents or prompted by their personal knowledge of someone known to them who is earning a lot of money in a foreign country.

Demand for migrants
There is huge demand for workers in industrialised countries. The UN Report prepared by the Population Division in early 2000 indicates that population in Japan and in most countries of the European Union (EU) will decline because of low birth-rate while the average person in those countries will get older.

In March 2005, the European Union's Commissioner for Social Affairs presented a demographic study on the EU nations and stated that Europe would turn into an old, infertile continent with a shrivelling population, a shrinking workforce and a sagging economy.

Over the next 25 years, the EU countries would lose 20.8 million from its working-age population, while the population of elderly, those 65 years and older, would surge by half because of better health.476 According to the UN report, labour force in Germany will shrink from 41 million to 21 million and Italy's 23 million to 11 million by 2050.

The report estimated that Japan, to keep its labour force constant during the next 100 years, would require an immigration programme peaking at 900,000 a year in 30 years, falling to a longer term figure of about 700,000 a year.

It has been suggested in the report that substantial levels of immigration will be required to maintain the economy of industrialised countries. Young people from developing countries from Asia and Africa are likely to fill in the gap.

The oil-boom in the Middle East changed societal habits of people in those countries. They are reluctant to undertake manual work and a demand for foreign workers has grown. The flow of contract -migrants from Asia commenced in mid-70s.

Illegal migrants
Often illegal migrants are employed in unattractive, demanding, dangerous and dirty jobs because of shortage of labour in labour-receiving countries for such types of jobs. Another advantage for companies in labour-receiving countries is they can employ illegal (undocumented) workers on very low wages. Furthermore, they cannot complain because are in constant threat of being deported to their countries of nationality. Their working and living conditions are very poor.

It is reported that thousands of illegal (undocumented) migrants are working abroad. They have been allowed to live without the dignity and worth of a human person just because they work without proper legal documents. It is noted that they contribute significantly to economy of labour-receiving countries through their hard work

One of the striking phenomena is the rise of women migration in the last two decades. High incidence of women migrants is from Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand, according to an UNESCAP report. According to the report, the estimated flow of illegal women migrants is about 35,000 to 50,000 a year.

Rights of illegal migrants
Article 3 of the 1948 Declaration provides that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The right to life leads migrants to work overseas since they can't get employment in the country. Furthermore there are several ILO Conventions and Recommendations that protect these migrant-workers from being treated unjustly.

The 1949 Convention Concerning Migration for Employment provides a safety valve for them. ILO Conventions of 1962 and 1982 deal with social security entitlements. The fundamental human rights as enshrined in 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and workers' right under ILO (International Labour Organisation) are flouted in their employment conditions.

Although the ILO Conventions provide in establishing minimum standards for the treatment of all workers, most states do not apply the ILO standards to illegal migrants. The irony is that while illegal migrants who are employed in labour-receiving countries contribute to the economic productivity, they have no protection under laws of labour-receiving countries.

UN International Convention of 1990
The provisions of the 1990 UN International Convention on Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICMR) break new ground by clarifying the full application of the human rights law to migrant workers and providing more detailed definition of who constitutes a migrant worker. The Convention provides a framework of state responsibility and accountability as to how to deal and treat illegal migrants.

It is argued that ratification of ICMR is obstructed by politics and by a lack of political will. ICMR has not received support from labour-receiving countries including European countries. Only 26 developing labour-sending countries have ratified it as of 2004. Sri Lanka ratified in 1996 and Bangladesh signed it in 1998 but has not ratified it.

According to ICMR, the biggest obligation on the part of labour-sending countries is to arrange pre-departure information campaigns and imposing sanctions on brokers and recruiters operating illegally. Under the current infrastructure and considering the size of population of some of the developing countries, this is a difficult task and as a result many labour-sending countries do not ratify ICMR.

Protecting migrant's rights
Public interest and concern have led non-governmental organizations to support the migrants' struggle for rights and justice. In 1994, one such network is the Migrant Forum of Asia (MFA). MFA has been the major agency in the area of promoting and protecting migrants' rights, working at local, national and international levels. MFA promotes bilateral and multilateral cooperation/advocacy between labour-sending and labour-receiving countries on common policies, issues and concerns.

MFA has initiated a four-level approach, such as: (i) uphold dignity of migrants, (ii) redress migrants' rights violations and protect and promote rights of migrants as human beings, (iii) empower migrants for collective action toward changing structures, policies and relationships that violate their rights and (iv) address roots of migration, promote social justice and sustainable alternatives. MFA's work has achieved some successes.

Remittances from migrants

Remittances represent a lifeline for more than 700 million people in developing countries. The World Bank estimates that in 2008 remittances amounted to approximately $444 billion, out of which $338 billion went to developing countries. To put the matter into proper perspective, the total official development aid (ODA) from OECD countries in 2008 was approximately $120 billion.

Remittances from migrant workers in Bangladesh have crossed US$ 9.68 billion in 2008-09 contributing to over 10% per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country (US$90 billion).

It is the second foreign exchange earning for the country after the export earnings of the garment sector that contributes 12.7% per cent of the GDP. It is reported that 75% per cent of remittances comes from the Middle East and 25% per cent from the West. By 2015, the target is about $ 30 billion dollars and right strategies must be put in place to meet the goal.

Bangladeshi migrants
Prior to independence in 1971, Bangladeshi people hardly knew that they could go overseas for jobs. During united Pakistan days there were no recruitment agencies in Bangladesh, although 50 licensed agents were working in West Pakistan.

It is reported that about 6 million Bangladeshi workers are now abroad, spreading almost in 100 countries. The age and gender of Bangladeshi migrants are mostly young and male. It is reported that about 80% per cent had less than higher secondary school education. About 40% per cent appear to be unskilled. The unskilled group is the most vulnerable among other groups in labour-receiving countries.

Majority of Bangladesh contractual workers went to the Middle East as the oil-rich countries wanted cheap labour from South Asia. It is believed that a few Arab countries gave preference to Muslim workers and as a result a steady increase continued to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirate, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait from 70s until this day.

As far as women workers, according to Bangladesh Manpower Employment and Training Bureau the number of women workers reportedly stood at 74,074 of August 2007. Of them 54,835 left the country in the last three and half years. It is reported that among total expatriate workers, six per cent constitute female workers

Some say that the figure will be more because there are many unauthorized agencies in the country that send women workers abroad (only seven recruiting agencies are being authorized by the government for sending women workers). It is reported that among total expatriate workers, six per cent constitute female workers

Challenge for Bangladesh
Migration is a complex problem. It not only involves mobility of labour during the days of terrorism but also access to cheap labour resisted by trade unions in the labour-receiving countries.

Migration is a humanitarian issue and a new legal regime in association with the International Organisation of Migration, UNHCR and the UN Centre of the Human Rights may be established so that illegal migrants enjoy wages and quality of life in accordance with ILO and 1990 UN Convention standards.

Bangladesh, being a labour-sending country, has articulated in many forums that one of the most important human rights is to protect illegal/ undocumented migrant workers in labour-receiving countries. Bangladesh has to mobilise with other labour-sending countries to canvass the view that while economic globalisation permits capital move freely from one country to the other, similar free movement of natural persons (labour mobility) should be allowed on contract basis.

Bangladesh had proposed a “Plan of Action” to the World Trade Organisation which included free movement of natural persons from low-income countries to the other for employment. The proposal needs to be pursued vigorously as part of Bangladesh's economic diplomacy.

The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.


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