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Asia Looking for work

By Andrew Nette

A young Vietnamese girl accepts a stranger’s promise of a job in China and boards a truck without knowing her destination. A man, who has lost his construction job in Bangkok, waits nervously for a bus to take him home where the best that awaits him is back-breaking labour on the family farm. They are just two of the faces among the millions of migrant labourers on the move in Asia.

Two decades ago, estimates placed the number of economic migrants in east Asia and south-east Asia at around one million. The UN Development Programme says six million people in the region are today employed outside their countries of origin, at least half of them illegally.

Prior to the economic boom of the eighties, labour movement was dominated by organized legal contracting. In the eighties and early nineties, a decline in the agricultural sector saw a dramatic increase of internal migration from small towns to the cities. It also saw workers from poorer countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, flock to industralized countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Hong Kong.




Faces behind the numbers

Currently, Thailand hosts approximately 1.4 million migrant workers, the vast majority Burmese, but also Lao, Cambodian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani – only a fraction of them legal. Malaysia has more than 700,000 migrant workers, mainly Bangladeshi, Filipino and Indonesian.

Most migrant labourers are young, male, unmarried and from rural areas. They are seen by employers as a cheap and malleable source of labour. “Many of these people have no choice but to take the lowest, dirtiest jobs in factories,” says Robert Bennoun, a programme officer at UNICEF Bangkok and the coordinator of the UNAIDS task force on migrant Labour and HIV. “They are removed from family and village support structures, and have little education and no rights, so they are really exploited.”

While much remains unchanged about the nature of migrant labour in Asia, new trends are emerging. The accessibility of TV images, even in a village in Myanmar’s remote north-west, has brought about an important shift in the cultural and social mores of young people in the region. Although poverty remains the main reason for migrating, they are also increasingly leaving the family farm in search of new places and identities.

According to a recent study by Bangkok’s Mahidol University, females make up an increasing proportion of those on the move, a result of expanding opportunities for women in the industrial and service economies. It is a situation ripe for abuse, particularly for young women and children who are entering the sex industry in growing numbers, some voluntarily, others against their will in conditions of near slavery. It is part of a trade in illegal migrants which some say generates between US$5 - 7 billion a year in Asia.

The miracle goes bust

In better times, police and authorities turned a blind eye to illegal job seekers. But, as economic turmoil spread throughout the region last year, many have found they are no longer welcome. Thailand has deported an estimated 250,000 migrants – mostly Burmese. When South Korea granted an amnesty for illegal foreigners to leave voluntarily, with no fines or jail terms, 50,000 did so. As Malaysia began the mass deportation of 50,000 Indonesian migrants in 1998, several migrants from the troubled Indonesian province of Aceh sought shelter at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian Red Crescent immediately brought them food, water and blankets.

“It can be a huge problem,” explains Thorir Gudmundsson, information delegate at the International Federation’s regional delegation in Kuala Lumpur. “There was little economic space for these people before. There is even less now because of the crisis.”

“The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s regional conference in Hanoi in November identified mobile populations as one of the key areas
of Red Cross concern,” says Gudmundsson. “What National Societies have done so far is see migrants as vulnerable when they fit into certain categories,” he states. “Now we have identified them as vulnerable in their own right, regardless of the circumstances.”

Economically, the ripple effects can be felt all the way down to the individual household. Prior to the crisis, the two to four million Filippino workers were sending home more than US$750 million annually, the country’s third-largest source of foreign exchange. Approximately 23 per cent of Bangladesh’s foreign earnings come from migrant labourers.

Not only do returned labourers mean an extra mouth to feed, they bring with them a host of new problems: urban values and aspirations sharply at odds with their surroundings, and crowded living conditions leading to rising rates of spousal and child abuse.


Public health problem

Population movement has been associated with the spread of drug-resistant strains of malaria and HIV/AIDS. The latter is most clearly illustrated in the corridor from Myanmar to Cambodia, through Thailand, Laos, Viet Nam and southern China, where the combination of growing trade and transport links, intravenous drug use and cross-border movement is seen as contributing to an explosion of HIV/AIDS.

“What we are seeing in Thailand is that as people return from the city, a lot of hospitals in poorer provinces are starting to fill up with HIV cases at a time when the public health system’s capacity is declining,” says Bennoun. “The challenge of developing appropriate services for mobile populations is enormous. For example, there is no point giving someone on a Thai fishing boat a brochure about AIDS if they don’t have access to appropriate services or even condoms,” he adds.

Illegal migrants: who cares?

“Bangladeshi woman sold for a pair of bullocks”, “Stowaway Pakistani boys become camel jockeys in Arabia”, “HIV-positive Nepali girls sent back”. Each of these headlines leads on to a grisly story of illegal migration. The tragedy is that such stories do not shock people any more. Since 1947, some 36 million people in south Asia are reported to have crossed international borders. Almost every country in the Indian subcontinent has either produced migrants or received them, and in some cases, done both.

Demographic pressure in south Asia is intense with 20 per cent of the world’s population. Illegal migrants put considerable strain on frail infrastructures and meagre resources. When larger issues like identity, culture, political and civil rights come into play, clashes between illegal immigrants and the host population become inevitable. But, to stop the long-term disastrous effects, the issue needs to be handled imaginatively by both governments and communities of the countries involved. The approach thus far has been to persecute people and its results can be summarized in the words of 26-year-old Feroze Sheikh born to Bangladeshi parents in India, “Send me back and I will return with ten more!”

Movement response

The question before the Movement is whether the humanitarian community can intervene on behalf of stranded migrants who wish to be reunited with their families in their home countries. Could the tracing services of National Societies be used for transmitting Red Cross messages to the relatives of migrants wishing to go back? One of the best examples is an agency established by the ICRC in Bangladesh during ‘the 1971 liberation war’ and eventually taken over by the National Society for ‘peacetime tracing’.

The ICRC delegation in India organized a seminar on ‘peacetime tracing’ in 1997 with National Societies from the region. Its purpose was to examine ways of establishing a tracing network to help reunite stranded migrants with their families. The most striking finding of the seminar was that not a single organization could be identified which worked on behalf of illegal migrants. With the absence of policy directives from governments to address the root cause, the humanitarian repercussions of the problem can only increase.

National Societies can play an important role in spreading awareness about the harsh realities of illegal migration. They could urge policy makers to take preventive steps to discourage migration by creating incentives to stay home.

There are, however, serious constraints to reckon with. Powerful political and economic interests involved in illegal migration have given it the dubious status of an international racket. How far would these factors be amenable to the Movement’s humanitarian logic? It would also imply impeccable co-ordination and goodwill between National Societies of south Asia and positive response from the respective governments. The fact that the Pakistan Red Crescent Society representatives were not able to attend the seminar in New Delhi because their Indian visa did not come on time is a poignant reflection on the limitations of cooperating in south Asia!

Savita Vardé-Naqvi, media liaison officer south Asia, ICRC, New Delhi.

A problem that won’t go away

Governments throughout the region increasingly acknowledge that banning the export of labour will only result in greater illegal movement. It’s a truth reiterated by the Mahidol study, which further explains that even though they make up a large proportion of the poor in Asia, migrant workers are better off than they would have been had they stayed at home.

“Despite the Thai government’s policy of deporting workers from Myanmar, nearly a million people a year continue to come and go,” says Bennoun. “Why? Because even though the situation may be bad in Thailand, it is still better than where they are coming from.”


Andrew Nette
Andrew Nette is a freelance journalist based in Australia.

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