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
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.
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!”
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.
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 is a freelance journalist based in Australia.
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