The case for including migration in the post-2015 agenda

The case for including migration in the post-2015 agenda

Smuggled migrants on edge of Sahara desert/ Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Diallo Manzo for IRIN

Smuggled migrants on edge of Sahara desert/ Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Diallo Manzo for IRIN

BANGKOK, 11 November 2014 (IRIN) – As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire at the end of 2015, campaigners are calling for the inclusion of migrant worker protections in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), noting that migrants contribute billions to reducing poverty – often at great cost to their personal safety and well-being.

The world’s estimated 232 million international migrants (2013 UN estimate) generated some US$400 billion in remittances for their families and communities back home in 2013, three times more than total overseas development assistance in the same year, according to the World Bank.

For the 10-15 percent of these migrants that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates are undocumented, the human cost of their contributions to their home countries’ economies is often high, sometimes even fatal.

IOM estimates 40,000 migrants – almost all undocumented, including asylum-seekers – have died en route to a destination country since 2000.

An unknown number also lose their lives post-arrival in host countries as a result of unsafe working conditions.

But addressing these risks is politically sensitive, say activists, due to host countries’ fears about creating pull factors for migrants. Despite migrants’ significant contribution to national incomes, they are easy scapegoats for already overburdened health and education systems.

“Including migration in the SDGs would be a bold act,” said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of US-based NGO Migration Policy Institute (MPI). “The causes of migration and local costs of globalization are difficult to see, but people can see immigration,” she added, explaining that more awareness and outreach is needed at the national level to ease popular insecurity about all groups of migrant workers.

The working group on migration for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) spent five years discussing how to implement the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of Migrants. In 2012, the group dissolved without reaching an agreement.

Advocates hope that where regional organizations have fallen short in addressing protection of migrant rights, the SDGs can help make migration less deadly by encouraging states and international organizations to invest more resources.

Benefits of remittances

The socio-economic and development benefits of remittances are clear: for every 10 percent of a population that migrates to work in a higher income country, there is a 1.9 percent reduction in poverty in the country of origin, the World Bank calculates.

In Latin America, a 1 percent increase in remittances reduced infant mortality rates by 1.2 deaths per 1,000 babies, noted a 2013 report by Peter Sutherland, the UN Special Representative on international migration.

Households are more likely to spend remittances on health and education than other types of additional income, according to MPI.

“If reduction of poverty, increased rates of education, and better health outcomes are markers of development, strong evidence exists that remittances make a major contribution,” noted MPI in a 2013 policy brief.

Migrants arriving on Lampedusa in August 2007/ Photo courtesy of Sara Prestianni

Migrants arriving on Lampedusa in August 2007/ Photo courtesy of Sara Prestianni

So major that in Thailand after the military seized power in June 2014 and cracked down on the country’s undocumented foreign workers, leading to the deportation of tens of thousands, it was not long before they returned, said Reiko Harima, regional coordinator for the Secretariat of the Mekong Migration Network (MMN), a Bangkok-based umbrella advocacy group for Southeast Asian migrants.

“Even one week without wages is too long for them,” she explained.

Harima estimates over one million of Thailand’s migrants are undocumented.

Construction, fishing, and farming industries rely on the country’s 2.2 million migrants, according to the Federation of Thai Industries, and the junta quickly changed tack. They ceased arrests and, instead, extended migrants’ registration to enable them to stay legally.

“Families take a huge gamble and go into debt to pay [for family members to migrate]. There is a lot of pressure on migration to be ‘successful’,” said Richard Mallett, an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) research fellow and co-author of a 2014 report on migration from Nepal.

Success is often measured in remittances, while the human costs are overlooked. The lack of documentation often means that migrants cannot access lifesaving health care and fear protesting unsafe, even fatal, working conditions.

Labour unions, NGOs, and human rights activists have documented employers in the Gulf states keeping migrants’ passports, essentially rendering them indentured until debts for travel to the host country are repaid.

The UN special rapporteur on migrants, Francois Crépeau, in a statement to the UN General Assembly on 24 October, called on states to minimize the risks of abuse and urged migrants’ inclusion in the SDGs.

Wish list

One problem, according to MMN, is that policies fail to reflect the long-term reality of migration by trying to restrict migrants’ time in a host country.

For example, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Myanmar government and Thailand requires Thailand’s estimated 140,000 Burmese migrants (who fuel the shrimp and construction industries) to leave after four years and return to Myanmar for three years before they can re-apply.

“It wrongly assumes migration is temporary, when the reality is that migrants who learn skills to work in an industry, and their employers, want them to stay,” said Harima.

“The legal migration channel needs to be made cheaper, and more accessible for the workers who want to go abroad, while recruitment agencies are regulated properly,” she added.

In the current draft of the SDGs, the need for safe and orderly migration is stressed and protecting the rights and safe working conditions of all migrants, including migrant workers, is included under Goal 8.

“There is still a lot of horse trading to be done,” said Newland, explaining that the Open Working Group has submitted its recommendations to the panel and now the decision is in the court of states. “The risk is that any inclusion of migration in the SDGs will have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator to gain approval,” she said.

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Horrors continue after fleeing home for world’s ‘most persecuted people’

Thai authorities transport Rohingya to detention centers/ February 2014/ Photo Courtesy of Abdul Kalam

Thai authorities transport Rohingya to detention centers/ February 2014/ Photo Courtesy of Abdul Kalam

9 March 2014 (Coconuts Media) — Over time Maha Min Gyi has watched his family members and friends and acquaintances disappear. More than he says he can count.

Some have vanished into prisons, some fell victim to human traffickers, while others simply drowned at sea.

“The situation is so bad. Some people have died in the sea and others in the brokers’ camps,” said the said the 35-year-old Muslim from the Rakhine state of Myanmar who lives in Bangkok.

“The culprits are human traffickers,” he added angrily.

Scores of Maha Min’s friends and community members from his hometown of Sittwe have tried to flee the ongoing conflict during the past two years only to wind up locked up in Thai immigration centers or in the grips of human traffickers in the south of the country.

In 2012, two waves of riots in June and October broke between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar led to widespread violence, looting, burning of homes and physical clashes involving Buddhists, Muslims and local police. Hundreds have died and 143,000 people have fled their homes in fear since October 2012. In the aftermath, Rohingya who fled the violence are banned from returning to home. Instead they’re kept in military-guarded camps, prompting thousands to escape the country by boat each sailing season.

Since the beginning, the violence has been tidily written off as “inter-communal violence,” which blames the violence on tension between the Rohingya and their Rakhine Buddhist neighbours.

But in fact the root causes of the conflict are embedded in official Myanmar government policies which have oppressed and disenfrenchized Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar for decades, according to a Feb. 25 report from Fortify Rights International, a US-based non-profit focusing on the rights of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

Despite living in Myanmar for centuries, the Rohingya are not included in Myanmar’s list of 135 national races, determined by the constitution in 1974, and cannot access citizenship to Myanmar under the country’s 1982 Citizenship Law.

“The entire population has struggled for many years under military rule, and tensions have persisted over generations,’ said Matt Smith, the director of Fortify Rights and co-author of the report. “To stabilize Rakhine State, first oppressive policies must be abolished.”

Meanwhile Thai immigration officials continue to crack down on Rohingya refugees disembarking from boats in southern Thailand. But human rights activists say that punitive legal measures taken against Rohingya seeking a safe place to go will not staunch the flow of people; it will just increase the exploitation and suffering of a group that has already been persecuted for decades.

“There is more of a push factor than a pull factor. As long as the situation is bad for Rohingya [in Myanmar] migration flows [to Thailand] are not going to end,” said Amal de Chickera, the head of Statelessness and Nationality Projects at Equal Rights Trust (ERT), a human rights and legal advocacy NGO headquartered in the UK, and co-author of another Rohingya reportreleased last month.

As anti-Muslim sentiment continues to rage in Myanmar, Rohingya families arriving in Thailand are split up by authorities, with men kept in detention cells and women and children sent to shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS), exacerbating risks of trafficking. Only political pressure on this year’s chairman of the eight-member political and economic bloc, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to cease abusing Rohingya, will stem the exodus, say human rights advocates.

But addressing the issue is difficult, as it struggles to be heard in Thailand.

Two Phuket reporters who have written about the abuse and trafficking of Rohingya were recently charged by the Royal Thai Navy of violating the Computer Crimes Act for publishing information taken from a Reuters report.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian of Phuketwan will find out tomorrow whether they’ll be prosecuted, they said in an FCCT discussion titled “Silencing the Media over Rohingya Abuses.“

Thailand’s “split-policy personality” endangers Rohingya

The latest wave of local police violence against the Rohingya in southern Maungdaw township in mid-January resulted in dozens of deaths of local villagers.

“This has caused a new spasm of fear in Rohingya communities and contributes to the increased desire of persons to flee on boats if they can find a way and can afford it,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

Yet while Thailand has permitted Burmese refugees from other ethnic minority groups to take refuge in nine camps along Thailand’s 1,800 km Thai-Myanmar border since the 1980s, Rohingyas are either detained, pushed back to sea or informally sold to human smuggling rings.

“We have a dual track system for Rohingya and Burmese in Thailand. There needs to be policy coherence and cohesion,” advised Vitit Muntabhorn, a national human rights expert and law professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The Thai government neither allows Rohingya to register with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) nor offers temporary asylum.

“Very few want stay in Thailand,” said Abdul Kalam, the president of the Rohingya National Association in Thailand. “We face problems for not having documents, so many try to go on to Malaysia.”

While it is uncertain how many have attempted to move on to Malaysia from Thailand, roughly 6,000 have arrived on Thai soil since October 2012, yet only 700 are still in detention, according to Kalam.

Attempts to obtain comment from the Thai Immigration Bureau were unsuccessful, as someone twice hung up calls placed to a spokesperson.

Dmitrina Petrova, executive director of Equal Rights Trust, said traffickers work both sides of the Malay-Thai border.

“Human trafficking is a money-making machine,” Petrova said. Traffickers there might transport Rohingya into Malaysia where they can find work. Coming the other way, they may kidnap undocumented Rohingya from Malaysia and bring them to the Thai border to extort money from them.

Of the 50,000 undocumented Rohingya in Malaysia, many “are routinely arrested, sent through the Thai border, and traffickers [demand bribes] from their poor families who work as irregular migrants in Malaysia,” according to Petrova.

 

Families split up

Another major issue affecting Rohingya is that in the chaos of the conflict and trying to find safer ground, families are split up and divided by borders, without communication with their loved ones.

“Some Rohingya in Malaysia try to bring their families from Rakhine state through Thailand [as a transit place] but most never reach there,” said Kalam, 53, who himself left behind a family in Rakhine state.

“I do not know how are my daughter and first wife back in Myanmar,” he said. “I have not been able to contact them for a long time now,” he said, staring at his hands.

Maha Min has also not seen his father in more than four years.

His father, a prominent Muslim leader in Rakhine state, set up 14 schools for displaced Muslim children in Sittwe between September 2012 and June 2013, then was imprisoned for allegedly fomenting inter-communal violence in July last year.

“He is now in prison, facing six charges against him,” Maha Min said unhappily.

Human rights activists in Thailand also say Thai policies of separating families in detention puts women and children at higher risk of trafficking and abuse when they are held in shelters hundreds of kilometres away from their husbands and fathers.

“So many Rohingya women have been raped,” said Kalam, showing Coconuts two photos of young women he said were abused by brokers.

“If we are going to stay on this dual track, at least let families stay together,” Muntabhorn urged.

Renewed call for Rohingya acceptance in Myanmar

While protecting Rohingya from human rights violations in Thailand and Malaysia is critical, addressing the root causes requires dismantling racism and discrimination in Myanmar, according to analysts.

Some ethnic minorities— who themselves have suffered extensively from human rights abuses perpetrated by the military (controlled by the Burman majority ethnic group)— have expressed discriminatory feelings against the Rohingya.

“There is no doubt that inside the country, the level of societal prejudice is the highest possible,” Petrova said, explaining that a consequence of oppression is its internalization.

Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the former champion of human rights in Myanmar and current chairwoman of the oppositional National League for Democracy (NLD) has remained silent on the issue of Rohingya.

“It is not a simple binary between the oppressor and the oppressed. [In a system where] it is acceptable that some people are below others, people derive dignity from not being the on the lowest level of society,” Petrova noted.

While the human rights of ethnic minorities is a prime topic of Myanmar’s peace process since the 2010 elections, abuses against the Rohingya are seen as a separate issue.

“The [government] is willing to accept [other ethnic minorities, such as] the Kachin, Karen, and Chin. But for them, the Rohingya, particularly Muslim people, it is a totally different situation,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur for Myanmar.

While ASEAN is the main forum for regional cooperation, any pressure from this route has thus far been unsuccessful, say advocates.

“States with significant Rohingya populations, such as Thailand, have to continue to use diplomatic channels to put pressure on Myanmar to get its act together,” Amal de Chickera said.

As a regional problem the issue will take more than Thailand’s efforts to solve, Petrova concluded.

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Abdul Kalam wants to be resettled

Rohingya refugee Abdul Kalam, 53, has been waiting for resettlement for more than two decades/ Dana MacLean 2013

“Hell is real for the Rohingyas in Thailand”

BANGKOK, 28 February 2014 (IRIN) – Abdul Kalam, 53, a Rohingya from Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, arrived in Thailand more than 30 years ago, after escaping forced labour in his home village of Nalywah. “I know I am not safe here. I worry a lot about it. I have seen too many people die in detention or in human trafficking camps,” said Kalam, who is well known within the Rohingya community and is the current president of Thailand’s Rohingya National Organization, which campaigns for the rights of boat people who have arrived in the country over the past decade.

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Photo courtesy of Phuong Tran/IRIN

Photo courtesy of Phuong Tran/IRIN

Summit spotlights Asia’s food and nutrition security

BANGKOK, 25 November 2013 (IRIN) – Representatives of the UN, governments, NGOs and private sector farming are expected to gather in Bangkok, Thailand, on 26 November for a two-day forum on how to fill the Asia-Pacific’s growing food demands and nutrition gaps in a region more devastated by natural disasters than any other worldwide.

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Regional humanitarian forum to open in ThailandIMG_2908

BANGKOK, 13 November 2013 (IRIN) – Government officials, academics, humanitarians and businesspeople from 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region will gather in Thailand tomorrow to explore opportunities for collaboration on innovation, real time communication, and two-way interaction between responders and communities in disasters.

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Interview with UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar

BUENOS AIRES, 24 October 2013 (IRIN) – Myanmar’s government has signed individual ceasefire agreements with 14 main non-state armed groups since 2011, and is pressing ahead with plans for a national ceasefire agreement, originally scheduled for the end of October, but now delayed. The most recent round of negotiations with northern Myanmar’s Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) brought further hope of nationwide reconciliation.

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Call to halt political detentions in Myanmar

BANGKOK, 24 October 2013 (IRIN) – Human rights activists and the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, hailed the Burmese government’s release of 56 prisoners of conscience through presidential amnesty in early October, but lament the continued detention of 135 political prisoners and hundreds of Rohingya activists.