Critique of the Global Forum on Migration and Development

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As governments from around the world convened for the third annual Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in Athens, Greece on 4-5 November, many in the civil society sector continue to question the credibility of the forum as a valid platform capable of producing beneficial change for migrant workers. As a regional network, Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility Asia (CARAM Asia) stands resolute in its criticism of the current structure that continues to operate outside of formal international legislation and promotes market forces above human and employment rights.

While we acknowledge that the GFMD currently stands as the largest space for international dialogue on issues related to migration, this avenue has found itself corrupted by the drive for development that places developing countries in a hegemonic reliance on developed countries in the drive for remittances. Moreover, under its current guise, the GFMD remains a state-driven, voluntary and non-binding platform that seeks to exist with minimal oversight by the United Nations. As a result of this, wider humanitarian issues including forced and irregular migration, right to health, access to justice and the overall social cost related to migration remain largely sidelined in this process.

As a forum that continues to scrutinise issues of migration only through the lens of economic development, the viability of this process remains deeply uncertain as the GFMD continues to alienate civil society organisations (CSO) and migrant workers’ voices from the process. Coupled with this concern is the overall lack of transparency and accountability where many non-binding agreements are made in closed door meetings outside of the scrutiny of rights based observers.   

If the GFMD wishes to become a respected avenue in the mindset of migrant communities and civil society observers, the forum must immediately seek to incorporate wider concerns related to migration including the role of labour recruitment agencies, the call for ratification of international legislation and for participants to remain committed to previous commitments including the meeting of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, there is clearly a long way to go in the pursuit of a forum that seeks to encourage rights-based legislation, and it should be noted that to date, not a single destination country has yet signed nor ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW, 1990).

It remains the view of CARAM Asia that only once the participants of this international gathering embrace the concerns of migrant workers themselves, can any coherent and sustainable pursuit for development be formulated.  

* Remittances as a tool for development

Since the outset, the GFMD has held as one of its key themes the preconception that the use of remittances can be used by developing countries of origin as a policy of sustainable development. This mindset has been further exacerbated by the increased participation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other representatives from the private sector that seek to push for corporate globalisation and deregulation of governmental stipulations on migration policies.

Such a mentality has inevitably resulted in the commoditisation of migrant workers due to the fact that developing countries are now placed in a situation where they are forced to compete with one another in order to maximise its citizen’s potential for overseas employment. In the subsequent drive for a bigger stake in the market of remittances, countries of origin find themselves undercutting their own citizens’ standard of employment rights in order to increase their own viability overseas.   

This sphere of competition is actively encouraged by the GFMD’s participants who increasingly dedicate much of their time to talk of the inflow of capital and point to the fact that remittances are able to sustain developing nation’s economies through increasing the Gross Development Product (GDP), reducing deficits and by extension reducing the dependence on borrowing from foreign states. On the other hand, however, due to the informal and non-binding nature of this process, little time is spent analysing exactly how these remittances are being used to further develop infrastructure and economic stability.

As such, the forum continues to exist in such a manner that seeks to best produce cheap labour for developed countries while simultaneously trapping developing counties in a state of interdependence instead of improving the rights and well being of migrant workers

This attitude was best captured by Athanassios Nakos, the Deputy Minister of Interior for Greece. Speaking at the close of last year’s meeting in Manila, Nakos stated that ‘interdependence is the key issue that we need to take into account in conceivicing, adopting and implementing our migration policies at all levels.’ Yet the nature of this interdependence, with its imbalance of power relations and potential for economic prosperity which is increasingly encouraged by the GFMD, was something that remains overlooked.

While the true impact of the recent financial crisis on the rate of remittances remains inconclusive, it is widely recognised by the World Bank and other credible statistical sources that the influx of capital from earned remittances has continued to increase over the past two decades. As a result of this, many developing countries throughout the world have sought to develop Labour Export Policies (LEP) in order to capitalise on the growing market demand for cheap unskilled foreign labour. These policies often lead to the exploitation of migrant workers in developing countries, and as CARAM Asia’s own research has found, labour and human rights violations occur in the recruitment process particularly for migrant women, and those from underprivileged race, class, or ethnic backgrounds.  Despite these issues, recently released data from the World Bank’s Outlook for Remittance Flows 2009-2011 indicate that the flow of remittance capital, coming primarily from cheap and undervalued labour export, has reached $325 billion, representing a 15 per cent increase from the year before.  This is especially applicable within the context of Asia, where five of the top 10 recipients of remittances are located generating a collective $127.4 billion dollars.  

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Yet despite the increasing reliance of LEPs by sending countries to increase their GDP in line with the drive for development, the fact remains that remittances have never been analysed in the context of the wider social cost involved or the economic dependence and vulnerability that this migration policies leads to.

Moreover, many developing countries continue to overlook the fact that the increasing dependence on the use of LEP have in fact resulted in a greater dependence on foreign states to employ their citizens. The recent economic downturn has in fact resulted in millions of migrant workers being deported from destination countries which in turn increases the economic vulnerability of states that rely on this capital.

From its own research, CARAM Asia has found that many sending countries continually overlook the fact that any recent economic growth is generally urban focussed with limited linkages to the rural based economy where the majority of the migrants themselves originate. Therefore, while the GFMD provides the false promise that remittances are a tool for development, the reality demonstrates that while the remittances are a significant contribution to remittances–received household, they do not actually contribute to genuine national economic development.

Sending countries are also guilty of inadequately addressing the burden of debt incurred by their own citizenry who migrate due to a lack of regulation and management of the role of labour recruitment agencies. In order to pursue overseas employment, potential migrants are forced to incur heavy debts due to the high cost of the pre-departure process which forces their families into a deeper poverty trap. The loans incurred often come with a high interest rate, which results in the migrant worker being unable to send money back to their families for the first six months.

CARAM Asia’s research findings further found that in some cases, migrants were even been unable to return to their country of origin because they have been unable to repay the loan in full. This was largely because they were being paid less in employment than was initially promised. All of these issues related to the burden of debt are central to the question of development due to their impact on both migrants and their families.

Despite an increase in remittances for sending countries and a subsequent rise in their overall GDP, many developing countries still fail to invest and develop their own infrastructure. This is especially noticeable when it comes to the issue of job creation and the quality of health and education services.

One of the clearest indicators demonstrating the frailty of the GFMD’s aim of using remittances as a tool of development are the report findings of the Human Development Index (HDI) released by the United Nations Development Programme. These findings conclusively demonstrate the fact that, in the majority of cases, the livelihoods and quality of life enjoyed by the citizens of labour-sending countries has decreased despite increasing flows of remittances being earned by migrants.  It must also be noted that empowerment of women and gender equality are a basis for the notion of human development. Female migrants have become more marginalized and face greater exploitation due to gender discrimination, but women from sending countries are also losing ground in terms of human development as noted in the falling HDI scores.

The evidence also demonstrates that the increase in the influx of remittances, far from being used for internal development, has in fact been used by governments to prop up their own mismanagement of domestic economic policies. In the case of the Philippines, recent indications suggests that a mere 23.1 per cent of the countries total GDP is generated from the manufacturing sector, which is the lowest figure since the 1950s. At the same time, this sector has also lost some 125,000 jobs within the past 12 months. Unsurprisingly, this is not a unique situation. According to the latest statistics provided by the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) World Factbook of Unemployment Estimates, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan have all experienced increasing rates of unemployment.

While the GFMD continues to argue that the use of migration can be viewed as a means of securing economic development, the evidence points to the fact that the standard of living amongst citizens in developing countries remains increasingly polarised in comparison to developed nations. CARAM Asia’s own research findings therefore reveal a strong pattern of short–term and immediate use of remittances for household survival, with little opportunity for savings or investment in longer-term business, capital or community development.

The motivation of labour-importing countries in the GFMD format

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One the other side of the spectrum, the motivation for developed countries to continue to engage in a state of interdependence with sending countries is not difficult to ascertain. Developed countries continue to profit from employing cheap labour from sending countries because they can employ migrants at both a lower cost and with reduced terms of employment protection that they would accommodate to their own citizenry.

The flow of migration to developed nations is thus based upon a demand of labour that is solely at the discretion of the labour market requirements of the destination country. Because the potential supply of cheap labour is so vast, the destination country can be selective and control the terms of employment. Thus, the relationship of interdependence between the states is one in which the power of control solely rests with the host countries and the argument for development and migration is somewhat more applicable to the needs of the developed country’s economic desires.

Female migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to this lack of protection and decreased standard of employment due to their over-representation in informal and unregulated sectors. These often confine the female migrants to slave-like conditions where they are subject to gender based violations with limited opportunity for redress. Women are also known to be denied their sexual and reproductive rights which lead to higher vulnerability, and many are known to be deported if they become pregnant.

This drive for development also has a hugely detrimental effect on the scope of international legislation that seeks to protect migrant workers overseas. While many sending countries have signed and ratified the ICRMW, they are forced to undercut their citizens’ terms of employment in order to maximise their potential employability. Furthermore, it is within this context that many are rejected from seeking overseas employment due to the implementation of mandatory HIV testing. This discriminatory practice is implemented in over 70 countries and continues to operate on the misconception that a person’s HIV status could pose a threat to the destination country’s population. These countries continue to overlook the well documented findings of the World Health Organisation (WHO) which argue that there remains no statistical proof of this and further condemn these countries for seemingly identifying HIV as that of a foreign concern.     

Under the current GFMD corporatised policy of migration, destination countries increasingly rely on short-term contracts that reduce the risk of responsibility and thus reduce the risk of economic vulnerability to their own nation’s economic stability. The reliance of MOU and other forms of non-binding agreement that the GFMD continues to encourage only seek to exacerbate this climate. One example of this was witnessed at last year’s GFMD meeting where the Greek deputy interior minister proudly announced that it was as a result of discussion during this conference that Greece and other European Union (EU) countries had agreed to sign on to the EU’s Migration and Asylum Act 2008. Closer inspection of this legislation, however, revealed that such measures sought to limit the appeals for migrant workers who had become unemployed and thus quickened the procedure for deportations

Another example of this is the use of national legislation by host countries which allows employers the right to terminate and cancel work permits while limiting the ability of migrant workers to change their employer. This is of especial concern in the case of domestic workers who are frequently at risk of abuse but who find themselves likely to be detained in detention camps and then deported if they attempt to flee the abuse.

Migrant workers in destination countries are also routinely found to be trapped by the host country’s oppressive migration systems that seek to limit the rights and basic freedoms of migrant workers at every step. This is especially apparent in Gulf Coordinating Council (GCC) states, who remain key participants within the GFMD process. These countries include such notorious human rights violators as Saudi Arabia. Under GCC agreements, countries employ a repressive ‘kafala system’ which seeks to remove migrant workers ability to hold on to their own documentation and restricts travel movement. Employers in these countries continue to escape any form of prosecution for human, employment and/or sexual violations against migrant workers – which continue to be well documented by such groups as Human Rights Watch. On these issues, the GFMD continues to remain largely silent. However, these violations are not unique to GCC states and operate in other host countries.

CARAM Asia’s research demonstrate that gender variables related to migration result in comparatively worse outcomes and experiences for female migrants and their families in comparison to male migrants, and impact at all levels of the migration process.

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Such risks and vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers and their families could be severely curtailed if the GFMD sought to implement international oversight into the behaviour of host countries through an encouragement of a rights-based approach under ICRMW (1990) and other key conventions.

Recommendations

CARAM Asia and its members wish to remind all of this year’s GFMD delegates that the problems currently facing the system of migration are neither by accident or coincidence. Instead, they are a direct result of the growing proportion of the international community which continue to view migration policies only through the context of market-based demands while simultaneously forcing poorer countries and their citizen into a state of hegemonic dependence. Both sending and destination countries are culpable for these existing problems but for very different reasons. It is time that the GFMD immediately seeks to remove the profit-driven agenda that remains inherent through the conference and instead shift to address the issues from a rights-based perspective, as well as promoting accountability and transparency.

We at CARAM Asia also believe that countries selected to host the GFMD need to provide activists and critics of the process the same right to freedom of expression that they allow to their delegates. We therefore hope that the Greek government does not repeat the repressive actions of the Filipino government last year where the Commissioner of the Immigration Bureau, Marcelino Chicano Libanan was quoted as stating that ‘foreigners should have no business joining these mass actions because it is tantamount to meddling in our country’s affairs.’ Such comments fail to realise their responsibility as a host of an international gathering as well as their responsibility to the United Nations Charter. Demonstrators, be them activists, migrant workers or concerned citizens, must be accommodated their right to freedom of expression, no matter what their nationality.  Recently we received information about activists and migrant worker being denied visas to entry Greece; such action by the government reveals a denial of the rights of people to voice their concerns in the forum .

The GFMD will never become relevant in the field of migration until it fully contemplates the root causes and effects of migration and the right to development of people. Any solutions that the forum seeks will never become practical until migrants are engaged with on a more direct level in the consultation process and involved in decision making on policies which affected them. While migrant workers continue to develop the economies of the more affluent nations around the world, their own countries remain invariably locked in a struggle of competition while overlooking the long-term social costs that are embedded in their national migration policies.  

It is with this in mind that CARAM Asia recommends that the participants of the GFMD take the following steps:

  • Both sending and receiving countries must immediately sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990).
  • The GFMD must immediately increase its transparency and accountability in the overall process. This must include the participation of grassroots organisations to address the wider social issues related to migration including addressing gender vulnerabilities.
  • States that host female migrant workers must adhere to existing rights as laid out in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw, 1979). Through this, the GFMD should strongly seek to use its platform to recommend to all participating parties the immediate recognition of domestic work as work with protection in domestic legislation.
  • Migrant workers must be protected by core Labour Rights and Decent Work Standards set out in the ILO conventions and related human rights instruments
  • Whether documented or undocumented, the GFMD must recognise that migrants are entitled to fundamental human rights including the right to health, equal access to justice, freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom from abuse and exploitation including torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
  • Human rights and social justice should be at the core of development with comprehensive work towards a balance of social, cultural, political and economic progress in line with the definition and framework as stated in the UN Declaration on the Right to Development (1986). Alternative development should ­ place the human person at the centre of development and be aimed at improving the quality of life and dignity of all people and their environment.
  • Governments should ensure that adequate and informed pre-departure orientation is given to all migrant workers including health and rights awareness.
  • Regulating and monitoring of recruitment industry to ensure labour and human rights of migrant workers and ensure that migrant workers are not charged exorbitant fees.
  • The State must stop the propaganda about the myth of remittances as a tool for development and start to work on fundamental, lasting  political, economic and social  reforms needed in countries including infrastructure for sustainable development  by creating jobs, employment opportunities, universal health care, education and security of life at home while protecting and promoting the rights and well being of migrant workers.
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