BEIJING, Sept. 14 (IPS) — The touchy issues of labor migration
and migrants’ rights have climbed up a few rungs at the women’s
conference here, but still have a long way to go before they reach
the top of the global agenda.
At the Fourth World Conference on Women, which ends here
tomorrow, governments have agreed on language in the draft platform
for action that recognizes the human rights of “all migrant
workers, including women migrant workers,” regardless of whether
they have illegal or legal status in host countries. The document
also calls on governments to recognize the contribution and skills
of documented workers and encourage their full integration into the
Developing countries welcomed specific mention of “women migrant
workers” as being at particular risk. An official from the
Philippines, one of the world’s largest labor exporters, said:
“It’s good in the sense that we got very specific language.”
Past summit documents, like that of the Social Summit in
Copenhagen, spoke only of migrants, which can refer to permanent
residents and not necessarily workers, the official said.
But beyond that, the Beijing document does not push further
international discussion on labor migration, or bring the world
much nearer to viewing migration more as a development issue,
analysts and activists say.
Narcisa Escaler, deputy director general of the International
Organization for Migration (IOM), recalls that the action plan of
the 1985 Nairobi conference on women said programs for migrant
women must be increased because their numbers will rise.
Ten years later, women are migrating not just along with their
husbands but as laborers in search of work themselves. Despite
this, “the subject of migrant women has not been given the
prominence in the draft platform for action which it deserves,” she
told the conference last week.
The draft makes the point that no one, including undocumented
workers, should lose their human rights because they are abroad.
But Peter Schatzer, IOM’s director for external relations, counters
that “governments are already supposed to be ensuring that” since
such rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human
“It (migration) is clearly not a main focus in the document, and
is more of an afterthought on the sidelines,” he said. “Given its
importance in the international sphere, probably more could have
Many governments tend to look at migration as a national issue
and often as a narrow police and immigration matter, though the
phenomenon is in reality a development one linked to poverty.
In fact, the world has many more migrants that refugees,
Schatzer says. Some 13 million of the world’s 25 million migrant
workers are in Asia alone, criss-crossing a region that is a mix
countries with labor surpluses and labor-short economies.
Migrant workers are about equally divided between the sexes, but
in the case of countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri
Lanka women make up the majority of people who travel abroad in
search of employment. Many of them work as domestic help or
entertainers, jobs that make them vulnerable to physical and
economic abuse abroad.
“The main problem of the migrant worker and the greatest threat
to her or his well-being is the migrant’s ambiguous status,” says
the Migrant Forum in Asia coalition.
Some countries have a real need for added labor but “because of
political and cultural considerations they are not fully recognized
as productive members of society,” it notes, adding: “This results
in the grave violation of the human rights of the migrant worker,”
who is often unable to live in dignity or have access to basic
Women migrants often face “double discrimination” in labor
markets because they are “female and foreign,” says Escaler.
For Aurora Javate de Dios, a member of the Philippines
delegation here, “migration should be seen as a development issue
and it has a human rights dimension as well.”
Often, however, the richer countries respond to increased
migration by “putting more restrictions and, in several cases, this
is bordering on xenophobia because of economic recession in the
industrialized world,” said De Dios, a campaigner against the
trafficking of women.
The issue of migration has been put on the agenda of global
discussions, with the Philippines offering to host an international
conference on migration and development. But there is no consensus
on how to go about this.
Many U.N. member countries, including the United States, oppose
holding a migration conference due to “summit fatigue” from the
string of global meetings since 1992. They say the issue can be
discussed at lower-level bodies.
The U.N. General Assembly is expected to decide later this year
whether the conference will be held.
Many other signs point to a general wariness about migration.
For example, references to women migrant workers are found in
various parts of the draft Beijing platform, from the section on
economic structures to the one on violence against women, but there
is no one section on migration.
These references lump migrant women with refugees and internally
displaced people. This, Escaler says, makes them “lose their focus
and sense or urgency and importance.”
Patricia Ready, of the migrants’ group Kalayaan in the United
Kingdom, told IPS: “We’ve heard a lot about women’s rights as human
rights. Women migrant workers are all over the world, but they’re
not mentioned enough (in the draft).”
Ready added that the platform failed to address migrant women
whose abuse is abetted by the laws of industrialized nations. For
instance, she says, the United Kingdom admits domestic workers from
developing countries only as persons accompanying their employer,
which means they do not get a working visa and cannot switch
“They get no social benefits and are tied irretrievably. This
is a heinous crime and nobody’s talking about it,” Ready charged.
International accords that try to set minimum standards for the
human rights and treatment of migrants have found little support.
The U.N. International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant
Workers and Their Families remains unenforceable because not enough
countries have ratified it.
Schatzer proposes that governments address factors like poverty
gaps that spur internal and international movement of people, the
need to inform potential migrants about the risks of going abroad
illegally, and a sober study by industrialized countries of their
need for immigrant labor.
“But it is hard for governments to look at migration
dispassionately,” he said. However, the extent of migration today
means that it cannot be left to chance, he warned.
“In the long run it would be cost-effective to reduce poverty
differentials between and among countries” to address the root
causes of migration, he said.
So far, many governments, such as those in Eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union, have received little help in dealing with
growing migration to and from their region. “Only when the boats
cross the Baltic Sea and reach Sweden and Western Europe, and it
becomes expensive to handle, do the governments listen,” Schatzer
Copyright 1995 IPS/