South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Recent global events such as the wars in Syria and Iraq, Brexit and the election victory of Donald Trump in the United States among other things have exposed the extreme vulnerability of international migrants in all parts of the world. Globally migrants are increasingly being labelled as security threats, terrorists, infiltrators, polluters, job takers and responsible for all woes that the world currently faces. It is against this stark reality that Bangladesh is currently hosting the Global Forum on Migration and Development, 2016 (GFMD). The government of Bangladesh along with many of the like-minded countries is working hard to highlight the positive contributions of migrant workers in global development. Through this forum these countries are trying their best to protect the rights of migrants in all stages of migration and take steps to enhance the developmental outcomes of migration.

In order to inform the formal GFMD deliberations the civil society organisations, including those working on migrants’ rights, peasant associations and labour unions, held the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development and Rights (PGA) from 5-7 December 2016 in Dhaka. More than 300 migrant rights activists of 25 countries, from North and Latin America, Africa and the Middle-East, South, East and South-East Asia, participated in this congregation. In line with the agenda of this year’s GFMD, the PGA made recommendations on six key themes: labour migration, migration governance, mixed migration, climate change migration, xenophobia and racism, and borders and detention.

Obstacles at every stage

Labour migrants constitute 80 percent of total international migrant population. Short term contract migrants dominate the flow. Migrants face problem at every stage of their migration experience. Those range from access to information to recruitment at the areas of origin and visa trading, contract substitution and absence of decent work conditions in the countries of destination. The PGA demanded the governments at the GFMD agree that fair and ethical recruitment should be the basis of all multilateral, regional and bilateral frameworks. It called for guaranteeing transparency and accountability and effective cooperation between states of origin and destination in labour recruitment. Bangladesh has been raising the issue of lowering the cost of migration for a long time in the GFMD forum. Concerted effort needs to be made to attain zero cost of migration as stipulated in ILO Convention.

Establishing labour standards

Currently, in the absence of a global regime, migration is governed under dual jurisdiction of origin and destination countries. This inhibits migrant enjoying decent labour standards. Negotiations between origin and destination countries are mostly bilateral. Migration governance requires development of a migration system. The PGA highlighted the need for multilateralism. It recommended the use of existing human rights and labour standards frameworks for migration governance that include the 1990 UN Convention on Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families, other relevant human rights and ILO Conventions. In order to ensure benefits of the labour standards to the migrants, countries need to frame enabling national laws incorporating those standards.

Mixed migration

In recent years the unfolding of political and economic events in various parts of the world has made it virtually impossible to make distinction between different forms of migration-labour migrants, asylum seekers or climate displaces. Regardless of their status people involved in large scale movements require protection of their rights at all stages of their journey. When refugees and migrants are at risk the governments should protect and rescue and UNHCR guidelines should be respected on the rights of migrants at the border. The principle of non-refoulement needs to be adhered to by the letter.

Climate change and migration

Climate change related migration should receive more attention in future GFMDs. Climate change is already driving migration as a result of droughts, floods, erosion, natural disasters and these trends will only exacerbate. Climate change reduces the security of rural livelihoods. Whether or not people cross international borders or are internally displaced, they should be afforded the full range of human rights including rights to labour, social protection, to stay and to return. Peasant agro-ecology should be one of the solutions to mitigate climate change, as well as create resilience. Multilateral frameworks on climate change and migration should include policies and strategies for all three stages of displacement: pre-displacement (prevention and preparedness for relocation), during (humanitarian assistance and recovery), and post-displacement (durable solutions for return, local integration and resettlement) in both origin and destination countries.

Xenophobia and racism

Currently the world is seeing unleashing of racism and xenophobia. It will be wrong to label them as just inter-personal issues. In fact those are legacies of colonialism and broader relations of inequality. State migration deterrence frameworks result in criminalisation and scapegoating of migrants. It feeds into xenophobia and racism. The time has come to launch a UN campaign on racism. Local and regional realities of fundamental structural patterns of discrimination have to be addressed in such campaign.

Borders and detention

Currently the world is witnessing a surge in refugee and asylum seekers. At a time when people are fleeing persecution, war and generalised violence, the states continue to adhere to their policy of deterrence. Although refugees and migrants fleeing such situations do not have any role in creating those conditions, they are not treated with compassion. This is not only true for industrialised countries of the West but also for many developing countries. It is in this context respecting the international customary law states should open their borders to those fleeing persecution and end immigration detention of all and particularly of pregnant women and children. Alternatives to detention such as open door shelters and community based programmes need to be established. The governments, who are highlighting the developmental outcomes of migration, should move away from a migration policy framework rooted in deterrence.

The PGA concluded that migrants as stakeholders should have direct participation at national and inter-governmental policy spaces. Migrants need their human rights protected, but they also need their agency to be recognised and respected. This is especially true of women migrants, who are often discussed in terms of vulnerability. The civil society representatives expect that GFMD 2016 will be able to make a major breakthrough on the above areas that are crucial at this critical juncture of globalisation, migration and development.


The writer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Dhaka. She is the founding chair of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).


Updated On:  December 11, 2016