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Slow movement : Protection of migrants' rights in 2009

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Migrants drowning at sea after being turned away from shore. Children detained with adults and at risk of physical and sexual abuse. Workers cheated out of wages and confined to their workplace. Authorities extorting bribes. Governments denying health care benefits to those who might most need it.

In 2009, through field research and ongoing monitoring, Human Rights Watch documented human rights violations against migrant women, men, and children in every region of the world, publishing dozens of materials, including 14 reports. Whether moving from the countryside to urban areas, or across oceans, deserts, and international borders, migration carries the potential for both great reward and great risk. For those who are lucky, migration can mean a better life, greater freedoms, more money, and reuniting with family. But for others, restrictive and xenophobic immigration policies, inadequate labor protections, and barriers to justice mechanisms translate into human rights abuses with little hope of redress.

The United Nations estimates that by mid-2010 there will be approximately 214 million international migrants worldwide, and this number balloons into hundreds of millions when internal migrants are included. Migrant workers are often touted as modern-day heroes given the importance of their remittances to the economies of their home countries-an estimated US$444 billion in 2008. But migrants are also seen as threats-unfairly blamed for crime or changes in demographics and culture.

Whether as heroes or criminals, government policies have typically failed to provide comprehensive protections to migrants, often discriminating on the basis of immigration status and national origin. Only 42 countries have ratified the International Convention on the Protection of all Migrant Workers and their Families, none of which include a major host country for migrants.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch researchers documented how stringent entry and return policies in several countries led to brutal treatment, detention, and even death of migrants. For example, Italy returned African migrants traveling by boat to Libya where they are often subjected to physical abuse and detention in unsanitary conditions. Countries such as Malaysia and Greece often failed to screen migrants adequately for asylum-seekers. Unaccompanied children in France were treated more like criminals than children and detained or returned to unsafe conditions.

Entry policies often discriminate against migrants on the basis of their HIV-status, denying them entry or mandating immediate deportation, often without access to life-saving treatment or health care in accordance with global commitments. Migrants without valid immigration status or who face persecution from employers, locals, or government authorities often suffer limited access to health care and clinics, as in South Africa. Those in detention even in rich countries such as the United States may be forced to go without basic health treatment readily available in the community.

Many migrants leave their homes in search of work. Immigration and labor policies often restrict the rights of these workers. For example, poor oversight over labor brokers means that many migrants are deceived about the terms of work and may become heavily indebted after paying recruitment fees. Many governments link workers' visas to their employers, giving the employer the power to cancel a worker's permit and cause their deportation or to refuse workers' requests to transfer employment. This inordinate power often permits employers to confiscate passports, withhold salaries, and demand excessive work hours with impunity.

Both domestic workers, who are additionally excluded from key labor protections in most countries, and construction workers, usually heavily indebted from excessive recruitment fees in their home countries, are subject to a wide range of abuses, most commonly unpaid wages, poor work conditions, and limited access to redress.

In general, the fear and xenophobia that a country's government and population harbor against migrants can lead them to implement harsh laws, policies, and practices that violate migrants' rights. Italy and Malaysia have allowed vigilante-style monitoring of undocumented migrants by specially formed civilian groups. Cuba restricts who can migrate to the cities, using screening policies to clamp down on those involved in organizing civil society. In Thailand, the large numbers of migrants from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos have been subjected to severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and even their ability to possess mobile phones. Impunity for authorities who regularly extort money from migrants through the threat of violence, detention, and deportation leave them with nowhere to turn.

There have been pockets of improvement. The South African government announced it would issue special permits for an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans fleeing turmoil at home to remain and work in South Africa. The Greek government pledged to create a police department to investigate alleged abuses against migrants and closed its Lesvos Island detention center. In the United States, immigration authorities agreed to implement the same standards for health care for women in immigration detention centers as the higher standards for prisoners. Though still awaiting full implementation, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan all announced measures to increase the labor protections for domestic workers.

Key Recommendations

As a new year approaches, Human Rights Watch urges governments to review their policies towards migrants and ensure protections for their rights, regardless of national origin. In particular:

Immigration authorities should:

- Lift restrictions on freedom of migrants' movement within countries and ensure that policies are designed to facilitate documented, legal migration but are not disproportionately punitive against those without proper documents.

- Lift discriminatory entry and exit requirements for migrants living with HIV or other health conditions and ensure uninterrupted access to treatment.

- Punish individuals in authority who abuse their power over migrants and adopt separate policies for treatment of unaccompanied migrant children in accordance with their best interests.

Labor authorities should:

- Extend equal protections to domestic workers equivalent to that of other workers, strengthen inspections of workplaces with migrants, create accessible complaints mechanisms, and speed up redress mechanisms.

Governments should ensure national law conforms to international standards and:

- Sign and ratify the UN International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

- Sign and ratify the core International Labor Organization Conventions and support the proposal for a binding convention and recommendation on domestic work.

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