Making migrants’ rights human rights


On Nov. 26, the sun beat down on a crowd of some 800 delegates from over 65 countries gathered in Manila to fight for the rights of migrants. On Katipunan Avenue, one of the largest and busiest roads in the wealthy district of Quezon City, the most populous city in the Philippines, labour activists, human-rights activists, local migrants’-rights organizers and others stood shoulder to shoulder. A police escort stretched for several blocks, protecting us from potential anti-labour forces. In the November sun we shouted, “Migrants’ rights are human rights!” in English, Tagalog, French, Spanish, Arabic and a dozen other languages.

The life of a migrant is not an easy one. It was with an eye towards this that a global assortment of civil societies, NGOs, faith-groups, Diaspora associations and trade unions gathered in Manila from Nov. 26–30 for the 2012 World Social Forum on Migrations (WSFM).

I noted just how far I had come to be here: a UVic student who had never left North America before, then worked in Bangladesh for the past five months, and now had arrived in the Philippines to learn from some of the most knowledgeable and involved people working on the issue of migration.

According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2012, 214 million people participated in international migratory movements, including roughly 15.4 million refugees. Whether in the drive towards Tahrir Square (where many of the jobless and destitute were rural natives looking for work in Cairo) or in struggles over religious freedom (for example, the right of Islamic women to wear the hijab in Western countries), these people are a crucial and growing facet of the contemporary, globalized world.

Migrants, inspiring though they may be, have faced frequent human rights abuses, appalling working conditions and labyrinthine bureaucratic inefficiencies. According to the Welfare Association of Repatriated Bangladeshi Employees (WARBE) Development Foundation, female migrant domestic workers frequently have their passports taken away upon arrival at their job sites, have their wages withheld to repay the debts incurred in arriving at their destination and suffer high rates of verbal and sexual abuse.

Born of the World Social Forum(WSF) process that began in Brazil in 2001, the WSFM was created in 2005. Its first iteration was held in the parent event’s location, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Some 600 participants gathered from over 35 countries to discuss obstacles to movement and the broader concept of universal citizenship, wherein people can move and live freely between countries.

The original WSF was conceived as a people’s movement against the forces of neoliberal globalization. The WSFM followed in a similar vein of activism. The central view of both the WSF and WSFM has been that globalization has forced many people into inhuman positions of servitude and exploitation by corporations and sometimes governments, both in their home countries and abroad. This is generally due to increasingly insidious global consumerism. The forums maintain that activists and civil society need to fight back to protect the rights of all people.

The WSFM is extremely wide-ranging in its mandate, as the term “migrants” includes labour migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers and those who have been trafficked or smuggled, as well their families. The forum hopes to bring together the sometimes disparate social movements in this field and find united action against exploitative forces.

Day one: the need to unite 

The procession moved slowly down the wide avenue towards Miriam College. The college is one of the Philippines’ most prestigious non-profit, private universities. It is the site of a number of strong social justice initiatives, including a free night school for underprivileged youth.

As the procession carried on to the college grounds, participants and volunteers were led through white-stucco hallways and into the beautiful auditorium of the school. Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, Singaporeans, Brazilians, South Africans, Palestinians and a few Canadians managed to walk down the crowded aisles and take their seats.

The keynote speaker was an extremely well known man in the Philippines and a towering figure in the international human rights scene as well: Walden Bello. He is a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, where he is chairman of the committee on overseas workers’ affairs. A human rights activist who fought the imposition of martial law in the Philippines in 1972, Bello’s resumé precedes him. He is widely considered one of the sternest fighters for human rights and global economic justice in the world, as his 2003 decoration with the Right Livelihood Award (sometimes referred to as the alternative Nobel Prize) attests. Bello’s address was unequivocal in its recrimination against global neoliberal capitalism and the exploitation of migrant workers, whether such exploitation was characterized by low wages, verbal or sexual abuse, or isolation from the host society and any instruments of assistance that it might otherwise offer. He went so far as to call new systems of labour trafficking the “new slave trade.” He said that when people are bought and sold, sometimes in the open view of society, there can be no rest in the fight against such inhumanity.

Throughout the opening session, all speakers and presenters attempted to paint a coherent picture of international migration and show how partnerships, points of action and strategies could be derived from this. John Bingham, the head of policy at the International Catholic Migration Commission, articulated what would be a reoccurring theme for the whole conference: global social movements need to come together and present a common front to those who continue to exploit and abuse migrating persons. He said globalization had sown terrible seeds for hundreds of millions of people in the world, but it also represented an opportunity to unite people working on the same issues in different areas. Raúl Delgado Wise of the International Network on Migration and Development, who was one of the major academic figures at the conference, went even further than Bingham, saying, “It is time for [the movement] to start agenda setting, and not just acting defensively.”

Throughout the first day, these themes were echoed continuously. The forum was broken into 12 separate workshops devoted to topics from domestic workers to migrants in emergency situations.

In the session on climate justice, the “green economy” and migration, the need for a united front was made clear. The critique of neoliberalism here was unrestrained: representatives from La Via Campesina, a global peasant movement, noted that overconsumption driven by greed was causing extreme environmental damage. They deemed immediate mitigation of global climate change effectively impossible. In order to address deeper, long-term problems, they said alternatives to current models of consumption had to be found.

The vast majority of participants in this workshop agreed that the restructuring of global systems of capital, resources and labour is deeply needed, but in the short term, steps that can be taken may include utilizing corporate and state power to support those in need or in immediate danger.

Divisions soon appeared. There were older activists, hardened by years on the front lines of protesting globalization and capitalism — unafraid to mention events like the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle in 1999. Such activists often objected to the views of younger activists, who were sometimes less at odds with global capitalism. The young Canadian, Australian, Singaporean and Japanese participants actively recording and corresponding about the WSFM on shiny silver laptops and tablets were certainly a testament to this. Many of these youths were destined for dorm rooms or offices all over Europe and North America — some of them undoubtedly in my native Victoria. It was clear that, whatever restructuring of the world did occur, the way of life that those of us from these places enjoy would likely be dramatically altered.

The divide was clear in this workshop and other circumstances: some people and organizations refused to work with actors that they deemed enablers of current systems of oppression (corporations and sometimes governments). Others felt that their duty was to uplift people now, rather than standing for a new system in the future.

Such divisions are common in this and many other civil society arenas, but the WSFM is notable, particularly in the case of this year’s Manila conference, for its ability to bring together actors from a wide variety of perspectives and create consensus. Given the powers stacked against them (labour-seeking governments in the Gulf, newly industrialized East Asian states, recruiting agencies, smugglers and many others), this is worthy of celebrating.

Day two: the abuses of migrants’ rights

The second day of the conference focused on the rights of migrants, as there was now a broader understanding of the plight of migrants in different contexts, geographical and otherwise. There were another 12 separate workshops, along with shorter discussion sessions where participants could share experiences with one another. Perhaps the most talked-about sessions of that day involved Palestinian activists. The biggest name in attendance was Salah Salah, a member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC — a governing body within the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the central body recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people). His presence at the WSFM was pointed out during the opening plenary as a sign of the conference’s solidarity with Palestinians.

Salah’s voice was contrasted by the young Osama Tanous from Baladna (the Association of Arabic Youth that is within Israel). Tanous offered the voice of a younger generation not as set on working through the PLO. Zaynah Hindi, a Palestinian woman who lived in the United States, but who is now working in Lebanon with the Palestinian Youth Movement, provided an eloquent, much needed female perspective during the proceedings. The panel was rounded out by Khaled Awad from the Association for the Defence of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Israel. The flurry of French, Arabic and Tagalog flew across the room.

Their afternoon session included a heated discussion on whether or not there was a responsibility on the part of the Palestinians to negotiate with the Israelis and to build goodwill. The representative from the PNC was ambiguous, but Tanous translated Awad’s stories and helped share photographs of the Palestinian villages that were cleared out by Zionist militias when Israel was founded (and, according to the two men, are now being systematically destroyed by the Israeli government). Tanous was unrepentant in saying that until a viable, separate state for Palestinians had been established, and until the rights of Palestinians inside Israel were properly respected, the Palestinian movement was under no obligation to “behave” with the Israelis. Tanous referred to Nelson Mandela repeatedly. Tanous said Mandela had made it clear that “you do not negotiate with oppression; you fight it.” He went on to add that “reconciliation can and should occur, but only once occupation ends.”

When I spoke with Tanous after his presentation, he was also eager to express solidarity with indigenous peoples in Canada, who, although notably different from Palestinians, were still being denied the rights to their land.

The Palestinians represent one of the most extreme circumstances in which migrants (in this case, ones long stranded outside of their homes) have had their rights violated. But they are not the only ones. Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been pouring into Bangladesh and India since ethnic and sectarian violence broke out in the region earlier in 2012, but no attempts by any governments (even with the recent visit of Barack Obama) have been made to address their suffering. In numerous other cases, the rights of female migrants, of irregular migrants and of children have been ignored or deliberately removed. Presenters and participants alike issued a call to create systems of resistance. These systems could involve protests and awareness-raising or direct opposition to exploitation through unionization and refusals to work. These actions would be committed by migrants and in solidarity with migrants.

Days three and four: the action plan

A brief interlude on the third day allowed activists to tour sites around the Philippines to gain an understanding of the people and culture.

The fourth and final day of the conference focused on creating a plan of action for the future. “Imagining alternatives” was the order of the day. It offered many spaces for networking between previously disconnected movements, especially on a regional basis. As this was the first WSFM to ever be held in Asia, the new connections formed between Asia, Africa and South America (the traditional centre of these discussions) was noteworthy. Many participants saw this bridging of gaps in understanding and communication between the members of the Global South  as one of the greatest achievements of the conference.

The idea of universal citizenship was raised repeatedly in many of these workshops, wherein the basic rights of people transfer from one country to another (some even went so far as to say the right to vote in both their native country and in their adopted one should be extended to all migrant workers overseas).

The call for unity and respect for rights reached fever pitch at the closing ceremonies, where Oscar Chacón of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities read out the final product of the conference, the Manila Declaration. Within the document, which included a collection of the recommendations from all the workshops and sessions held throughout the WSFM, the consensus was made clear: the rights of migrants need to be respected on the central basis of their humanity. The current state of migration governance was openly deplored: “Mainstream migration policies . . . essentially are corporate driven public policies,” read the declaration. “Temporary or ‘guest’ worker programmes are a prime example.” Programmes such as these favour “corporate elites primarily in receiving countries” through their systematic deprivation of migrants’ rights. The Manila Declaration also stated, “These policies rationalize a new form of slavery.”

As Giovanna Zouein, a child-protection officer from Lebanon, said after the closing ceremonies, many people hesitate to include newcomers in support systems that even natives have struggled to gain access to. To convince people that there is a need to do so is never easy, but as she said, this conference had proved to her how the people who live on the margins are treated — migrants and otherwise — and is indeed a broader reflection on the society in which they live.

The United Nations High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development will be held in New York in September, and the neoliberal viewpoint will be well represented. To have migrants’ rights respected, the theme of common humanity will have to be effectively sold to the public of northern, developed states, and powerful actors will either have to be convinced of the efficacy of respecting human rights or somehow be circumvented. It won’t be an easy task, but based on the activities of the 2012 WSFM, it has become clear to me that these activists are made of tough stuff.