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‘Light at the end of the tunnel?’ ASEAN multilateral framework on migrant workers

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A taskforce on the ASEAN multilateral framework on the promotion and protection of migrant rights was established recently in Singapore.

The meeting was an outcome of a consultation on migrant workers, co-hosted by FORUM-ASIA and Migrant Forum in Asia, held on 22-23 April, Singapore.

A taskforce on the ASEAN multilateral framework on the promotion and protection of migrant rights was established recently in Singapore.

The meeting was an outcome of a consultation on migrant workers, co-hosted by FORUM-ASIA and Migrant Forum in Asia, held on 22-23 April, Singapore.

Funded by the Canadian SEARCH project, which supports a project on research and advocacy in relation to ethnic minorities, children and migrant workers in selected ASEAN countries, the consultation attempted to share best practices and initiate better civil society engagement in the drafting of a multilateral framework for the promotion and protection of migrant rights.

Attended by several civil society organisations and trade unions, members of the taskforce included the Asian Migrant Centre (Mekong Migration Network), Migrant Forum in Asia, Coordination of Action Research on Aids and Mobility in Asia (CARAM Asia), UNI-Asia and Pacific Regional Office (UNI-APRO), Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) and FORUM-ASIA.

Their task was to arrange a calendar of key events, and to engage in more in-depth drafting of a multilateral framework on migrant workers’ rights to be presented to ASEAN governments.

“While it is undeniable that migrant workers and their families live and work in appalling conditions in many Asian countries, the proposed ASEAN multilateral framework is a welcome beacon of hope that their rights will increasingly be protected and promoted by the governments and other actors who benefit in economic and social terms from their presence and their labour,” reports FORUM-ASIA’s Pia Oberoi, who attended the meeting.

FORUM-ASIA’s executive director Anselmo Lee and coordinator Sammy Gamboa were also present at the consultation.

Migrant workers across Asia are today one of the groups that are most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse of their fundamental human rights.

Migrant workers move both within and across international borders, and individuals that move in search of work from rural to urban areas of the same country often suffer the same fate as migrants who move from one country to the other.

However, ongoing negotiations and debate within the framework of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) focuses on the international movement of migrants in search of work and a more secure future for themselves and their families.

In July 2006, ASEAN engaged the Working Group for the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism to implement the human rights components of the Vientiane Action Programme [VAP].

Among other requests (which includes the establishment of a commission on women and children), ASEAN requested the Working Group to work on the elaboration of an instrument for the promotion and protection of the rights of the migrant workers.

The national Working Group in Singapore, facilitated by FORUM-ASIA’s member Think Centre, has been appointed the Focal Point on Migrant Workers.

Meanwhile, Oberoi said that the meeting was a productive exchange of ideas, best practices and experiences between the participants, who were drawn from regional networks working on human rights issues and the rights of migrants, international trade union networks, and national NGOs engaged in service provision to migrants and advocacy on the rights and dignity of migrants.

Also at the meeting were representatives of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, and representative of SEARCH.

“Participants at the meeting identified a number of important and even innovative ideas in relation to the elements to be included in the multilateral framework.

“One suggestion was that the framework should include a mechanism for systematic reporting on the situation of migrants in Asia, and also an individual complaints procedure,” added Oberoi.

She said there was strong agreement that the draft framework proposed by civil society to the Working Group meeting in June should include protection of the economic, social and cultural rights of migrants in addition to civil and political rights issues (such as arbitrary arrest and detention, access to justice mechanisms, and protection from mass deportation).

“Participants suggested that the draft framework begin with a preamble which would function as a statement of principles to which ASEAN governments should associate themselves,” she added.

The meeting also identified a number of challenges that NGOs and other actors will have to overcome in advocating successfully for a framework to protect and promote the human rights of migrant workers and their families.

Oberoi lamented that the most difficult of these challenges is that the governments in the region see migration as primarily as a sensitive issue closely linked to national security, and are not traditionally advocates of migrant rights, particularly the rights of migrants living and working on their territory.

“There was also a consensus of the need to expose the human rights violations perpetrated by non-state agents, such as recruitment agencies and brokers,” she said.

“However, it was realised that this is a challenging task, particularly as there are many chains of sub-contractors involved in these operations, which are hard to pin down,” she added.