International Migrants Day: Time to Commit to a Pro-Migrant Future

Migrant workers in Hong Kong, many of them from the Philippines and Indonesia, regularly congregate on city sidewalks. (KC Wong/Flickr)

Today is International Migrants Day, but celebrations are muffled by the hard realities of life away from home. Limited access to education and healthcare, exploitative labor practices, and loss of identity are just a few of the challenges facing migrants. Failing to address these issues, has the propensity to drive a wedge through societies.

Whether migrating within countries, or across international borders, migration almost always comes with a reduction in social capital, a term defined simply as any network that has value. The hit on social capital that migrants take — specifically the loss of their usual social network — makes them easy prey for persons keen to take advantage of their limited knowledge on local conditions.  

Maids, for example, are particularly vulnerable to this type of abuse. Around the world, including in most countries of Asia, they work in isolation as they take care of households. They put breakfast on the table, look after children, cook the evening meal, and get up early the next day to do it all over again. 

However, many maids don’t receive a day off. Their employers sometimes retain their personal documents, and because so much of their work is behind closed doors, the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse they all too often encounter goes unnoticed.   

For all of their suffering, maids, or household domestic workers as they're formally known, have enabled Asia’s rapidly rising economies to grow because both parents can enter the work force. 

But the challenges are not limited to adverse working conditions faced by migrants in countries or regions of destination. Many migrants leave spouses and children behind, who are forced to adjust to life with just one parent. 

The funds sent back in the form of remittances may be useful for satisfying basic needs, but many migrant-sending countries lack in infrastructure. Even when funds could be used to send a child to school, the quality of teaching may not be sufficient for equipping youth to rebuild the domestic economy. This is compounded when the most talented teachers have left as migrants themselves.

Increasingly new forms of forced migration are also taking hold. Where people once had a choice to move to the city in search of a job, environmental destruction caused by floods and storms, as well as equally damaging slow onset disasters like desertification and rising sea levels, make the possibility of staying in one place impossible for many. Conflict and interethnic strife send migrants scattering further.

For the wealthiest nations of the world, with the resources to act with foresight, now is the time to move away from divisive and often ill-informed biases toward migration challenges. 

Immigrants bring ideas, optimism, and a work ethic that should be seized by developed nations in order to regain their economic footing. Developed countries need to move their labor markets toward a skills increase, rather than protecting jobs that a migrant workforce has the capacity to undertake. 

Most importantly, systems that facilitate flows of people within and between countries must be engineered. The reality is that migrants will carve out pathways to employment through whatever means possible. They cannot be blocked.

The U.S., at both the national and state level, is increasingly legislating for the protection of workers and elimination of human trafficking. If enforced, these new laws will serve to protect migrants, because so many of the most vulnerable workers are toiling away from home.

But if solutions for managing the movements of people fail to be devised, then migration will continue to be a largely imperfect process at best and a tragic process at worst. 

The tragedy will not just be the boats full of migrants that sink in the Mediterranean or off the coast of Australia each year.  

The longer-term tragedy will be that the global community will continue to be guided by irrational fears instead of rational thought. Our failure will be in enacting legislation that is governed by short-term and narrow-minded politics, rather than acknowledging the current system is costly, often ineffective, and fails to fully benefit migrants or many of the communities where they are hosted.

In spite of vastly different perspectives on how to tackle the migration issue, the best place to have these conversations remains in the umbrella of international organizations. Civil society must have a seat at the table in order to push governments to act. The private sector, as the largest creator of jobs, needs to carefully monitor reputation, given the risks of negative exposure in the treatment of workers.  

But continued disagreement is dangerous for all stakeholders. In a world where online content quickly goes viral through social media outlets, a government crackdown on protesting migrant workers could soon spiral into further domestic unrest. For companies, even rumors of exploitation can result in loss of sales. For civil society groups, their larger message may suffer if their vocal frustrations polarize the debate, rather than leading to constructive thought. Most importantly, the conditions of migrants won't improve.

Finding consensus on small, yet practical, issues, such as facilitating opportunities for temporary migrants to gain permanent residency more quickly, would be an important step forward. This is because, as the OECD recently pointed out, there are higher success rates for children of migrants that immigrate when they are younger.

But countries should want to be viewed in a positive light by migrants. This will help them to ensure an adequate and reliable workforce is present, rather than a workforce that would rather work elsewhere.

On this International Migrants Day, it’s time to stop thinking of migration in terms of “us versus them.” Legitimate channels for mobility within and between countries will benefit us all. 

About the Author

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Andrew Billo is Assistant Director for Policy in the Asia Society's New York Public Programs office. He previously worked for six years on migration issues in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.