I recently posted some of my pictures from the IAMR event in Manila, and I got quite a few questions about what exactly the GFMD was, and why we were protesting it. So I figured I would use this space to explain a little bit about what we were doing, and why. There will probably be quite a few acronyms in here, so sorry, and good luck keeping up. (Seriously, learning the sheer vast amount of acronyms used in the migrant/activist world is the hardest part of my job!)
Let’s start with IMA. You all may remember that back in June, I was participating in the founding assembly of the International Migrant’s Alliance, the first ever international assembly of grassroots migrant organizations. If you are interested, you can read more about it here or here (for the more official site). But basically, one of the resolves of the IMA was to participate in activities most concerning the rights and welfare of migrants worldwide. The IMA learned that in October of this year, the Philippine government, claiming to be the “model” of migration and development, would be hosting the 2nd Annual GFMD. The IMA decided to take a stand against this outrageous claim.
A little history of the GFMD. The General Forum on Migration and Development was started last year in Brussels. According to the GFMD, “This marked the start of a new global process designed to enhance the positive impact of migration on development (and vice versa) by adopting a more consistent policy approach, identifying new instruments and best practices, exchanging know-how and experience about innovative tactics and methods and, finally, establishing cooperative links between the various actors involved.” After a well-attended meeting by many sending and receiving countries, a second forum was set to take place in October. While the words of the GFMD may sound all well and good, grassroot migrant organizations worldwide take offense at being used for the “development” of their home and host countries, while receiving none of the benefits. Migrants are routinely taken advantage of, maltreated, abused and viciously exploited. Many migrants, particularly those coming from extremely poor and underdeveloped nations, say they are victims of “forced migration.” Forced migration does not mean that a gun was held to their head, but worse, there were no other options left for them. The poverty in their home country is so severe that even college-educated men and women have absolutely no job opportunities without going abroad. If there were jobs at home, there would be no reason to seek work abroad. They are shipped off to places like the Middle East, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Canada and Australia, where they work the most dangerous and unwanted jobs of those host countries: in oil fields, factories, graveyard shift security, and as domestic workers. They are the most commonly underpaid and over abused group of workers in any country. They are contractual workers, denied benefits such as health insurance and the right to abode, and are at the mercy of their employer’s whim. At any moment, they can be sacked for no reason. Their rights as migrants and workers are overlooked or dismissed by host countries, their passports are confiscated, and they are used as the scapegoats of society. They are discriminated based on their religions, their nationalities and their jobs. They are denied access to health care, are charged outrageous fees by agencies that only leave them more in debt, and in some countries they live in constant fear of being arrested or deported at a moment’s notice over changing policies of which they are not informed.
Migrants are often called the “modern-day heroes” of a country, due to the great numbers in dollars they send home in remittances. In 2007 migrants worldwide remitted, through registered banks alone, more than US$2.26 trillion. TRILLION. These dollars are taxed by the sending country, and there are state exactions taken from these remittances to support the home government. This money is filtered into the government, and never seen again by the migrants. It is not used for actual development, or assistance programs for migrants. It is not used for health insurance for the families of migrants, or on education, or anything else related to migration. It is taken advantage of by greedy governments, used in non-migrant related programs, and pays the already padded salaries of “executive secretaries” of migration in the government. With money coming in, governments have turned the need for short-term migration as a quick fix for national problems of poverty, into long term policies, so as to wholly avoid the issue of poverty. There are more than 200 million documented migrant workers in the world today, making up 2.9 percent of the world population. (This number is excluding the some 13 million registered refugees and undocumented workers and refugees.) The Philippines is the 4th largest remittance receiving country, being recorded as have received over US$14.6 billion in 2006. Next to the export of electronics, remittances is the highest source of foreign exchange in the Philippines. Let me restate that: Human being’s exported labour is the 2nd highest source of foreign income for the Philippines. So these modern-day heroes have really become modern-day slaves. Forced to migrant for work, to leave their families behind, the government is riding safely on the backs of these migrants. As long as the governments can usher out migrants in an orderly fashion, they can continue to avoid the problems of poverty in their own backyard. Unemployment rates appear to be dropping in underdeveloped nations; not because the nations are actually doing anything to address the issues of poverty and unemployment, but because every day, they are sending out migrants by the thousands. Between January and April 2008, an estimated 3,303 migrants were sent out from the Philippines every day. (statistic courtesy IBON International) The more labour they send out, the more money that comes in and the less they have to deal with the real issues facing the country. As Elmer Labog, National Chairperson of KMU Philippine Labour Movement, said during his speech on the issues and challenges of the labour movement, “The GFMD is nothing but a cosmetic response to the wider global protest against the massive exploitation and repression of migrant labour without any intent of addressing the fundamental content of the root cause of migration.”
So the GFMD has seen the kind of money the remittances of hard working migrants can bring in. So they have sought to capitalize on this, creating various agencies, training centers and institutionalizing migrant policies. The GFMD seeks to use migration as a viable means of development in underdeveloped and developing countries. On the backs of the migrants, with the blood, sweat and tears of the migrants, governments seek development. Only thing is, they forgot to ask the migrants what they think about all of this.
The heads of state involved in GFMD have habitually and blatantly disregarded the actual wants and needs of migrants themselves. This is made evidence every day by the national neglect of migrants, the overcharging of fees, and the human rights offenses committed against migrants. Migrants arrested, deported, detained and on death-row in foreign countries are often forgotten, unless the media happens to catch their story, then the government remembers their responsibilities to the migrants, but often, its too late. But this neglect of migrant’s rights, welfares and needs became most obvious in the lack of any grassroot migrant organizations on the roll call at GFMD. Many national and international organizations applied to attend the GFMD, and each were denied or ignored. Institutions that have been in place for decades, who deal every day with the actual effects of migrantion. Organizations and alliances run by or informed by former migrants. Every single one of them were denied access to the GFMD.
So what do you do when the bully at school hosts a party and refuses to invite you and all of your best friends? You host your own party. And that is exactly what the IAMR was. The International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees was the response to the GFMD’s ignorance of the real situation. A counter-conference were migrant’s voice would actually be heard.
And that is the very long and detailed answer of why we hosted the IAMR. These are the not the only reasons, the list could go on all day. But that is the gist of it. That the GFMD does not address the real issues of migration; that migration should not be used for development when there are issues of poverty that need to be addressed; and basically, if you are going to talk about us, at least talk about us with us. We spent our conference discussing the real issues of migrants and refugees; such as health, education, remittances and state exactions, rights and welfare, government accountability, the issues of terror and discrimination being used against migrants and refugees, and the particular atrocities and violations of women and youth. We hosted a 10 day countdown to the GFMD, complete with rallies, marches, protests and media stunts (such as peaceful things like kite-flying, early morning exercise groups and face painting). We had excellent media coverage. We hosted the first annual Zero-Remittance Day – where we called on migrants worldwide to not send their remittances through state-authorized banks, so that the government wouldn’t get any of the money, only the families. And though the Philippine government officially went on record saying that Zero-Remittance Day would not actually affect the economy, that it was only “one day” of remittances, the IAMR received a personal phone call urging IAMR to call off the Zero-Remittance Day because of the adverse effects it would have on the Philippine government. I believe that is the true definition of speaking out of both sides of your mouth.
It needs to be said that IAMR, IMA and all the organizations involved are not against migration. They are against forced migration. If an individual wants to leave the country to “seek greener pastures,” that should be their right and their choice. But when trained medical doctor can only earn P50,000 in their home country practicing medicine, but can earn P230,000 a month as a nurse the US; when a college educated individual has the “option” of earning P9,500 a month at a call center or P25,000 a month as domestic worker in Hong Kong or P48,000 a month in Canada; when the people are crying “brain-drain” as their nation’s educated can only seek employment abroad; there is something wrong with the system. Men and women should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams for work in their own country. They shouldn’t have to choose between providing for their family, or staying with their family. As a migrant once said, “We dream of a society where families are not broken up by the urgent need for survival. We dream and will actively work for a homeland where there is opportunity for everyone to live a decent and humane life. Is that too much to ask?”
The GFMD as it stands right now, purposely segregated from the migrants, cannot answer that need.