UNITED NATIONS, Jul 1 (IPS) – At least 150 million migrant workers – out of an estimated total of 200 million in the world today – fit the “demographic characteristics of workers who are the most vulnerable” during the current global financial crisis, the U.N. says. They are vulnerable because they are generally young, under-educated and have little work experience, U.N. Under-Secretary-General Cheick Sidi Diarra explained at a recent U.N. seminar.
“Already we have witnessed a negative impact on migrants: job losses, especially in construction, manufacturing, finance, retail and tourism,” said Diarra, who is the U.N. High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.
In times of recession, studies have shown that migrants are increasingly exposed to discrimination and xenophobia, as they are “mistakenly perceived as taking jobs and social security benefits from local workers,” when they often take low-skilled and undervalued jobs locals are reluctant to accept, Diarra added.
The problems of migrant workers were highlighted at a seminar last week sponsored by the U.N. Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Speaker after speaker referred to the potential deterioration of working and living conditions of migrants and their families, particularly from developing countries, including Ghana, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Philippines, Vietnam, Guatemala and Kosovo.
Beyond migrants’ living conditions, their families in countries of origin are likely to suffer from the crisis, chiefly as a result of the decreasing remittances.
“Some countries are heavily dependent on remittances, up to 30 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in Haiti or Sierra Leone,” Bimal Ghosh, an emeritus professor at the Colombian School of Public Administration and a fellow at the Institute of International Policy and Diplomacy in Bogota, told IPS.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Hispanic Centre, 71 percent of Hispanic migrants in the U.S. reported sending fewer remittances home in 2008 than the previous year.
The World Bank recently revealed that migrant earnings to developing countries will decrease from 305 billion dollars in 2008 to about 290 billion dollars in 2009.
Uganda is one of those countries that already greatly suffered from the crisis via remittances losses.
A new report published last month by the government of Uganda revealed that remittances sent home to Uganda fell by 46.9 percent (from 504 million dollars to 267 million dollars) by the second semester of 2008.
Used as a major poverty reduction strategy in developing countries, remittances sent are spent on basic needs like food, as well as for improving the agricultural productivity.
Those countries need to be supported, as Maria Fernanda Espinosa, permanent representative of Ecuador to the U.N., told delegates at the seminar, pointing out that “remittances were the second source of revenue for Ecuador after oil exports”.
In that context, the rights of migrants need to be protected, not only in the event of job losses, which could have massive repercussions, but also in their daily life, Colleen Thouez, head of UNITAR’s New York office, told IPS.
She said evidence of rising hostility towards foreigners around the world has already been recorded, such as the recent case of an Ecuadorian immigrant beaten to death in an apparent anti-Latino hate crime last December in New York City.
“Non-natives are systematically more vulnerable because they don’t play a political role able to influence the elite,” Luca Dall’Oglio, permanent observer of the IOM to the U.N., told IPS.
Some destination countries like Britain have already tightened their immigration rules, while others like Spain have tried to implement return policies, but with limited success.
Indeed, the nature of the current global crisis is such that all countries are experiencing difficulties, especially developing countries.
“Therefore, there is a greater need to remain abroad, especially if local economies are not providing further employment options,” as pointed by Sandra Panopio in the recent study, “Gender, Remittances and Migration and the Financial Crisis”. Panopio is an advisor to the U.N. International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW).
Moreover, unlike previous recession, one region is not benefiting at the expense of another, so that migrants cannot shift to alternative destinations. Therefore, restrictive policies do not seem to be favourable, and instead tend to “reinforce the stigmatisation and exclusion of migrants,” Thouez said.
Furthermore, as Diarra remarked, migrants are not just economic actors, they are “social beings, who put down roots and form relationships in their new countries.”
Panelists called for global action by governments and civil society in order to prevent the worsening of precarious working and living conditions for migrants, and to “actively promote awareness of economic, social, cultural contribution of the migrants in the countries in which they work”.
Apart from implementing measures to facilitate remittance flows through lowering transaction costs, IOM’s recommended policy responses include increasing official development assistance (ODA), “given that ODA contributes to the creation of conditions (e.g. poverty reduction, job creation) that limit the precipitation of irregular movements and related abuses – the objective [being] to ensure that migration remains a matter of choice,” said the IOM’s latest report dated January 2009.
Thouez also said that incentive packages to return home should be followed by real prospects and opportunities, and supported by direct assistance in the countries.
The partnership for mobility, migration and employment adopted by Africa and the European Union at the Tripoli EU-Africa Ministerial Conference on Migration and Development in November 2006 is one the first initiatives that seems to move in that direction, with the specific goals of creating more and better jobs for Africa and better managing migration flows.
Most importantly, Luca Dall’Oglio told IPS, is the need to “look at it holistically, look at the risk for clash of cultures, creating artificial barriers between ‘us’ versus ‘them’.”
“It is difficult for politicians to justify they are investing money for migrants in times of crisis, but they need to have this courage,” Dall’Oglio noted.
By Charlotte Lalanne