On 4 August 2018, Mekong Migration Network (MMN) organised the 15th Anniversary Workshop at the Empress Hotel in Chiang Mai. The workshop aimed to review MMN’s past achievements and challenges over the last 15 years, as well as to look at present and future issues, opportunities and obstacles that needed to be addressed. 42 participants attended the event, including MMN members, partners and supporters.
Ms. Jackie Pollock, a founding member of MMN and also the former MMN Steering Committee (SC) Chairperson, kicked off the 15th anniversary workshop with her opening remarks. She applauded MMN for what it had achieved, learned and shared in the past 15 years, but at the same time cautioned members not to be complacent, as many concerns that MMN had addressed in the past, especially Arrest, Detention and Deportation, continue to be issues confronting migrants daily. In spite of the challenging political landscape in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) that sometimes restrict both the space for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to operate and migrants’ rights, Ms. Pollock believed that MMN’s past experiences and willingness to listen to its partners enabled it to stand up to these difficulties. Ms. Pollock concluded her speech by reasserting the importance of migrants and migration to the economy of the GMS, and looked forward to MMN’s future projects and further discussions to advance migrants’ rights.
Following Ms. Pollock’s speech, participants of the workshop heard from Dr. Rosalia Sciotino, Associate Professor from Mahidol University, who used to be the Asia Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, via Skype. She pointed out that MMN’s launch in 2003 was timely in view of the lack of attention paid to migration in the GMS, the poor understanding of the regional processes surrounding migration, the neglect of social issues relating to regional integration, and the little opportunity for dialogues among stakeholders of migration at the time. Dr. Sciontino recognised that MMN played an important role in reflecting the voices of local CSOs in countries of the GMS, which had otherwise often been overlooked by international Non-Governmental Organisations before MMN’s creation. She also applauded MMN for always putting migrants’ rights and needs at the centre of the organisation, even if it sometimes meant taking up uncompromising positions. As Dr. Sciontino noted, however, MMN must face up to several challenges in the present and the future, including the unchanging policies of countries in the GMS, especially in Thailand, as well as the unfair and unpromising ways migration continued to be handled. In the long term, Dr. Sciontino urged MMN to start pushing for freer movement of people as its long-term goal, or even expand its scope to include countries in ASEAN in addition to those in the GMS.
Ms. Reiko Harima, MMN Regional Coordinator, then reflected on the past achievements of MMN. She explained how MMN has expanded its work into five areas of action since 2003, including information monitoring, advocacy at the local and national level, research and advocacy with thematic foci, capacity building initiatives and networking and solidarity building. Ms. Harima proceeded to give an overview on the past and ongoing projects that MMN have embarked on, including:
- the collaborative research and advocacy on Arrest, Detention and Deportation;
- the Mekong Vocabulary Project;
- a collaborative research project resulting in the publication of “Restricted Rights”;
- a collaborative research project on Climate change and Migration;
- From Our Eyes project (a compilation of migrants’ stories and experiences);
- Research on Border Economic Zones and Special Economic Zones;
- a project addressing the social exclusion of migrants and promoting the concept of “Living Together”;
- the Role of Countries of Origin project that developed recommendations to policy makers from countries of origin such as Myanmar and Cambodia; and
- regional training programs to increase capacity of Civil Society Organisations as well as government officials.
After Ms. Reiko Harima’s presentation, the first panel discussion, entitled “Reflection on MMN’s Work for the past 15 years. What are the key successes and challenges?”, began with Mr. Sopheap Suong from Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre (CWCC), a member of MMN, and Ms. Wai Hnin Po, a former MMN SC member as the panelists. Mr. Suong identified two past MMN activities as its most memorabble: the Mekong Vocabulary Project, which he believed led to a change in the ways people from different countries of the GMS looked at the language to discuss issues of migration, and the Role of Countries of Origin project, which successfully garnered media attention and provoked responses from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in Bangkok. To him, the fact that the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers had not been made into a legally binding document remains a challenge for MMN; for this reason, MMN must strengthen its advocacy at the ASEAN level. Ms. Wai Hnin Po echoed Mr. Suong’s belief that ASEAN’s continual exclusion of irregular workers and workers in informal sectors is a major hurdle MMN must address. However, she highlighted that MMN’s effort in joint research and advocacy for the rights of migrant workers have led to positive development in Myanmar, where the government has been expanding services to their nationals abroad.
Ms. Jackie Pollock, Mr. Sokchar Mom, Mr. Brahm Press and Ms. Ei Ei Chaw participated in the second panel discussion, entitled “Reflections: Key issues, social and political changes surrounding migration, and MMN’s future roles and strategies”. Ms. Chaw and Mr. Press began the discussion by pointing to the uncertainty of migrants’ legal status and documentation process under the current Thai migration policy as persistent issues that the Thai authorities failed to properly address. In particular, the panelists agreed that the increased focus on the regularisation of migrant workers can be potentially problematic. Mr. Mom suggested that migrants may not necessarily consider the regularisation of their status as positive changes given that the process can sometimes come with certain restrictions, such as tying workers to a single employer. This makes it harder for the worker to leave his/her employer iin the event that they face abuse or exploitation. Ms. Pollock and Mr. Press also noted that the sole focus on documenting migrant workers overlooks the wider problem that many citizens of countries like Myanmar–let alone migrants–face difficulties getting citizenship documents. As for the challenges in promoting migrants rights’ in the region, Mr. Mom pointed out that the way governments in the GMS approach migration as a security issue rather than a human rights one, as well as the enduring social exclusion of migrants, were two major challenges for the present. Ms. Pollock also argued that the way many human rights programmes continued to victimise migrants rather than empowering them was problematic. In spite of these challenges, the panelists agreed that migrants’ increased access to information through social media and the greater awareness on the treatment of workers in different supply chains were positive developments in recent years. Looking ahead, Ms. Chaw believed that MMN must continue to reflect the voices of migrants to government officials, while both Ms. Pollock and Mr. Press agreed that MMN should take a more active role in following up with projects of the past even after the research phase has been completed.
The 15th Anniversary Workshop concluded with participants of the workshop dividing into three smaller groups to discuss: 1) the promotion and protection of the rights of undocumented migrants; 2) achieving social inclusion/ diversity; 3) strengthening solidarity, labour movement and empowerment. To promote and protect the rights of undocumented migrants, group one recommended that MMN create online platforms to share information in the migrants’ native language and expand MMN membership to include more grassroots migrant groups in major countries of destination like Thailand. To achieve social inclusion/ diversity, group two suggested that MMN advocate for making Social Security benefits more portable and accessible for migrants, making interpretation services available at government offices and expanding the ASEAN curriculum on “living together” to all schools in the region. To strengthen solidarity, labour movement and empowerment, group three found it important for MMN to map out supply chains of different products, monitor ASEAN’s five-year plan of action, facilitate exchange with or conduct training for local organisations, and engage with non-labour networks, such as Fishers Rights Network, to address specific migrant rights’ issues.