“How do you empower those who exist outside legal protection? At the grassroots level, how do you empower migrants who have no legal means to protect themselves?”
February 23rd 2009, in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Bangkok, Thailand: the Mekong Migration Network, launched its third resource book on migration in the Greater Mekong Subregion, focusing on arrest detention and deportation. A total of 68 participants came to celebrate the launch with MMN, including UN officials, NGO staffers, community activists and academics and the event attracted a good deal of media attention.
The launch opened with a spectacular performance by members of Empower Foundation, entitled “Waving Not Drowning” depicting the unnecessary arrest and flight of a sex worker by a group of government officials. The sex worker escaped to the backing of the song “I Will Survive”, serving a powerful reminder that not all rescues are wanted and that many are perceived as arrests. A narrator, followed explaining that sex workers need protection, but not rescue.
Following this rousing performance, Ms Reiko Harima, MMN Secretariat provided a background and summary of the MMN research, highlighting the importance of the book’s findings. Ms Jackie Pollock, MMN Chair proceeded to give an overview of the international human rights framework on arrest, detention and deportation, and explained that while doing the research, very few people ever referred to international framework concerning arrest, detention, deportation. Pollock also commented “Whether you are classified as an undocumented migrant, smuggled migrant, or victim of human trafficking, ultimately the responses are identical: deportation. For undocumented migrants and smuggled the response is immediate deportation. For trafficked persons, the response is deportation after a delay.”
Case studies of arrest, detention and deportation were presented by MMN representatives, Ms Han Jialing presented on China, Ms Huynh Thi Ngoc Tuyet on Vietnam, Mr Chanrith Ang on Cambodia and Mr Sutthiphong Khongkaphon on Burmese migrants in Thailand, showing the commonalities of abuse, humiliation, blurriness between arrest of undocumented migrants and rescue of trafficked victims, and randomness and ultimately the ineffectiveness of current practices relating to arrest, detention and deportation of migrants across the GMS.
The MMN resource book was launched in a very timely manner, at the height of news coverage on the dangers inherent in migration within the GMS, and as the global economic crisis is beginning to see swathes of job losses across the region. Talk of protectionism and “saving national jobs first” is growing, and with this so is the risk of arrest, detention and deportation of migrant workers as they try to seek work in larger labour forces of receiving countries, escaping unemployment and poverty at home, or as retrenchment in receiving countries sees migrants pushed to return to sending countries. As migrants today are becoming increasingly vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation, the MMN resource book is an exceptionally valuable tool to policy makers and practitioners across the board.
Comments by many of the participants in the launch were solution orientated. “We hear the same stories so often, we know the conditions and abuse migrants face, but what can we do?” or “How do you empower those who have no legal means to protect themselves?” These are precisely the questions the MMN resource book sets out to answer. The resource book meticulously documents the laws and policies governing migrant workers in the Greater Mekong Subregion at the national, regional and international level and their practical application on the ground. The book notes that far from existing outside the law, there are many international standards which apply to migrants during arrest, detention and deportation which can and should be utilised at the national level. The book critically examines the current restrictive policies which leave the majority of migrants with no option but to migrant through informal channels, and urges the lifting of such restriction and strengthening of protection for all these migrants. Ultimately, if there is zero tolerance of abuse and exploitation at the small and medium levels, the more extreme cases of exploitation will be prevented from the outset.