Basic Information |
ISSUES: | Trafficking in Persons  | Migration and Discrimination  | Gender and Racial Discrimination
Racism against Indigenous peoples  | Multi-ethnic States and the Protection of Minority Rights  | 

Working Far From Home Migration and Discrimination

Al Hussein is 19. He is struggling to stay seated on top of a huge truck crossing the desert. He has been riding like that for hours, breathing dust, in an unbearable heat. He has left his home, his twin brother, and the rest of his family down South. Beyond the desert lies the sea, and maybe, if he is lucky a boat to Europe where he hopes to get a job, to start a new life, and to send money to his village.

Al Hussein is hardly alone in his perilous trek. Some 150 million men, women and even children, about three percent of the world's population, are outside their country of origin coming as strangers to the country where they reside. There is no continent, no region of the world which has no migrants within its boundaries. Every country has become a country of origin, transit or destination of migrants. Many are all three. More than half of international migrants live in developing countries. According to the International Organization for Migration, the largest numbers of international migrants are located in Asia; Europe and North America have about equal numbers followed by Africa, Latin America, and Oceania with progressively fewer numbers.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that up to 80 million of these are migrant workers. In 1997, ILO estimated that the number of migrant workers was as follows: Africa, 20 Million; North America, 17 million; Central and South America 12 million; Asia 7 million; the Middle East (Arab countries), 9 million, and Europe 30 million.

Migration is hardly a recent or localised phenomenon. Women and men have been leaving their homelands in search of a better job and a life elsewhere since payment in return for labour was introduced. People also leave their own countries because of civil conflicts and insecurity or persecution. However, in this globalised world, we are witnessing an unprecedently high labour mobility and an increasing pressure of migration. Gareth Howell, International Labour Organization representative to the United Nations, points out that "the increasing restrictions on immigration leads to increased trafficking of migrants often with tragic personal consequences."

Women and children account for more than half of the refugees and internally displaced persons, and their proportion is increasing in the case of other categories of migrants. 96 per cent of children who work and sleep in the street are migrants about half of them girls aged between 8 and 14.

Migrants are a particularly vulnerable group and see their rights routinely violated, not only as workers, but as human beings. They commonly face discrimination and xenophobic hostility. According to the International Organization for migration (IOM) migrants "are more and more targeted as the scapegoats for all manner of domestic problems facing societies today, particularly unemployment, crime, drugs, even terrorism." As noted by Ms Gabriela Rodriguez Pizarro, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants "This is especially true in the case of the many migrants who are undocumented or in an irregular situation, including the victims of trafficking in persons, who are the most vulnerable to human rights violations." According to the UN, between 300,000 and 600,000 women are smuggled each year into the European Union and certain Central European countries. The problem is also widespread in Africa and Latin America.

Ms Rodriguez Pizarro says in her report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, "people whose colour, physical appearances, dress, accent or religion are different from those of the majority in the host country are often subjected to physical violence and other violations of their rights, independently of their legal status." She adds: " A sense of alienation is part of being a migrant."

Her report notes that in the last decade, there has been an alarming upsurge in intolerance, discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the form of outright violence against migrants in practically every region of the world. The report notes that racism may be aggravated by inequitable distribution of wealth, marginalisation and social exclusion. New communication technologies, including the Internet are being used to disseminate racist and xenophobic propaganda against migrants. The report also stresses the double marginalisation of migrant women who may easily find themselves in situations in which they are vulnerable to violence and abuse, both at home and at work. The exchange of sexual favours for permission to transit, which is common practice on some borders, is also a form of gender-based abuse to which migrant women are often subjected. Women migrant workers dominate the informal sector of most countries, working as domestic, industrial or agricultural labour or in the service sector.

At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January 2001, Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference against Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, warned business leaders that "workplace discrimination continues to be a serious concern worldwide." She said: "Studies show that racial discrimination in the workplace can have serious effects on minorities and migrant workers and on the future development and careers of their children. Employees who are victimized on the basis of their race, colour, nationality, descent or ethnicity suffer stress, anger and fatigue which eventually can detract from the quality of work." She had also recently expressed concern at "the harsh treatment meted towards the children and the families of migrants, the incidence of fear and dislike of foreigners reflected in both the private and public sectors, and the treatment of trafficked persons as criminals for their irregular residence over which they have no control."

In Palermo, Italy, in December 2000, over a hundred countries signed the Convention against transnational organized crime and its accompanying protocols on trafficking women and children and smuggling of migrants. However, although 16 countries have already ratified the 1990 International Convention on the protection of migrants rights, it still needs the commitment of four governments to enter into force. Mary Robinson has made a strong appeal to governments "to ratify the Convention as soon as possible so that its protective regime can be brought to bear upon the million of migrant workers in different parts of the world." She said: "High unemployment rates among immigrants are aggravated by prejudice on the part of employers against immigrants. This impedes upward mobility and diminishes the capacity of their children to advance economically in adult life."

At a seminar held in Bangkok in October 2000 in preparation of the upcoming World Conference against Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, experts noted that immigration by people who are seen as being strongly different creates a tension between demand for labour and perceived erosion of the integrity of local culture. One expert said "the elimination of prejudice towards the outsider in the society is going to be a much more difficult and long-term problem to resolve than legal and institutional forms of discrimination." They all agreed on the need for educational programmes at both ends of the immigration process to result in the appreciation of diversity and the development of tolerance. The Seminar also noted with concern the vulnerability of a new subgroup of migrant children whose numbers are increasing. These are the children of migrant women who have been raped, children of mixed parentage and children of migrants born in the destination/host country. These children are subjected to racial discrimination and are often stigmatized not only in host countries but also in their home communities and countries.

In 2000, the United Nations General Assembly marked for the first time 18 December as "International Migrant Day" in the hope that this will help to recognize the contribution of migrants in the advancement of their host and home countries economies.

Recent estimates by the International Monetary Fund calculate that migrant workers' earning s sent back to home countries accounted for 77 billion dollars in 1997, second only to world petroleum exports in international trade monetary flows.

The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related intolerance is scheduled to be held in Durban, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September 2001.

To know more about the World Conference check out its website at For further information call (212) 963-3771 or e-mail

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