In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to face uncertainty about our future, feelings of loneliness, isolation or being trapped due to economic hardship, separation from loved ones, inability to move freely or stricter border controls. On the second International Migrants’ Day during the pandemic, we are reminded that these challenges have been faced by many migrants around the world since long before the coronavirus outbreak.
The pandemic has made the vulnerabilities of migrant workers more significant, and these vulnerabilities further increased as results of intersectionality with their other identities such as nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, languages, and religious or political beliefs.
Among many others, financial struggles related to their placement fees and difficulties to access social protection have exacerbated their plight. Migrant workers are charged increased fees to cover the costs relating to quarantine, testing, PPE, vaccination, insurance and relevant documentation. Many have been excluded from social protection schemes and have not been able to access adequate healthcare services, including COVID-19 related information and treatment, due to their status as migrant workers.
Elimination of excessive fees and regularisation of precarious immigration status are crucial for safe and orderly migration because migrant workers are often in debt in order to finance their migration and this can result in debt bondage and exploitation. These conditions also increase the risk of migrant workers falling into irregular or undocumented status, which may lead to further exploitation or trafficking as well as exclusion from social protection.
According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), social protection, as a fundamental human right, is crucial for guaranteeing a life in dignity and combatting discrimination. The right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights that must be guaranteed by social protection. However, in our region of East and Southeast Asia, there are large gaps in realising the ideal of adequate social protection for everyone. The gaps are larger for migrant workers who are excluded from national policies on social protection, as eligibility is often based on nationalities, citizenship, or immigration status. There are also gaps in practice, even if policies may appear inclusive.
The elimination of excessive placement fees charged to migrant workers and development of portable and universal social protection for all migrants must be priority agendas for all international, regional and bilateral corporations, including ASEAN, ASEAN Plus Three and Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. We urge ASEAN to develop a legally binding Convention on Social Protection for better implementation of ASEAN Declaration on Strengthening Social Protection. All normsetting, policy making and implementation, at the national, regional and international levels, must ensure meaningful participation and representation of multi-stakeholders, particularly of migrant workers and civil society organisations, including those who are in territories that are not officially recognized as member states of international or regional frameworks.
The above is part of Cross-Regional Civil Society Statement and Recommendations, collectively produced by participants and organisers of BEBESEA’s Cross-Regional Youth Academy on Migrants’ Rights. Despite the fact that pandemic has made it almost impossible for civil society actors to physically come together, the youth members of BEBESEA network, who are of very diverse backgrounds including many with lived migration experiences and residing in 14 countries, have worked together to learn, share, raise awareness and advocate for the rights of migrant workers.
This collective work gives us hope. It is our commitment made even stronger during this pandemic, when many countries and leaders incline to more self-serving responses to the crisis, BEBESEA continues to strive to strengthen the cross-regional cooperation among civil society in East and Southeast Asia to defend and promote the rights of migrants. Inspired by the strength, resilience and abilities to make changes that migrants have always shown, we believe that working collaboratively towards better inclusivity for our very diverse communities will make us stronger together.
On 18 December, 2021
BEBESEA Secretariate and Youth Academy Participants