Latest migration news
Below are some of the latest international news stories on migration and refugees, taken from Inter Press Service. If you click on the titles you will be taken to the full story on the IPS site. To return to this guide, please use the 'back' button on your browser.
Hungary Losing Its Best and Brightest
As the European Union accuses Hungary of shifting towards authoritarianism, a spike in emigration from the country has led many to speak of a politically motivated exodus. Others suggest that economic conditions play a role in the westward flow of brainpower that is leaving Hungary’s future uncertain.
Passengers wait at Nyugati (“Western”) train station in Budapest, Hungary. Credit: Zoltán Dujisin/IPS
Observers agree that ever since the conservative party Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010, the government has taken many steps to concentrate power, including by limiting the independence of the judiciary as well as freedom of speech.
The government also approved a new constitution that enshrines the values of Christianity, family and patriotism, having drafted it without consulting other parties or civil society groups.
“We are thinking of leaving the country,” says Sára, a young mother in her thirties who lives in Újlipotváros, one of Budapest’s preferred districts among the liberal intelligentsia and middle classes. “My partner, my fourteen-month-old child and I are no longer considered a family under the new constitution,” she explains.
“It’s not just that we can’t pay taxes together. The feeling also makes us mad – with what right does this government say we are not a family? While the rest of Europe is enlarging the definition of family to even include homosexuals, we are going in the opposite direction.”
Many have already made the decision Sára is now considering, but the real reasons behind the emigration phenomenon remain the object of a heated political debate.
While official estimates state that 300,000 Hungarians live abroad, Gyorgy Matolcsy, governor of the Central Bank, recently spoke of half a million Hungarians leaving their homeland in recent years, which would constitute 5 percent of Hungary’s population of 10 million.
Currently about 250,000 Hungarians are registered abroad, although real numbers are likely higher because many migrants do not want authorities to know they left in order not to preclude current or future state benefits.
Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom are the preferred destinations for these immigrants. London may be home to up to 200,000 Hungarians, so many that it is popularly referred to as the second largest Hungarian city.
"My partner, my fourteen-month-old child and I are no longer considered a family under the new constitution."
-- Sára, a young mother
Yet unlike other countries in the post-communist region, Hungarians have traditionally resisted migrating, partly due to the strength of Hungary’s social safety net, but also for cultural reasons.
Politicians are struggling to explain why this tendency has suddenly changed. The debate has erupted around the worrisome 56 percent of students who consider leaving Hungary, a group that has often participated in international programs and can easily integrate in Western European labour markets.
“The issue has become politicised, but it is underlined by economic and structural factors,” Béla Soltész, a migration researcher at Corvinus University in Budapest, told IPS.
“There is an opposition discourse which blames the phenomenon on bad management by the government, particularly in the education sector, whereas the government pushes the view that those leaving the country are becoming unfaithful to it, putting their individualistic and materialistic needs in front of the good of the country,” Soltész says.
“Both are simplifying the issue,” he adds. “This is a 10-year phenomenon that began gradually with the opening of the European Union’s labour market. In some ways Hungary is catching up with the region.”
Although reliable data on them are lacking, many of the immigrants are well-educated opposition sympathisers with access to social media, which gives greater visibility to the “best and brightest” in the debate.
Some in this group have been affected by recent educational reforms – especially since students now have to sign contracts in order to benefit from state support as they go through their education and must pay back this support if they move abroad.
But in a country where doctors make an average of 700 euros per month, the role of high unemployment and a lack of economic and professional prospects may be more significant than political discontent.
Hungary’s gross domestic product decreased by 1.7 percent in 2012 and no growth is expected in 2013. Unemployment now exceeds 10 percent and is three times higher in the case of the younger generation.
“People with technical formation can nowadays very easily compare their salary with that of their peers in Norway, the UK or Holland, where pay can be ten times higher. And then they may blame the government for these differences,” Soltész told IPS.
While recent youth migration may be short-term, the growth in Hungarian professional networks abroad might turn it into a more permanent phenomenon in the future, Soltész warned. “The most skilled and bright are leaving and the remittances are not that high.”
“Reinsertion could be difficult because the labor market is very informally structured,” Soltész noted. “Qualifications obtained abroad are less important or understood than personal contacts.”
“And we don’t know what will happen to the people who do their whole education abroad and build their professional contacts there.”
Remittances Buoy Up Myanmar’s Economy
A port of entry into Myanmar (Burma) from Thailand. Credit: Preethi Nallu/IPS
Nangnyi Foung reaches into the dryer, pulls out another pair of pants and places it on the ironing board. “I still have several more loads to go,” she says as the clock strikes nine p.m., marking the start of her 14th hour on the shift.
She has been on her feet in this laundromat in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai since seven in the morning and had been hoping to call it a day when two more customers walked in.
She is not in a position to turn anyone away: “I need the money. My family needs me to work,” she tells IPS, her voice tinged with desperation as she begins yet another load.
Six do-it-yourself washing machines stand like sentries at the entrance of this storefront-turned-laundromat. A flight of stairs leads to Nangnyi Foung’s living quarters, where she retires late at night only to collapse in exhaustion before waking up and beginning all over again.
Originally from the Shan State in neighbouring Myanmar (formerly Burma), Nangnyi Foung came here saddled with debt.
Fleeing persistent violence in her home country, she took out loans and paid middlemen hefty sums in order to win safe passage to Thailand, where, she had heard, employment opportunities awaited.
Ten years later Nangnyi Foung is still working to pay off her debt, awaking daily to a rigorous fourteen-hour shift of washing and ironing. Her earnings after seven days’ work without a single day off amount to little over six dollars, much of which is remitted back home.
Reaching for the steaming iron Nangnyi Foung tells IPS she saves on living expenses by sleeping in the basement of this facility. If she also had to pay for lodging she would not be able to send money home to her family of four.
Accounting for over 80 percent of Thailand’s 2.5-million-strong migrant labour force, Burmese migrants like Nangnyi Foung provide a lifeline to cash-strapped families back in Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries that is struggling to recover from decades of economic stagnation.
Today, the minimum wage in Myanmar – about 180 dollars a month – buys eight to 10 times fewer daily consumption commodities like rice, salt, sugar and cooking oil than it did twenty years ago. The average Burmese lives on less than a dollar per day.
Though Myanmar is the world’s largest exporter of teak, jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires, and boasts lucrative extractive industries such as mining, timber and power generation, very little of the country’s natural wealth trickles down to the masses: approximately 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while unemployment is at 5.4 percent.
According to a 2006 survey of migrant workers from Myanmar, conducted by the Asian Research Centre for Migration, more than two-thirds of the 600 respondents admitted to being unemployed before migrating to Thailand.
Remittances jump hurdles
While migrant workers fill crucial gaps in Thailand’s labour market, and their remittances account for five percent of Myanmar’s gross domestic product (GDP), neither government has attempted to make the flow of money between workers and their families any easier.
Despite the existence of commercial banks or official ‘Xpress Money’ outlets, most migrants prefer to use the informal remittance channel known as the “hundi” system.
These unauthorised transactions involve dealers in Thailand relaying messages to members of their network in Myanmar, who then deliver the necessary amount to the family.
Some migrants rely on friends and loved ones who travel between the neighbouring countries to act as conduits, thereby circumventing costly bank transfers.
“The banks can’t be trusted and they require a work permit, a letter of recommendation from our employer and a passport,” Nangnyi Foung says, documents very few migrants have access to.
Migrants with families in rural areas go through brokers, who deliver cash to the recipient’s doorstep, eliminating the hassle of them having to locate cash points.
According to a new report released Monday by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Asian countries dispatched over 60 million migrants into the world, “who sent almost 260 billion dollars to their families in 2012. This represented 63 percent of global flows to developing countries.”
Yet the continent seems ill equipped to deal with the influx of remittances, which benefit one in 10 Asian households.
“Although the clear majority of the region’s population lives in rural areas, 65 percent of payment locations are in urban areas,” the report found. In most Asian countries, only banks are authorised to deal with foreign currency transactions, making it difficult for poor rural communities to access funds coming in from abroad.
The report stressed the urgent need to provide remittance-receiving families with “more options” to secure and spend this money, especially since nine Asian countries currently receive remittances “exceeding 10 percent of GDP.”
The report has particularly vital policy implications for Southeast Asia, where 13 million migrants are currently living and working abroad. Thailand has become a “net importer” of migrant labour – attracting more than double the number of migrants to work in its expanding economy than it is sending abroad.
Women forfeit rights for employment
Constituting nearly 49 percent of the global population of 214 million migrant workers, women are responsible for the lion’s share of remittances flowing around the world.
Acutely aware of their families’ needs, like food, housing costs, education for children or younger siblings, and healthcare – women often endure extreme conditions in order to remit money back home.
The town of Mae Sot, located along the Thai-Myanmar border, hosts the largest number of women migrant workers in Thailand, who toil over fifteen hours a day in garment factories. In 2012, this sector netted estimated profits of 6.3 billion, while labourers who keep the industry running earned between 66 and 100 dollars per month.
Kyoko Kusakabe, associate professor of gender and development at the Asian Institute of Technology and co-author of ‘Thailand’s Hidden Workforce’, told IPS that most female migrants in Mae Sot “avoid labour strikes and forfeit their rights in favour of (continued employment).”
She says this is part of a culture that forces women to be “responsible” from a very young age, while their male counterparts have few obligations.
According to Kusakabe, this culture is reflected in remittance patterns: when the economy is booming, remittances from men increase, falling again when the economy enters a slump. Remittances from women, on the other hand, remain steady regardless of the overall economic climate, suggesting that women save more, or forego their own needs during times of economic austerity in order to preserve their family’s lifeline.
Her research found that even if women are not paid their salaries, or lose their jobs, they borrow money in order to send home, fearful that their children or parents will starve without financial support.
Tackling Crime Takes on Import As Urban Populations Rise
At the UN Forum of Mayors on Crime Prevention and Security in Urban Settings, from left to right: Dong Min Ki, Jonathan Lucas, Cecilia Andersson, Martin Xaba, Bilal S. Hamad, and Marin Casimir Ilboudo. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS
As people around the world continue to migrate into cities, swelling urban populations, they have sparked growth in another area: crime and security issues.
“Big cities are…where the greatest opportunities are, but also where more criticalities concentrate,” said Piero Fassino, mayor of Turin, Italy, at the plenary session of the Forum of Mayors on Crime Prevention and Security in Urban Settings, held in Turin from May 20 to 21.
“While the quality of services to citizens are usually higher in those centres, they also present more problems of social alienation, youth unrest and crime,” Fassino added.
"[Cities] present more problems of social alienation, youth unrest and crime."
-- Piero Fassino
The forum, organised by United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) with the United Nations Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and the municipality of Turin, sought to reduce inequality and injustice in urban settings and address the dynamics of security and crime preventions.
The challenge for the future is to take advantage of opportunities offered by urbanisation while reducing episodes of crime and violence that hinder sustainable development, particularly for the most vulnerable people: women, youth and marginalised groups.
“From 1960 to 1990, urbanisation was accompanied by a severe increase [in] crime and violence, which affected the majority of cities and towns in both the developed and the developing world,” explained Cecilia Andersson, human settlements officer of the Safer Cities Programme of UN-HABITAT, during her opening speech.
“This situation required change. It required the cities and towns themselves to take responsibility to deal with these issues,” she added.
Mayors and representatives of 18 municipalities around the world from Cape Town to Bangkok, from Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) to Seoul, discussed the biggest challenges they encountered and the best measures to take to address them.
Martin Xaba, head of the Safer Cities and I-Trump Department of Durban, South Africa, explained how the local municipality decided in 2000 to adopt the Safer Cities strategy.
“The strategy requires the implementation of both reactive and proactive approach,” Xaba explained. While adequate responses to crime are always needed, “prevention remains the most effective tool, and this is where community involvement becomes critical”.
Such tools, in the case of Durban, include campaigns for crime awareness and against the abuse of women and children, workshops on drug abuse, and the active participation of the community in ward safety committees.
It was “upon the request of African mayors, who were having an issue with regards to safety in their cities” that the programme Safer Cities began in Africa, Andersson explained to IPS, with Johannesburg, South Africa and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania as pilot cities. The programme has since gone global.
Meanwhile, local leaders say that exchanging ideas among cities does work. Antonio Frey, director of local security in Santiago del Chile, told IPS, “The experience of Cape Town, South Africa, is very interesting for us. They managed to recover public spaces, thanks to the involvement of citizens from marginalised areas.”
“This strategy has positive effects in the long run, because those people recover that space, and then take care [of] and manage it.”
Despite the substantial differences between cities in terms of crime rates and types of crimes, a key requirement to enhance safety and security is the decentralisation of policies from the national to local level.
When policies are not decentralised, improving circumstances becomes very difficult, as Bilal S. Hamad, mayor of Beirut, could attest during his speech at the plenary session.
In Beirut, a lack of decentralisation is hindering the municipality’s ability to intervene on crime and safety issues. “The central government has its hand in the affairs of the municipality,” Hamad lamented. The city is not in charge [of] a police force, and the central government put someone in the role of governor, “taking all the executive power in the city of Beirut”.
In another example, inadequate housing is a problem indirectly connected to crime, but “we don’t have full power [over] it, because it’s the central government which controls that”, insisted Hamad.
According to Andersson, apart from decentralisation, cooperation is also essential. “The best results come when all the various departments in a municipality [understand] that they have a role to play with regards to providing safety and security for the inhabitants of the city,” she told IPS.
Interestingly, crime and violence differ significantly from city to city, and developed and developing countries do not necessarily face separate types of crimes.
“In developing countries, the biggest challenge is always finding resources,” Andersson told IPS, particularly moving resources from national to local governments. Some problems, however, affect most cities, regardless of the country in which they are located. “Across borders, in all regions, the issue of women and girls’ safety…comes out quite clearly,” Andersson said.
This issue, by limiting the freedom of women and girls, prevents them from participating in and contributing to their communities. As Andersson clarified during the conference, “Communities where all citizens are empowered to participate in social, economic and political opportunities…are instrumental [in reducing] poverty.”
Migrant Workers Face Tough Times in Thailand
Migrants employed as construction workers in Thailand receive little training or safety equipment. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne/IPS
On the outskirts of the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, a group of twelve migrant families lives in a makeshift camp comprised of houses constructed from scrap metal.
They share three toilets between them, and each home consists of nothing more than a single room, whose flimsy walls and roof provide little privacy, and are no match for the heavy monsoon rains that lash northern Thailand between the months of May and November.
Sounds of splashing water fill the air as both male and female migrants, returning from a long day’s work, unwind with a shower in the rudimentary, open-air structures that contain nothing more than a rap connected to a water tank.
Most of these workers are employed on a residential construction site just north of here, where they pour cement, plaster walls, build roofs or install electrical wiring from seven in the morning until six in the evening, seven days a week. They do not have much to show for these gruelling hours on the job, returning home with as little as six dollars a day.
One of this shantytown’s residents, Nang Soi Sat, tells IPS the long working hours and paltry income are not even her biggest concerns: she is more worried about maintaining her legal status in the face of multiple challenges.
Thailand is home to an estimated 2.5 million migrant workers. The country’s economic boom – which has seen an 18.9 percent growth in gross domestic product (GDP) since 2011 – relies heavily on a constant influx of labour from neighbouring countries. Over 82 percent of the workers hail from Myanmar (Burma), 8.4 percent from Laos and 9.5 percent from Cambodia.
Those from Myanmar say ethnic strife and civil conflict sent them fleeing in search of better opportunities in the region. A network of garment and furniture factories housed in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that dot the Thai-Myanmar border quickly absorb incoming migrants to work for a pittance.
Other key areas of employment for migrants include the seafood and agricultural sectors.
For migrants like Sai Sun Lu, the search for better opportunities did not end with his arrival here. Originally from Myanmar’s volatile Shan State, Lu works over nine hours a day at a site in Chiang Mai, constructing high rise buildings that will likely be converted into commercial centres, residential condos or offices, without a single day off.
He tells IPS he did not want to come to Thailand, but was forced to as a result of intense fighting in his home. His hopes for greener pastures on the other side of the border have been dashed and he now finds himself living in a kind of daily nightmare, toiling in what rights groups have called “appalling” conditions.
According to the U.S. State Department’s report on migration and refugees, Thailand ranks alongside some of the worst offenders of migrants’ rights, including Afghanistan, Chad, Iran and Niger.
Because migrant labourers are typically unskilled, with little awareness of occupational safety, they are easy prey for employers looking to cut corners by dismissing safety concerns.
In the construction sector, inadequate training in the proper use of machinery and a lack of protective equipment such as body harnesses or guardrail systems pose a grave threat to those who work on buildings as high as 27 to 69 stories.
On Sai Sun Lu’s construction site, “there have been many accidents and deaths. Some workers have slipped and fallen from the high rises but we receive very little or no compensation,” he said.
“As Burmese we have to be extra careful because if we make any mistakes then our employers can terminate our work without any explanation.”
Fear of this last consequence is, for many workers, second only to the fear of death, and a very common one among migrants from Myanmar who account for 75 percent of Thailand’s one million undocumented workers, according to the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University.
The 2008 National Verification Programme (NVP) was intended to legalise the status of incoming migrants and provide them with basic protections under Thai labour laws, such as access to social security schemes, official work accident compensation and the ability to apply for driving licences.
However, rights activists contend that the NVP’s registration fees are “extortionate”, often requiring three times the average worker’s monthly salary of between 100 and 167 dollars.
According to this year’s World Report, published annually by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Thai employers frequently seize migrant workers’ documents, thus rendering them bonded labourers, while government policies – like the Thai cabinet’s 2010 resolution to fine employees if their papers carry outdated information – impose severe restrictions on migrant workers’ ability to change jobs.
Even migrants with all their legal papers in hand often go to pains to avoid encounters with the police for fear of being harassed, physically abused, or arrested.
In desperation, many have turned to personal networks of friends and family members to gain access into the country.
In rural Myanmar, where most migrants come from, informal transporters linked to smugglers with networks along the border facilitate entry into Thailand. This system has led to the proliferation of so-called recruiters, or agents, who charge exorbitant fees in exchange for providing such services as remitting money, establishing communication channels between families, or securing employment.
Following allegations of rampant corruption among recruitment agencies, the Labour Ministry of Myanmar recently banned 12 agencies from sending migrant workers to Thailand, according to an internal memo obtained by ‘The Myanmar Times’.
Earlier this month, Myanmar’s Deputy Labour Minister Myint Thein assured labour activists and migrants that the state was doing everything possible to rein in illegal actors and ensure safe, affordable passage between the two countries. It has a vested interest in doing so: a 2010 ILO report found that the average migrant worker in Thailand sent home about 1,000 dollars every month, with total remittances from Thailand accounting for about five percent of Myanmar’s annual GDP.
Brazil Lagging in Fight against Human Trafficking
Trafficking turns people into merchandise. Credit: Amnesty International
In contravention of international law, in Brazil trafficking in human beings remains invisible and unpunished, which encourages the practice of trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced labour, illegal adoption and the trade in human organs, according to experts.
Local laws punish drug trafficking more severely than human trafficking. The sale of drugs carries penalties of between five and 15 years, while trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation is punished with a maximum sentence of eight years, with work release allowed.
“Human trafficking is still an invisible crime. What we have here now is real impunity,” judge Rinaldo Aparecido Barros, a member of the National Council of Justice’s working group on human trafficking, told IPS.
An average of 1,000 persons a year are recruited in Brazil and sent abroad, the public prosecutor’s office said at a public hearing on “Tráfico de pessoas: prevenção, repressão, acolhimento às vítimas e parcerias” – Trafficking in persons: Prevention, repression, care of victims and (illegal) associations – that it held in this city on Friday, May 17.
The goal was to gather and share information about combating human trafficking and to organise joint action to prevent and crack down on the crime. The meeting focused on Brazil’s role as a source country of victims for other parts of the world.
Brazil is also a destination country for victims of human trafficking, and there is internal trafficking of Brazilians for exploitation within the country’s borders as well.
In the last three years, 3,000 Brazilians were transported abroad and subjected mainly to sexual exploitation and slave labour, participants at the meeting described.
“This is a significant number. A large group of people have been deprived of their dignity. The thousands of cases documented every year do not represent the total, because we do not know how many cases escaped our notice,” said federal deputy attorney-general Raquel Elias Ferreira Dodge.
The actual number of victims sent abroad by human trafficking rings is unknown, participants at the meeting agreed.
“We have to work more effectively so that these crimes are condemned without delay. The crime of trafficking in persons injures human dignity,” said Dodge, who is a member of the Higher Council of the federal public prosecutor’s office (MPF).
She said, “Slave labour negates the personhood of the individual and converts the victim into merchandise that can be smuggled and trafficked.”
But hindering the fight against human trafficking in Brazil is the fact that it is only a crime when it leads to sexual exploitation or slave labour, Erick Blatt, the representative of the federal police in Rio de Janeiro, told IPS.
“It is very hard to identify the crime; investigations can only be initiated on the basis of reports, without the certainty that illegality can be proved,” said Blatt, who is also the representative of Interpol, the international criminal police organisation, for the state of Rio de Janeiro.
Moreover, when it comes to international trafficking, “most people go voluntarily to the place where they are exploited: the majority do not know that their passports are going to be taken away,” he said.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, for the purpose of exploitation.”
The forms of coercion cited are “abduction, fraud, deception, the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person.”
People smuggling, on the other hand, is limited to profiting from covertly transporting migrants, at their request, from one country to another where legal entry would normally be denied at the border. This is illegal, but no deception may be involved.
Article 231 of Brazil’s criminal code defines the crime of sexual exploitation, and article 149 describes subjection to slave-like conditions. Both crimes are punished relatively leniently, with lighter sentences than for other offences.
The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, adopted in 2000 and ratified by Brazil in 2003, specifically identifies human trafficking crimes and proposes wide-ranging punishments, which Brazil has still not incorporated in its laws.
“We are going against the flow of international legislation. In Brazil, the issue has been inadequately treated. Human trafficking is a crime against humanity that robs people of their human dignity,” Judge Barros complained.
He said the best measures for fighting human trafficking were those that block the assets of the trafficking rings, in order to attack their economic flank.
Trafficking in persons is run by complex international crime syndicates that, in Brazil, recruit poor women who have no opportunities for a better life, lawyer Michelle Gueraldi of the Trama Project, an umbrella group for NGOs that combat human trafficking, told IPS.
These women emigrate voluntarily, often out of the desire to improve their lives, and end up being exploited in Spain, the United States, Portugal and Caribbean countries, among others, she said.
Blatt added that Brazil, in turn, is a destination country for women victims of human trafficking from Eastern Europe, especially Hungary and Poland.
“Trafficking in persons is a violation of human rights. The Trama Project is working on prevention and on victim protection. We also receive denunciations of cases, and we find that the majority of recruiters are persons known to and trusted by the victims,” Gueraldi said.
In February the Brazilian government established its Second Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons, but the challenge is to put these policies into practice, she said.
Blatt admitted that tracing victims of human trafficking across borders is difficult for the local police and for Interpol.
“If communications between the police and the prosecutors are slow here in Brazil, imagine what communications are like between police forces internationally,” he said.
Human trafficking is extremely lucrative. In Europe alone it generates some 3.2 billion dollars a year, according to speakers at the meeting.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says there are at least 2.5 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. A survey by UNODC found that 58 percent of respondents were victims of sexual exploitation and 36 percent of slave labour.
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