Imagine a day when migrant workers and members of their families shall be free to leave any country, including their country of origin. Their right to life shall be protected by law. None of them shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. None of them shall be held in slavery or servitude. None shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.

This is the vision enshrined in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1990. Only 42 countries have ratified the Convention, none of which include a major host country for migrants.

The painful reality therefore is: Migrants drowning at sea after being turned away from shore. Children detained with adults and at risk of physical and sexual abuse. Workers cheated out of wages and confined to their workplace. Authorities extorting bribes. Governments denying health care benefits to those who might most need it.

In 2009 coming to a close, through field research and ongoing monitoring, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented human rights violations against migrant women, men, and children in every region of the world, publishing dozens of materials, including 14 reports.

Whether moving from the countryside to urban areas, or across oceans, deserts, and international borders, migration carries the potential for both great reward and great risk. For those who are lucky, migration can mean a better life, greater freedoms, more money, and reuniting with family.

But for others, restrictive and xenophobic immigration policies, inadequate labour protections, and barriers to justice mechanisms translate into human rights abuses with little hope of redress.

The United Nations estimates that by mid-2010 there will be approximately 214 million international migrants worldwide, and this number swells into hundreds of millions when internal migrants are included.

Migrant workers are often touted as modern-day heroes given the importance of their remittances to the economies of their home countries — an estimated 444 billion USD in 2008. But migrants are also seen as threats — unfairly blamed for crime or changes in demographics and culture.

Whether as heroes or criminals, government policies have typically failed to provide comprehensive protections to migrants, often discriminating on the basis of immigration status and national origin.

Against this backdrop, HRW has called on governments to ratify the Convention and make stronger commitments to migrants’ rights in 2010 — particularly as 2009 has been a “bad year” for migrants around the world,

This is because the policies of many governments toward migrants worldwide have made them victims of human rights abuses including labour exploitation, inadequate access to health care, and prolonged detention in poor, overcrowded conditions, Human Rights Watch said in advance of International Migrants Day, on Dec. 18.

HRW has compiled a 25-page roundup of violations of migrants’ rights this year. Titled ‘Slow Movement: Protection of Migrants’ Rights in 2009′, the document includes coverage of China, Cuba, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

Human Rights Watch showed how the United States deports large numbers of documented migrants for nonviolent offenses with serious consequences for family unity and fails to provide adequate health care to migrants in detention.


The group is also urging governments to:

– Reform immigration policies to facilitate documented migration that protects migrants’ rights, and to clamp down on intermediaries who swindle migrants or charge unlawful fees that leave migrants indebted and more vulnerable to exploitation;

– Screen interdicted migrants, new arrivals, and migrants in detention in accordance with international standards, including identifying asylum seekers, trafficking victims, and other vulnerable people, and ensuring that unaccompanied children are treated according to their best interests;

– Ensure access to a core minimum of health services regardless of citizenship or social origin, and repeal discriminatory provisions mandating automatic deportation of migrants living with HIV;

– Improve labour standards and enforcement in accordance with international standards, including equal protection of domestic workers, and strengthen inspection mechanisms to ensure regular payment of wages and decent working conditions for migrants;

– Investigate abuse and killings of migrants, whether by private citizens or government authorities, and prosecute fully through the relevant national laws while ensuring protection for migrants against retaliation. Investigations into abuse should be carried out irrespective of migrants’ immigration or contractual status.

Summing up the deplorable state of affairs, Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, says: “Governments seem to forget that when men, women, and children migrate, they don’t leave their rights at home. Instead of protecting people who already are at special risk of abuse, many governments further marginalize migrants, punish them, or push access to services out of reach.”

HRW research in Greece, Italy, Libya, Egypt, and Israel showed harsh policies toward arriving migrants, including lack of adequate screening to determine who is a refugee, arbitrary and indefinite detention, returning persons to countries where they risk abuse, and detention of children with adults. Aggressive policies to thwart migrants when they try to cross borders can be lethal, notes the study.

It finds out that both documented and undocumented migrants may face abuse or discrimination in their host cities and countries. Human Rights Watch has investigated pervasive mistreatment of migrant domestic workers and construction workers in the Middle East and Russia.

Cheated by unscrupulous brokers and employers, these workers are often subjected to excessive hours of work, unpaid wages, and confiscation of passports. In the worst cases, their situations amount to forced labour and trafficking.

“Migrants form the backbone of many economies, performing the labour and services that people in their host countries depend on but won’t do themselves,” Varia said underlining a well-known fact. But instead of getting respect and the freedom and wages they are owed, they are treated as security threats, and in general, as undesirables to be pushed out of sight, points out the HRW roundup.


Those apprehended for immigration offenses often face disproportionate punishments or prolonged detention in poor conditions.

Immigration violations are sometimes treated as serious crimes, as in Malaysia, where punishments include imprisonment and caning. The fear of arrest and deportation also means that migrants may endure exploitative work conditions or avoid approaching authorities to report abuse.

“Governments have a right to control their borders, but they need to do so in a way that protects human rights,” Varia said. “Migrants who are abused are supposed to have access to legal remedies, regardless of their immigration status.”

Government attempts to control migrant populations within their territory often include discriminatory policies that broadly restrict migrants’ freedom of movement for no legitimate purpose, Human Rights Watch said.

For example, several provinces in Thailand require migrant workers be confined to their workplaces or homes at night and prohibit them from travelling within the province. In countries such as Malaysia and Italy, governments have condoned vigilante-style monitoring of migrants by civilian groups.