24 Nov 2023 Recognizing and surmounting barriers to migrants’ communication rights
For the more than 95 million international migrants in Asia Pacific, many of whom are temporary migrant workers, exercising communication rights is vital for them to navigate their new environment, communicate well with employers, peers and community, or simply express themselves confidently, responsibly and freely.
Communication rights to migrants include a comprehensive set of rights that range from the right to free speech and assembly to the right to access or receive accurate information that affects them, from the right to learn and develop one’s own media to the right to participate in decision-making processes that affect them and their rights, among many others.
Achieving migrants’ free exercise of their communication rights, however, is not easy. In many host countries, migrants, especially temporary migrant workers, are considered second- or third-class people with limited rights and freedoms. Migrants’ access to information, services and justice is close to absent while migrant organising is deemed illegal. In some countries, airing their concerns on social media, taking a selfie protest in a known landmark, or conducting advocacy with the host government is prohibited. Right wing leaders further instigated hatred and xenophobia towards migrants and people of colour during the Covid-19 pandemic and even after. Back in home countries of migrants, their pleas fall on deaf ears while their criticisms may render them liable to violating a cybercrime law.
However, grassroots migrant organisations continue to confront these many obstacles and assert migrants’ communication rights. With ears on the ground, many effectively assisted their communities and distressed migrants through relief, welfare provision and information sharing using online means during the height of the pandemic. Online information programs, social media posters, or virtual mutual help groups that migrant organisations started during the pandemic continue to this day. Partnerships between migrant organisations and media networks were formed to combat misinformation and disinformation online. Migrants’ campaigns for wage hikes, better working conditions, and introduction of better immigration policies remain vibrant amid restrictive policies.
This article examines migrants’ communication rights, particularly their right to participate in decision-making that affects their lives and rights. It argues that Asia Pacific migrants faced and surmounted barriers to their communication rights in engaging with the United Nations’ (UN) Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) in March 2021. It presents the barriers that migrants faced, their efforts to surmount these barriers, and the results of these efforts.
The GCM is a non-legally binding international framework created by the United Nations to assist governments in addressing migration challenges. Signed by 160 Member States in 2018, the GCM and its implementation by governments will be reviewed through state-led processes like the regional reviews and the International Migration Review Forum.
A pandemic of barriers
Witnessing migrant workers’ situation and their resilience especially during the pandemic, the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) observed, however, the absence of grassroots migrant worker leaders or their organisations in the Asia-Pacific regional review of the GCM and how the narratives made by governments in the said review contrasted with the migrants’ realities.
Migrants and migrant organisations were identified in the list of stakeholders whom governments and the UN agencies can partner with, in the processes of consultations and monitoring of the progress of the GCM implementation. As primary stakeholders in the migration discourse, migrants deserve to be in the review, monitoring and implementation of the GCM process as any and all decisions agreed in the GCM will greatly affect them and their families. It begs the question then: where are the migrants?
The APMM and migrant organisations in the region immediately identified a number of barriers faced by migrants particularly in getting their voices heard in the GCM process.
Migrants’ awareness of the GCM. Not many migrant organisations in the region were aware of the GCM or the regional review that was then just recently held. According to them, vital information that could help them through the pandemic were already either scarce, incomplete or difficult to access; and if there were anything on the GCM, they were unaware of it. There was little interaction between governments and the migrant communities who were calling for action on the latter’s demands of inclusion, support and protection. If consultations on the GCM were held by governments at the local or national level, migrant groups were not informed about them.
Language justice. Language plays an important role in making migrants understand the global compact and enabling their participation in the process. Unfortunately, publications on the GCM were mainly in English and used formal language. Popular versions written in migrants’ mother or native languages were unavailable whether in print or online. Furthermore, the medium of the regional review was English with limited language interpretations. English is not the main language spoken in Asia-Pacific where temporary migrant workers from the region speak their native language and the language of their host countries.
Digital divide. As early as 2020, both APMM and migrant groups have identified and worked together in addressing digital challenges faced by migrants. First was understanding online platforms such as Zoom and learning how to navigate their many features. Zoom, which was the main platform in conducting virtual meetings like the GCM regional review, was fairly new to migrant workers who would have to learn about it if they were to participate using it. Capacity-building was not enough though. Many migrant workers have limited mobile data that got used up quickly when using Zoom. And even if Wi-Fi were available, they were not given access to it by their employers. Also, many have mobile phones that have limited storage hindering them from either upgrading or downloading the application.
Time, space and resources. Migrants’ participation in the regional review would also be affected by: (a) time – the regional review’s schedule conflicted with migrant workers’ work time; (b) space – migrant workers would need to find a space conducive enough for them to participate. Many migrant domestic workers, for example, lived with their employers who were at home all the time during Covid-19. If migrants are in a space that is noisy and full of distractions, it would be difficult for them to listen and contribute to discussions; and (c) resources – which migrants would need to fill the many gaps.
Pursuing meaningful participation
These barriers that both APMM and migrant groups identified not only informed advocacies that they developed to enable migrants’ meaningful participation in the GCM process but were addressed in a wide variety of activities they conducted to capacitate migrants on social and new media, the GCM and conducting virtual advocacy.
Media workers, both in social and traditional media, were invited in workshops on Zoom, social media and online broadcasting. Trainings were conducted mainly regionally and later on were also done per country and per nationality.
As these trainings happened, migrants and CSOs were made acquainted with the GCM. Immediately after the regional review, two regional echo conferences were organised with the objectives of “echoing” or sharing the results of the review among migrants, gathering insights from them and civil society members, and developing advocacy strategies around the GCM. Cooperation was ensured with CSOs and migrant organisations in shaping the program, agreeing on a time that would be best for all those in the many time zones in Asia-Pacific, inviting migrants from their respective areas, and cascading learnings to their organisations and networks.
While it was difficult, effort was given to language interpretation. Resource generation was crucial to support volunteers who helped in interpretation and other technical support. CSOs were sought out to share their office spaces and Wi-Fi for migrant workers to use for free during the echo conferences. In countries where migrants gathered in gardens or in open spaces, internet gadgets like portable Wi-Fi devices were lent to migrant organisations and accessed by migrants for free. Transportation and food allowances, in some instances, were also provided.
Migrants shared how they had to be creative in participating, always giving feedbacks as they adjusted and adapted to ever-changing social distancing rules in their countries. Truly, the migrants’ voice was crucial in conducting and shaping the activities to ensure they suited the needs of migrants and allow for them to participate effectively.
The APMM also worked with various regional and global organisations to bring migrant leaders to the IMRF in New York, USA, in May 2022 amid visa challenges, strict international border policies, and expensive airfares. Despite not having speaking slots in the formal IMRF, migrants utilised every avenue such as the interactive multistakeholder hearing, side events that they organised or attended, and surprise meetings with their respective governments to speak up, hold their governments to account, and state that the GCM should be for, with, and by migrants.
Results of meaningful participation
The two regional echo conferences resulted in a comprehensive statement1 which reflected the analysis, position and recommendations coming from the participants. Migrants together with CSOs helped formulate and finalise the said statement, which became an advocacy tool for them in engaging with the GCM and for migrant organisations, in linking it to their ongoing campaigns on the ground.
The advocacy points in the said statement would be articulated and further particularised by grassroots migrant organisations in what APMM would call migrant spotlight reports (MSRs). These are written by migrant organisations to “put a spotlight” on their urgent issues, link them to the GCM, and put forward policy recommendations. The MSRs were the end results of online trainings that capacitated migrant and advocate organisations on the GCM, relating it to their realities and seeing how their engagement in it would be useful in their ongoing campaigns. During the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF), MSRs developed by migrant groups and their advocates from five Asian countries were presented to the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, government representatives, and UN agencies.
Meaningful participation of migrants in the GCM was achieved through advocacy in combination with concrete commitments to realise it. APMM’s experience with migrants proved that if provided with information on the GCM, given the space to analyse, engage and speak up, their own initiatives resourced, and partnered, migrant workers can fully engage in the GCM process.
At the same time, the GCM process itself is a closed space. It is run and controlled by governments who have championed the neoliberal migration for development framework, hailed labour export as a solution to unemployment and impoverishment, and valued migrant workers solely for their economic contribution, not for their person, rights and dignity. Migrants being invisible in these spaces and barriers to their meaningful participation will remain unless the systemic power imbalance is challenged.
Claiming rights, challenging narratives
Realising communication rights of migrants benefits both migrants and the society they live in. It raises awareness among migrants about the current conditions they are in, find commonalities with other fellow workers regardless of their status, age, or ethnicity, and explore common grounds to unite and collectively question, assert their rights and demand change.
When communication rights are fully exercised, the individualised culture by which the current system has instilled in both migrants and host peoples is challenged as mass consciousness and the value of working together is honed, encouraged, and celebrated.
We have seen this in victories celebrated by migrants and host peoples alike – in the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih2 when she achieved justice against her employer in Hong Kong; in the case of Mary Jane Veloso,3 who was stayed on the day of her execution in Indonesia; and in the case of Evangeline Cayanan,4 who was allowed to remain and be with her daughter in Canada.
These victories are proof that by exercising communication rights, migrants’ participation becomes meaningful and effective and a step towards making the world a better place for all.
Rey Asis is the program coordinator for advocacy and campaigns of the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM). He works closely with grassroots migrant organisations in their engagement in advocacy spaces like the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Agenda 2030. He finds grounding in cooperating with them in the work he does.