Wake-up call on forgotten world of female migrants

Posted: 6 September 2006

Author: John Rowley

Almost half the world's 191 million migrants, some 95 million of them, are women. But their vulnerability, their lack of human rights, and their huge contribution in remittances and useful work, has been largely hidden and ignored, says a powerful new United Nations report.

Mexican migrant workers. Photo: Planet 21
Mexican migrant workers. Photo: Planet 21
Mexican seamstresses come from El Paso, Texas, to demonstrate their support for Asian women migrant workers© Planet 21
Released in London today, the UN Population Fund report comes on the eve of next week's high-level UN meeting on migration and development. It is a topic largely by-passed at the last major world conference on population and development in Cairo in 1994.

The report reveals that in 2005 remittances from migrant workers to their home country were at least US$232 billion - not taking into account funds sent by informal channels. Research also indicates that female migrants sent back a bigger proportion of the earnings than did men - indeed it was sometimes more in total than sent home by their male counterparts.

REMITTANCES TO DEVELOPING COUNTRIES
Leading recipients (2004)
Graph: Leading recipients of remittances (2004), UNFPA/SWP 2006
Graph: Leading recipients of remittances (2004), UNFPA/SWP 2006
Graph: Share of remittance income by country, UNPFA/SWP 2006
Graph: Share of remittance income by country, UNPFA/SWP 2006
Source: World Bank 2006, Global Economic Prospects
For example, of the more than US$1 billion of migrant cash sent back to Sri Lanka in 1999, over 62 per cent came from women. Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East sent home 72 per cent of the earnings, most of it earmarked for their families' daily needs,health care and education.

Altogether migrant remittances are much larget than all the official aid money put together. Indeed, they are the second largest source of external funding for developing counteries.

Trafficking tragedy

Presenting the report, Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA, said there was an urgent need for the governments of countries sending and receiving migrants to discuss with each other how best to protect the rights of migrant women and girls, to prepare them for migration, to negotiate any limitation on the numbers migrating to avoid a damaging drain on essential skills from developing countries, to protect their employment rights and freedom from exploitation, and to counter the 'terrible crime' of human trafficking.

She said the human rights violations of trafficked women arose in part from restrictive immigration policies that limit opportunities to migrate safely and legally. These fuel the desperation that drives millions of women and girls to entrust their well-being and, in some cases, their very lives to unscrupulous traffickers who misrepresent themselves as legitimate labour recruiters.

Today, human trafficking (usually for forced sex work) represents the third largest illicit trade after drugs and gun smuggling, worth an estimated US$7-12 billion to the traffickers. "Unlike both however, trafficking victims remain an ongoing source of 'revenue' to be exploited over and over again until the victims are too ill too worn out to continue. Many die as a result of their servitude - either as a direct result of violence or from contracting the many diseases including HIV to which they are susceptible.

"Although awareness and action against trafficking is growing, there is an urgent need to do more to end this terrible crime and the impunity that goes with it," says Ms. Obaid. The report calls for greater cooperation between and within countries to bring traffickers to justice and to provide services and human rights protection for trafficking victims.

Nursing exodus

Domestic work remains one of the largest sectors driving international female labour migration, says the report. Every year, millions of women migrate from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and increasingly from Africa, to Europe and North America, the Gulf States and the industrialising nations of Asia. However, labour laws rarely protect domestic workers, nor do they permit them to organise.

This leaves millions dependent on employers for their continued legal presence in the host country, in addition to housing, food, and wages. The isolated nature of domestic work, coupled with official neglect and a dearth of appropriate labour protections, can relegate domestic workers to virtual slavery.

Another aspect of female migration is the massive outflow of nurses from the developing world to industrialised countries. Ageing populations, coupled with a shortage of nurses and doctors in host countries, is fueling demand, while crumbling health systems and poverty in developing nations is driving supply.

The yearly exodus of 20,000 highly qualified nurses and doctors from Africa is worsening an already grave situation for a region ravaged by HIV/AIDS, malaria and high numbers of maternal and child deaths. This is partly driven by the poor pay and conditions of work in many developing countries, but also the huge demand for nurses and doctors in the richer parts of the world.

For example the United Kingdom has estimated that it will need 150,000 more nurses and 25,000 more doctors in 2008 than it had in 1997, said Ms Obaid. And by 2020 the United States will need a million more nurses.

Bibi, a nurse from Surinam.
Bibi, a nurse from Surinam.
Bibi, a nurse from Surinam. Photo © UNFPA
Bibi, a 23-year-old trainee nurse from Surinam, who has struggled against many odds to enter nursing, and who spoke at the launch of the report, explaind her own rationale for planning to migrate. "As a trainee I am paid only US$18 dollars a month",she said. "And when I qualify after three years the pay will only be US$200 a month. At home I can't make a living, and if I have to go somewhere else to keep doing what I chose, I will."

Critical timing

The High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development which takes place in New York from 14 to 15 September, will be the first of its kind to bring together the world's governments to discuss the many challenges and benefits of migration. "The timing could not be more critical, nor the issues explored in UNFPA's report more complex and pressing"said Ms Obaid.

"Now is the time for vision and leadership on behalf of women migrants," she said. "Labour, human rights protections and sound immigration policies can ensure that migration for women is a passage to hope as the title of this year's State of World Population report suggests."

UNFPA's report:A Passage to Hope: Women and International Migration is available online at www.unfpa.org/swp

In addition to the main report, UNFPA is launching Moving Young, a companion volume that explores the topic of migration through the words of migrant youth.