ASEAN's approach to migration challenges amidst the region's multiculturalism

Ambassador Makarim WibisonoIt is a great honour and privilege for me to be invited to speak in this Forum on the issue of multiculturalism with emphasis on migration. Migration is indeed an important issue which has developed seriously since the last three decades around the world. It is estimated that the number of international migrants stands at 214 million in 2010. Therefore, I really appreciate this initiative to discuss about migration because it is timely and pertinent to the current challenge as consequences of globalization. The movements of people from one area to another country has become an issue of its own which exposed migration as one of the world’s social issue.

The traditional explanation of migration used to be movement from poor to rich nations. As developments evolved in all sectors of life, there are several causes that have been listed such as in search of higher incomes and better opportunities, lured by friends and relatives and social networks, in search of adventure, exploration, curiosity, and fleeing from persecution and armed conflict. All of these were economic and non-economic factors affecting these flows of migration. Other than that, globalization has made migration much easier through better communications, dissemination of information through mass media and improved transport.

Global warming has been blamed to make life different around the world. Many increased flooding from the sea and from the rivers in Asia, and the extreme weather events become more frequent and severe.  These all lead to a fact that geographical distribution of food production has been felt to be the one much affected by the shifting climatic conditions that have slowly displaced persons to move cross borders in search of better place to live in.

It is a disturbing fact to admit that only few people uproot themselves by choice. Most are compelled to become migrants, refugees, or exiles by forces beyond their control, by poverty, repression, or war. They set off with their belongings they can carry, making their way as best they can, aboard rickety boats, strapped onto trains, squeezed into trucks, or on foot; they travel alone, with families, or in groups. Some know where they are going, confident that a better life awaits them, others are just fleeing, relieved to be alive, many never make it.

The Report of the UN Secretary General at the General Assembly on 2 August 2010, stated that the financial crisis reduced the proportion of migrants and natives employed. At the end of 2009, the employment rate of migrants was at least 7 percentage points lower than that of natives in some countries in Europe such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. In the United States, migrant employment dropped by 1.4 million between 2007 and 2009 and in Spain by nearly 300,000 between 2008 and 2009. The financial crisis has also affected disproportionately the employment of migrant men because they tend to be concentrated in some of the most affected sectors of the economy, including construction, manufacturing and finance. Consequently, the unemployed migrant men has caused the participation rate of migrant women in the labour force increased in several countries, partly because of their need to compensate for the income losses of men in their families.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN is a multicultural-nation region with more than 650 distinct ethnic groups living amidst a total population of 573,737,000 people region wide.  Its immense and colourful diversity underscores a shared heritage and builds upon a sense of community among the ten nations. A solid foundation that holds up the region under one roof for over 44 years now. The global political and socio-economic changes that are slowly absorbing ways of life as well as traditional values, have obviously create new demands to fulfill one’s life in order to survive. Along with the developments evolving in all sectors of life, choices include now the desire to improve life and further on to choose moving from poor to richer nations.

In ASEAN, migration is a crucial issue which has developed seriously in the last two decades. ASEAN is facing the impact of financial crisis of 1997 and 2008 which called for immediate measures to restore macro-economic stability, enhance economic recovery and promote growth. All of these posed ASEAN to another challenge to regain prosperity in the region. The financial crisis has brought the region into a stage where many people who were disadvantaged by the situation had to make difficult choices in their life, i.e. migrate to another country to find better life.

Migration in Southeast Asia is remarkable by very large flows of population mobility in two areas between Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, and along Thailand - Myanmar border. These flows include large proportion of illegals from Indonesia and the Philippines to Malaysia, and from Myanmar to Thailand. 

ASEAN has witnessed the emergence of the region as a major area for cross-border movements of labour. Intra-regional trade and investments in ASEAN are also factors that stimulate more migration in the region. The outflow of the migrant workers in 1998 in Indonesia was 411.6 thousand, Philippines 562 thousand, and Thailand 175 thousand. Some of these migrant workers, they succeeded in obtaining better lives in their new homes. Unfortunately, some experienced bad treatments such as batteries, hold off of passports and salaries by employers and sexual harassment. Reports also say that skilled labour get better chances and opportunities of fine jobs and well protected schemes while unskilled labour the reverse. These facts are leading ASEAN to improve policies and institutional arrangements of ASEAN and the Member States in operating the migration management system.

Some ASEAN Member States have bilaterally signed MOUs to manage their migrant workers. Regionally, migration issues and problems have kept on surfacing and prolonged due to the lack of policies or instruments that see the issues both from the receiving/sending countries and also from the migrant workers perspectives.

On 29 December 2004, as an initial move by ASEAN on the subject of ‘cross-border movements’, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Declaration against Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children. The declaration was designed to provide path to undertake concerted efforts to effectively address an emerging regional problem, namely the trafficking in persons, particularly women and children. The declaration encouraged, among others, cooperation and information sharing, safeguarding the dignity and human rights of victims as well taking actions against individuals and syndicates engaged in human trafficking.

On 13 January 2007 in Cebu, the ASEAN Heads of Government at their 12th ASEAN Summit adopted the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. The document is dedicated for the welfare of ASEAN nationals who work as migrant workers in order to get fair and appropriate employment protection, payment of wages, and adequate access to decent working and living conditions.

Substantially, ASEAN has crafted adequate norms in the protection of migrant workers and manifested in the ASEAN Charter as well as in the ASEAN Blueprint for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. The ASEAN Charter Article 1.8 emphasized the need for ASEAN “to respond effectively, in accordance with the principle of comprehensive security, to all forms of threats, transnational crimes and trans-boundary challenges”. In line with this, the ASEAN Blueprint on Socio-Cultural Community section C2 – Article 28 stipulated that ASEAN shall ensure fair and comprehensive migration policies and adequate protection for all migrant workers in accordance with the laws, regulations and policies of respective ASEAN Member States as well as implement the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

The ASEAN Senior Labour Officials Meeting Working Group (SLOM-WG) on Progressive Labour Practices to Enhance the Competitiveness of ASEAN which was formed in 2006 was reconstituted as a permanent body under SLOM in 2008. As its commitment to implement the Declaration effectively, ASEAN established the ASEAN Committee on the Implementation of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACMW) that focuses on three main thrusts as follows:

Thrust 1:    Step up protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers against exploitation and mistreatment, with activities such as:
    Policy repository to promote best practices in migrant worker management policies.
    Strengthen information services to educate migrant workers on their rights, access to services, and immigration requirements

Thrust 2:    Strengthen protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers by enhancing labour migration governance in ASEAN Member States, with activities such as:
    Workshops on Best Practices in Protecting Migrant Workers
    Improve Overseas Employment Administration to strengthen the capacity of ASEAN Member States in handling migration flow.
    ASEAN Forum on Migrant Labor

Thrust 3:    Regional cooperation to fight human trafficking in ASEAN, in collaboration with the Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime;

As an additional track, a drafting team under the ACMW has been set to draft the instrument and has met three times since April 2009. The ACMW comprises of ten ASEAN Member States and currently deliberating common grounds and the key principles to be reflected in the instrument.

As an association of ten Member States, ASEAN is not homogenous in dealing with migration issue. Some countries are belonged to sending countries while others are receiving countries. Countries like Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and also Thailand receive migration from other countries due to their advancement in the socio-cultural and economic developments. While other countries promote migration for the people to seek for better opportunities in other countries.

Migration for the Philippines and Indonesia has become a pair of crutches for the local economy, serving two main objectives, namely, to ease the unemployment situation and to generate foreign incomes to fuel the faltering economy. Towards this end, the Philippines ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, while Indonesia has signed it but yet to ratify.

Referring to the above, it is obvious that migration places pertinent facts that need the region’s attention:

Fact - Migration is an integral component of development in ASEAN Member States as well as a complex economic-socio-cultural issue. In this particular state, ASEAN must work harder in translating its policies to accommodate both national and regional contents for managing migration issues.

Fact - ASEAN faces challenges in overseeing the welfare of their nationals while working in a neighboring country, as well as protect their rights as migrant workers. ASEAN’s principle of “people-centered” should be able to help foster free discussion and dialogue of shared concerns over the cross-border movements of people between and among the ASEAN Members States.

Fact - In the time of economy slowdown, the migrant workers play a fundamental role in strengthening the regional economy. State recognition on this, however, is still lacking: migrant workers still experience inconveniences in many ways.

With international references such as the IOM and the ILO, the ACMW shall coordinate closely with the ASEAN Member States in improving migration management. Through this course, ASEAN will eventually take up the best practices and analyze policies that would be suitable to serve as an ASEAN instrument for migration management. On the other hand, the Blueprint on ASCC will serve as basis to develop a concerted effort to achieve the ASEAN Community by 2015, and the ACMW will set up a regional instrument and approaches for ASEAN to implement accordingly the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

There are crucial points which ASEAN needs to attend to and improve:

    coherent policy for more effective migration management. In this context, it is important for ASEAN at the government level to, among others, harmonize human resources policy with higher education policy, invest on the infrastructures for communication and transportation as well as reducing remittance costs and increasing access to the financial system. In addition, improve coherent in government migration in policy making, foster dialogue between sending and receiving countries and strengthen coordination among government agencies.

    at the migrant workers’ level, efforts such as trainings to increase their skills and awareness of their basic rights as well as legal procedures for their protection should be strengthened. It is important, in this respect, to avoid giving false hopes to the migrant workers but instead, to lead them to realistic solutions.

    it is of no secret that migrant workers are being denied of their basic human rights. In this respect, it is important to improve understanding and implementation of existing legal instruments, enhance integration and combat the misuse of the rights of the migrant workers as well as racism.

    in the case of ‘brain drain’, there is a need to realign working permit policies for professionals to work outside the country. It would be a loss for developing countries to lose their well-educated professionals to developed countries. Indeed, they get more skills, training and knowledge but many of them don’t return to their home countries. Brain drain hits poorer countries the hardest.

As a conclusion, I would say that migration is a fact of life that works integrally with political and economic development. It comes with complex socio-cultural issues.  Many inconclusive discussions on several matters which affect unfavourably foreign migrant workers are still occurring. Therefore, in this connection, what can least be done is for the sending countries to call for comprehensive institutional focus at the international level that could protect the rights of its migrant workers.  Subsequently on the other hand, the receiving countries should respect the contributions from the migrant workers and extend proper rights.

In this regard, for the sake of human kind and life-long, peaceful connectivity between and among countries of the world, continued intensive dialogues to find effective solutions should be continuously sought.

Ambassador Makarim Wibisono
Executive Director of ASEAN Foundation
Founding chairman of GIIA

Dr. Wibisono holds a PhD in Political Science from Ohio State University in the United States where he also acquired his Master’s degree in International Political Economy. He also has an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University in the United States and Doctorrandus in International Relations from Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia.

Dr. Wibisono is the former Indonesian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, and assumed his current post of Executive Director of the ASEAN Foundation on 17 January 2011.

Amongst his many previous responsibilities, Dr. Wibisono held various senior level positions in the United Nations, such as Chairman of the 61st United Nations Commission on Human Rights (2005), the Counter Terrorism Task Force (2003-2004), and the World Peace Assembly 2000 on Interreligious Dialogue Among Civilizations (2000). He also served as President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Dr. Wibisono is also the founding president of the Geneva Interfaith Intercultural Alliance (GIIA), co-sponsor of this conference.

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