16-22 August 2013 #669

Strangers in a strange land

Peter Sutherland

ALL ON BOARD: Bangladeshi migrant workers flock near the Tunisian gate at the Libyan and Tunisian border after fleeing the civil war in Libya in March.
Migrants face countless perils. Vicious mafias smuggle them across borders with reckless disregard for their lives. Rapacious recruiters fleece them of their earnings. Abusive employers exploit their labour. And anti-immigrant sentiment erodes the political will to confront these challenges.

The plight of migrants is particularly tragic when its source is violent conflict, like in Syria and Libya. Libya’s civil war placed the vulnerability of migrants in stark relief, with hundreds of thousands caught in the crossfire. And while Libyans were badly affected by the war, foreign workers including thousands of Nepalis were even more vulnerable, as they were largely left out of schemes aimed at protecting civilians. Most were left to their own devices to escape the violence and many died trying. Some were killed after being falsely targeted as mercenaries (largely owing to the colour of their skin).

Other groups, however, fared better. High-skilled migrants employed by Western oil companies, for example, were airlifted to safety. Nationals from countries with robust protection protocols and sufficient financial resources were efficiently evacuated (the Philippines was exemplary in this regard).

Libya was thus a vivid reminder of the serious gaps that exist in helping migrants in life-threatening situations. Their vulnerability is heightened due to their legal status and other obstacles – restrictions on exercising their fundamental rights, language barriers, constraints on their movement, and limited social capital and networks. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, were heroic in going above and beyond their mandates to protect migrants at risk in Libya, as were many NGOs. The World Bank also acted quickly to provide funds to evacuate Bangladeshi nationals.

But international organisations alone cannot solve the problem. Before the next crisis erupts, we need to clarify the critical roles that all key actors – including countries of origin and destination, neighbouring states, businesses, and civil society – should play. The first step then is for states and others to define a framework for action on helping migrants caught in crisis situations. It would include a set of principles, such as this fundamental one: during a crisis, emergency assistance should be afforded to citizens and migrants alike, without discrimination.

Countries that are especially experienced in protecting their workers abroad before, during, and after crises offer a blueprint for action. An early warning system in the Philippines, for instance, mobilises government agencies to react quickly to crises, while a special fund pays for emergency evacuations. The government also provides compulsory pre-departure and post-arrival orientation, so that migrants know what to do in an emergency. Registration systems, such as Mexico’s matricula consular, help to ensure that countries know the location of their migrants – including those who are undocumented – in a crisis.

Destination countries have equally profound responsibilities in crises. Evacuation from danger zones and humanitarian aid should be provided regardless of legal status – as the United States did last year in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Migrants also typically need emergency travel documents after a crisis, as well as legal assistance to help them recover lost assets.

Neighbouring countries have a vital role to play, too – for example, by keeping borders open so that migrants do not become trapped, as Egypt and Tunisia so generously demonstrated during the Libya crisis. Employers, meanwhile, are linchpins during a crisis. They should be obliged to repatriate foreign workers, as required in the standard migrant employment contract used by the Philippines. They also should have evacuation plans for employees at all levels, not just executives.

The principles and plans that we put in place to protect migrants in life-threatening situations eventually could – and should – be expanded in order to protect a much broader array of vulnerable migrants.

Peter Sutherland is a UN Special Representative for International Migration and Development and former Director General of the World Trade Organisation.