The Founding Assembly of the International Migrants Alliance - an important landmark in the fight for immigrant rights.

Migrant justice groups from all over the world, including Canada, participated in the founding assembly of the International Migrants Alliance held in Hong Kong this summer, from June 14-17. The objective of this assembly was to build the solidarity and unity of the global working class against a global imperialist regime. It was a call to migrant rights groups from all over the world to come together in unity and forge alliances.

According to Irene Fernandez, keynote speaker at the IMA “we are fighting for a world where no-one is forced to migrate but at the same time everyone should have the right to move freely.” Her statement refers to the dual situation of oppression faced by migrants. They are fleeing political and economic marginalization in their countries of origin and then face restrictive immigration laws in the countries where they seek refuge.

The participating groups from Canada included representatives of a variety of groups working either directly or indirectly with migrants workers, immigrants and refugees. Their purpose in attending this assembly was to add the concerns of migrants in Canada to the hundreds of thousands across the world in order to develop a common basis of unity for collective action. Specifically, the delegates of Canada presented the situation of live-in caregivers and temporary migrant farm workers in Canada as well the effects of anti-terror legislation on migrants and immigrants.

The assembly began with an acknowledgement and examination of the global context of migration. Migration has become a business and governments are signing bilateral agreements that allow them to trade migrants as workers. The international financial institutions invent policies like the GATTS mode 4 to exploit the potential of cheap labour and at the same time set the conditions that will manage and police the flow of labour from the South to the North.

In receiving countries migrants face exploitation, and violation of their basic human rights. On top of that they are the first to be targeted under the anti-terror legislation.

For example, according to activists from the US, Latino migrant workers are facing horrible working conditions and exploitation. Added to that is the anti-terror sweep under ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) which is carrying out raids on undocumented migrants at an unprecedented pace and deporting them.

“They don’t really want to deport us and keep us out, they just want to control our movements and limit our rights so that we do not demand more. A nation of immigrants is holding another nation of immigrants hostage” says Teresa Gutierrez of the May 1st Coalition from the United States.

In Canada, immigrants have been targeted under the repressive Security Certificates and held in detention indefinitely and without charge. Activists from Canada detailed the repressive immigration security measures used by the Canadian government to implement a two-tiered justice system, one for citizens and another for non-citizens.

Thus the war on terror has given another layer of control to governments to further police migration. From South Korea to Australia, from Germany to Canada, migrants talked about the effects of the so-called anti-terror sweep on their lives.

In the sending countries, like Philippines and Indonesia, social and economic living conditions are worsening and there is a withdrawal of governments from social spending on health and education. There is increasing privatization and foreign investment, which has led to less not more jobs. Rising unemployment leads people to leave their homes to search for a better life, for survival. Governments use this vulnerability to exploit them for profit and cheap labour. A rising trend is the emphasis on remittances from foreign workers as a way to spur development in the home country. According to Sonny Africa from IBON (a global research foundation based in the Philippines), this is a myth since most of this money is used in consumption and international debt repayment rather than in any national social investment. “The so-called myth of remittances is used to cover up severe economic failures domestically” says Sonny.

In South Korea, there has been a massive crackdown on undocumented workers. Migrant justice groups from there recounted how migrant workers are attempting to unionize and are being prevented to do so and threatened with deportation. This is because the undocumented do not have the right of ‘free association.’ Migrant rights groups are fighting for them to gain this right. There have been similar crackdowns on migrant workers in Taiwan and Japan.

The setting of the assembly, Hong Kong, was a significant backdrop to the issues being discussed, as far as migration is concerned. Hong Kong has a large migrant worker population. These migrants work as domestic helpers, construction workers, cooks, waiters etc. They are largely employed in the service industry. Domestic workers, specially, face extremely exploitative working conditions. They are exclusively female and an overwhelming majority are imported from the Philippines and Indonesia. The strong presence of these workers at the assembly brought home the real face of global migration to the participants. These workers also gave cause for hope and inspiration in the migrant struggle as they presented their successes in organizing and fighting for their rights. There are a number of migrant justice groups in Hong Kong, the largest being the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants who have over the years achieved major gains in obtaining rights for migrants. These groups were largely responsible for the organization of the assembly as well.

The assembly concluded with a recognition of the pressing need for linkages and alliances between migrants from all over the world. Since migration is global, so the alliance should be global. These links are already beginning to form. For example, workers who are deported from South Korea and Taiwan, because of involvement in organizing, are going back to their home countries in Nepal and Bangladesh, for example, and starting to organize there. Participants in the assembly acknowledged the need for there to be some kind of an awareness campaign for potential migrant workers before they leave their countries of origin to warn them about the conditions they can face in the receiving countries. Migrant workers also need to be linked with migrant justice groups in receiving countries either before they leave their countries or as soon as they arrive. This kind of support for migrants is only possible through global networking of migrant justice groups from around the world. The assembly was a step in this direction and hopefully will continue to serve as a strong platform from which to launch migrant struggles and campaigns around the world.

Sarwat Viqar, Montreal, July 12, 2008

*Sarwat Viqar is a teacher at John Abbott College in Montréal, Québec. She is a member of the centre d'appui aux Philippines - Centre for Philippine Concerns and served as a commissioner on the People's Commission on Immigration Security Measures.

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