2010 Marked by Labor Exploitation, Violence, and Limited Access to Justice
December 12, 2010
Migrants are consistently among those at highest risk of abuse, but also among those least likely to have access to services or justice. Many governments make things worse with policies that aggravate discrimination or make it hard for migrants even to approach authorities for help.
Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher

(Jakarta) - Many governments' immigration policies and protection gaps expose migrants to abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report today in advance of International Migrants Day, December 18, 2010. The abuses include labor exploitation, violence, trafficking, mistreatment in detention, and killings, yet the nations involved offer limited recourse to seek justice, Human Rights Watch said. 

The 48-page roundup of Human Rights Watch reporting on violations of migrants' rights in 2010, "Rights on the Line: Human Rights Watch Work on Abuses against Migrants in 2010," includes coverage of Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.

"Migrants are consistently among those at highest risk of abuse, but also among those least likely to have access to services or justice," said Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Many governments make things worse with policies that aggravate discrimination or make it hard for migrants even to approach authorities for help."

More than 215 million people live outside their country of birth, according to the United Nations. International migration helps fuel economies across the globe. The World Bank estimates that migrants sent home more than US$440 billion in 2010, $325 billion of which went to developing countries.

Many countries rely on migrant workers to fill labor shortages in low-paying, dangerous, and poorly regulated jobs. Human Rights Watch documented labor exploitation and barriers to redress for migrants in agriculture, domestic work, and construction in Indonesia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Immigration sponsorship systems in many countries give employers immense control over workers and lead to migrants being trapped in abusive situations or unable to pursue redress through the justice system.

"Governments have begun to address abuse of migrant workers, including with strengthened employment contracts and labor law provisions," Varia said. "But these reforms have been slow and incremental, and governments have fallen especially short when it comes to making sure migrants know about and benefit from such changes."

Human Rights Watch also found that men, women, and children can risk their lives to cross borders, and may face abuse while in no-man's lands between border checkpoints, on the high seas, or at the international zones of airports. For example, Egyptian border guards shot dead at least 28 migrants attempting to cross the Sinai border into Israel in 2010. Human Rights Watch research on Italy, Libya, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Greece, Spain, and the European Union documented border control policies that flout international standards, fail to screen and provide appropriate services for vulnerable populations such as unaccompanied children, asylum-seekers, and trafficking victims, or subject migrants to poor conditions in detention.

Migrants detained in prisons, sometimes unnecessarily, may experience discrimination and face worse conditions or less access to health care than non-migrant prison populations. For example, Human Rights Watch has found that in Malawi, some Ethiopian detainees were forced to stand for 16 hours a day in an overcrowded cell. In Zambia, immigration detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch had often not seen a magistrate or judge and had been tested for tuberculosis (TB) and HIV at lower rates than other detainees, a serious problem given that TB rates in Zambia's prisons are more than ten times those in the general population.

"Whether men, women, and children are crossing borders through appropriate channels or not, they should not lose their life in the process," Varia said. "Governments should be ashamed of border control and screening policies that can lead to abuse or death, and that fail those who may be in most need of aid, including unaccompanied children, trafficking victims, and refugees."

In the United States, hundreds of thousands of people are in detention for months - or even years for civil immigration violations. Lacking the right to a government-appointed attorney, approximately 60 percent of migrant detainees go through all court hearings without a lawyer. Human Rights Watch found that for immigrants with mental disabilities, the lack of a lawyer means they often cannot defend their rights. Some are unjustifiably detained for years. 

Migrants remain vulnerable to broad immigration policies that put individuals at risk. South Africa announced in 2010 it would no longer suspend deportation of Zimbabweans, raising concerns that mass deportations will lead to violations of asylum-seekers' rights.  And France began a highly publicized campaign to dismantle unauthorized Roma settlements and repatriate migrant Roma - mostly EU citizens - to their countries of origin. 

Racism and xenophobic violence against migrants are problems that governments are not only slow to tackle, but in some cases aggravate through discriminatory policies. In Italy, for example, political discourse and policies that link migrants to crime fuel an environment of intolerance, Human Rights Watch found.

Inadequate national and international protections contribute to conditions that enable human trafficking. In 2010, Human Rights Watch investigated trafficking of young boys into forced begging in Senegal, trafficking into forced prostitution in Cote D'Ivoire, and trafficking into forced domestic servitude in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"The list of abuses against migrants in 2010 is long and grim," Varia said. "Governments need to  jump-start the pace of reforms to avoid another year filled with abuses and injustices."

Human Rights Watch called on governments to focus during 2011 on improving protections for migrants, including ratifying the International Covenant on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. Human Rights Watch also urged governments to:

  • Ensure that immigration and labor policies are designed to facilitate documented migration and do not disproportionately punish those without proper documents;
  • Reform labor laws to extend comprehensive labor protections in poorly regulated types of employment often dominated by migrants, including domestic work and agriculture.
  • Establish effective monitoring and complaint mechanisms, including translation services as needed, rigorously investigate complaints of abuse, irrespective of an individual's migration status, and take steps to resolve labor disputes and criminal proceedings in a timely manner;
  • Establish legally enforceable standards to govern conditions of detention including access to medical care, and strengthen oversight to prevent and respond to abuses;
  • Conduct independent reviews of expulsion policies and ensure that those subjected to forced removals have a right to appeal, based on individual review that does not discriminate on grounds of ethnicity or nationality;
  • Develop comprehensive national strategies and strengthen international cooperation to combat trafficking, including access to services and rehabilitation for survivors.

Country Specific Examples of Human Rights Watch Reporting on Migrants in 2010

  • Egypt and Israel - Egyptian border guards shot dead at least 28 migrants attempting to cross the Sinai border into Israel. Migrants and refugees forcibly returned by Israel to Egypt may face arbitrary arrest and detention and unfair trials before military courts.
  • France - France began a highly publicized campaign against Roma from Eastern Europe, forcibly evicting Roma living in unauthorized camps andreturning migrant Roma, who are mostly EU citizens, to their countries of origin.
  • Greece and the European Union - Other EU countries made 10,000 requests to return migrants and asylum seekers to Greece, their point of entry to the EU. But in Greece, migrants and asylum seekers are detained in substandard conditions, with little or no assistance to unaccompanied migrant children and other vulnerable groups.
  • Hungary, Slovakia, and Ukraine - Migrants returned from Hungary and Slovakia to Ukraine, another point of entry to the EU, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied children, often face serious abuses, while in the custody of the Ukrainian border guard service.
  • Indonesia and Malaysia - The two governments failed to agree on improved protections for Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia, with talks stalling on a minimum wage and regulations on recruitment fees.
  • Italy and Libya - Boat migrants, mostly originating from sub-Saharan Africa, are interdicted by Libyan coastal patrols on boats donated by Italy and with Italian personnel on board. Migrants are summarily returned to Libya without adequate screening of protection needs and once in Libya often face inhuman and degrading conditions of detention.
  • Kazakhstan - Many migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, often together with their children, frequently face abuse by tobacco farm owners in Kazakhstan who employ them for seasonal work. These farm owners contract with and supply tobacco to Philip Morris Kazakhstan (PMK), a subsidiary of Philip Morris International (PMI), one of the world's largest tobacco companies. PMI and PMK have promised significant reforms to address these abuses.
  • Kuwait - The country is host to more than 660,000 migrant domestic workers from Asia and East Africa. Restrictions imposed by the immigration sponsorship system and exclusion of these workers from protection under Kuwait's labor law discourage them from leaving abusive employment situations, while those who quit "without permission" risk criminal penalties.
  • Lebanon - A review of 114 Lebanese judicial decisions affecting migrant domestic workers found that lack of accessible complaint mechanisms, lengthy judicial procedures, and restrictive visa policies dissuade many workers from filing complaints about abusive conditions or receiving redress if they did file complaints.
  • Malawi - In Malawi, approximately 230 Ethiopian detainees were incarcerated in prisons following trials in which they did not have interpreters. Unable to report health problems because they did not speak the officers' language, some of these detainees were held in conditions significantly worse than those faced by other prisoners.
  • Saudi Arabia - Several migrant domestic workers were only able to report complaints of grave physical abuse after returning to their home countries because complaint mechanisms in Saudi Arabia remained inaccessible to them.
  • Senegal and Guinea-Bissau - At least 50,000 young boys live in conditions that amount to a modern form of slavery. Sent by parents to study at residential Quranic schools in Senegal, many are forced to beg for up to ten hours a day by the men who run the schools.
  • South Africa - Since 2005, up to 3 million Zimbabweans fleeing political persecution and economic collapse at home, have sought refuge and economic opportunities in South Africa, which offered them temporary special protection. In 2010, South Africa announced an end to its suspension of deportations of Zimbabweans, raising concerns that mass deportations will lead to violations of asylum-seekers' rights.
  • Spain - The Canary Islands government's decision to keep 200 unaccompanied migrant children in emergency shelters, which are not subject to normal care regulations, puts the children at risk and threatens their well-being.
  • Thailand - Migrant workers reported abuses including torture in detention, extortion, sexual abuse, trafficking, forced labor, restrictions on organizing, violent retaliation against those who complain, and even death. Local police and officials often ignore or fail to investigate migrants' complaints effectively.
  • United Arab Emirates - New York University (NYU), the Guggenheim Foundation, and their government-owned partners announced new contractual safeguards for workers employed in building an NYU campus and a branch of the Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. However, the new measures lack clear provisions for enforcement or for independent, third-party monitoring.
  • United States - US labor law fails to provide children working in agriculture with the same protections as all other working children in the US, leaving them exposed to work that endangers their health, safety, and education.
  • Zambia - Immigration detainees are held in Zambia for long periods, sometimes in life-threatening conditions. Only 38 percent of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch and partner organizations had ever gone before a magistrate or judge.