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Letter to World Bank President James Wolfensohn on Eve of Annual Meetings
September 18, 2003

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Dear President Wolfensohn,

As the World Bank holds its annual meetings in Dubai in late September, we hope you will highlight the importance of protecting migrant workers, both in the Gulf region and the global economy as a whole.

Migrant workers will play an important but largely invisible role at your Dubai meeting. They will be the ones who clean your rooms, serve your coffee and tend to the lawns of the convention center. Nearly ten million foreigners, most of them unskilled or semi-skilled migrants, work in Dubai and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Migrant workers comprise some 90 percent of the labor force of 1.7 million in the United Arab Emirates.

But migrant workers today play an even more significant role in the global economy, not only as a hard-working and mobile labor force in their host countries, but as a major source of capital for their families and communities at home.

As the World Bank recognized in its April 2003 report on Global Development Finance, remittances sent home by migrant workers reached $80 billion in 2002, up from $60 billion in 1998. These payments have become more important and stable sources of finance for developing countries than private lending or official development assistance.

Countries receiving large remittances include Bangladesh ($2.1 billion in 2001), Egypt ($2.9 billion), India ($10 billion), Indonesia ($1 billion), Jordan ($2 billion), Lebanon ($2.3 billion), Morocco ($3.3 billion), Pakistan ($1.5 billion), the Philippines ($6.4 billion), Sri Lanka ($1.1 billion) and Yemen ($1.5 billion).

But despite their economic significance to both their home countries and the societies in which they work, many migrant workers suffer from discrimination, exploitation and abuse.

Migrants, including large numbers of women employed as domestic servants, face intimidation and violence - including sexual assault - at the hands of employers, supervisors, sponsors, and police and security forces. Intimidated by violence or the threat of it, workers are often afraid to demand unpaid wages, protest poor conditions, or seek legal recourse for abuses. In all the Gulf states, laws and regulations either prohibit or restrict migrants' participation in independent trade union activities.

Sponsors and employers often confiscate migrants' documents, including passports and residence permits. This severely restricts freedom of movement and limits migrants' ability to report mistreatment to authorities without risking arrest, imprisonment, steep fines and summary expulsion. Migrants in the GCC states typically cannot obtain an exit visa to leave the country of employment without the approval of their sponsor or employer; arbitrary denials of exit visas can place migrants in situations that amount to forced labor.

Migrants in undocumented or "irregular" situations are among the most vulnerable. Recruiters in their home countries traffic migrants en masse, promising them jobs and salaries that never materialize. These workers have often paid recruiters significant sums to secure what they believed were legally enforceable contracts and work visas. Deeply in debt and with no other options once they arrive, they have little choice but to work for local sponsors or employers under highly exploitative conditions that effectively amount to forced labor or servitude.

Documented migrants can easily slip into illegal status through no fault of their own. Unscrupulous employers and sponsors deliberately let residence permits expire, or literally sell workers to other employers, thereby invalidating their work permits. Desperate migrants also flee terrible working conditions and end up outside the law.

Children are especially vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights, whether traveling alone or with family members. In several Gulf countries children are trafficked for use as beggars, and sometimes suffer terrible maiming to improve their moneymaking potential. In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and U.A.E. young boys are trafficked from South Asia and Sudan for use as camel jockeys, at great risk to their lives and health. Children who migrate with their families often find that discriminatory legislation make them ineligible or unable to afford basic health care and education.

The U.A.E., with its October through April racing season, is the main destination for children trafficked for camel racing; in July 2003 Unicef estimated the number trafficked to U.A.E. alone to be in the thousands. U.A.E. has vowed to crackdown on the use of children under fifteen years or forty-five kilograms as jockeys but enforcement appears to be limited to repatriating children whose handlers apply for visa renewals. A group of twenty-one boys age six to twelve-years deported to Pakistan in May 2003 reportedly told Pakistan's Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid that they had been working as jockeys for as long as five years before their deportations, and had suffered sexual abuse, denial of food, and severe beatings.

This year saw an important step forward with the entry into force of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. The Migrant Workers Convention has now been ratified by 22 states - Azerbaijan, Belize, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Mexico, Morocco, the Philippines, Senegal, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Uganda and Uruguay - but has yet to be widely adopted by many wealthy and industrialized countries that depend heavily on migrant labor.

The Migrant Workers Convention guarantees the full range of internationally recognized human rights to all migrant workers and their families, including the right to life, the right to not be subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment, the right to due-process of law, and the right to freedom of movement, association, expression, and religion. It guarantees to migrants and their families "effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions."

Many states seem reluctant to adopt the Migrant Workers Convention for fear that it will somehow privilege migrants, particularly those with "irregular" status. But the Migrant Workers Convention only reinforces human rights standards to which the same states are usually committed under other treaties. It recognizes the serious worldwide problem of migrants without legal status and, while seeking to protect them from exploitation, calls for cooperation among states parties to prevent and eliminate such "illegal or clandestine movements and employment." The Convention also grants broad latitude to states to maintain their own policies with respect to immigration, and requires migrant workers "to comply with the laws and regulations of any State of transit and the State of employment," and "to respect the cultural identity of the inhabitants of such States."

The World Bank has recognized that increasing labor mobility is a priority for poverty reduction and economic development in many countries. But these important reforms need to be accompanied by effective measures for the protection of migrant workers from exploitation and abuse.

In this regard, the Bank can play an important role in encouraging countries to adopt and implement the protections contained in the Migrant Workers Convention. The Bank should address the problems experienced by migrant workers in its dialogue with governments as an obstacle to poverty reduction and development. It should help governments with the proper regulation of migration and employment agencies to ensure migrants' interests are protected. And it can strengthen the capacity of governments to combat trafficking and punish the private agents and employers involved in exploitation or abuse.

The Bank should also lend its support to international calls, including by the UN Secretary General, for an international conference on migration and development, to help the international community address these issues in a more comprehensive and effective manner.

We thank you for your attention to this important issue and wish you a very successful meeting.

Yours sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch