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The World Bank should help end the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in the Persian Gulf and beyond, Human Rights Watch said as the international financial institution prepares to hold its annual meetings in Dubai.
In a letter to President Jim Wolfensohn, Human Rights Watch called on the World Bank to champion an international convention for the protection of migrants that recently entered into force.

The Migrant Workers Convention guarantees migrants' human rights and promises state protection against abuse by employers, agents and public officials. The convention has been ratified by 22 states, but has yet to be adopted by many wealthy countries that depend heavily on migrant labor.

"The World Bank knows that migrants are key to economic development, but they're not paying attention to the dark side of that issue," said Rory Mungoven, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "The Bank should be leading the way in international efforts to protect them from exploitation and abuse."

Nearly ten million foreigners, most of them unskilled or semi-skilled migrants, work in Gulf states. Migrants comprise some 90 percent of the 1.7 million workers in the United Arab Emirates, where the World Bank will hold its meetings.

Remittances sent home by migrant workers reached $80 billion in 2002, up from $60 billion in 1998. These payments have become more important sources of finance for developing countries than private lending or official development assistance. In 2001, these payments were worth $10 billion to India, $6 billion to the Philippines and more than $2 billion to Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco.

Despite their value 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. Children are especially vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights.

"Thousands of children are trafficked to the United Arab Emirates for use as beggars and camel jockeys," Mungoven said. "The World Bank can't claim to fight child labor in poor countries and then turn a blind eye when it crosses borders."

Sponsors and employers often confiscate migrants' documents, including passports and residence permits, restricting their freedom of movement and ability to report mistreatment. Migrants in the Gulf states typically can't obtain an exit visa without the approval of their sponsor or employer, sometimes placing them in situations that amount to forced labor.

Migrants in undocumented or "irregular" situations are often indebted to traffickers, and have little choice but to work under highly exploitative conditions . Documented migrants can easily slip into illegal status when unscrupulous employers and sponsors deliberately let residence permits expire, or literally sell workers to other employers, thereby invalidating their work permits.

Human Rights Watch called on the World Bank to encourage states that send or receive migrants to adopt and implement the protections contained in the Migrant Workers Convention. The Bank could help governments regulate migration and employment agencies to combat trafficking, exploitation and abuse.

To read Human Rights Watch's letter to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, please see:

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