[Paper] Human Rights of Migrants in Urbanisation and Development

This is a paper presentation presented at the Migrants and Refugees session of the World Human Rights Cities Forum in Gwangju, South Korea (23 July 2016)



Currently, there are 232 million international migrants around the world. While the estimates on the number of migrants in irregular situation vary – some estimate it at 10 to 15 per cent while others estimate it at about a third of the total migrants in the world – it is acknowledged that their numbers also run in millions. In the United States alone, 11.7 million migrants are said to be undocumented.

Most of the international migrants originate from the global south and can be found in the global north. While this still holds true, data also shows an increasing trend of South-South migration. Since 2000, the migrant stock in the South has increased more rapidly than in the North. Between 2000 and 2010, the average annual growth rate for the migrant stock in the South was 2.5% per annum. In the North, the annual growth rate was around 2.3%. Since 2010, the annual growth rate has fallen to 1.8% in the developing regions and 1.5% in the developed regions.

While the causes of migration varies including historical diasporas such as those of Asians to North America or of Africans to Europe, it is widely acknowledged that economic, social and political conditions of the countries of origin play a major role in the migration of people. The first United Nations High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development said that:

Participants felt that it was essential to address the root causes of international migration to ensure that people migrated out of choice rather than necessity. They observed that people often had to migrate because of poverty, conflict, human rights violations, poor governance or lack of employment (United Nations General Assembly or UNGA, 2006, p2, para # II.9).

Migrants and the cities

Cities play a crucial role in migration. Usual migration pattern involves going into cities – in the country of origin – where overseas placement agencies are located; where government agencies that issue documents for processing overseas work have offices, and; where employment opportunities are more available than the original area they originate from.

In countries of origin, cities are often places of transit for international migrants – be they are rural people who go to cities to find overseas employment through recruitment agencies, or those who are displaced to the cities by economic, political, social and even environmental factors from the rural regions. Many rural people affected by natural calamities and climate change-induced disasters move to more urbanized areas especially to families and relatives living in the cities.

Cities in countries of destination hosts many of the international migrants around the world.

It is estimated that 50% of around 232 million migrants live in the following highly-urbanized and high-income countries – Australia, Canada, United States, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Russian Federation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

About one in five foreign-born person lives in cities. In the popular cities of Sydney, London and New York, about a third of their population are migrants or are foreign-born. In the Asia-Pacific region, more than 120,000 people migrate to the cities everyday.

The presence, however, of international migrants in the cities of more developed countries is fleeting owing to the temporariness or circularity of migration. In urban areas, there are three main categories of international migrants – professionals, international students, and low-skilled migrants. Those who are considered unskilled and low-skilled comprise the bulk of the international migrants.

The huge numbers of international migrants who live and work in the cities make their human rights concerns as urban concerns.

Human Rights Issues of Migrants in the Cities

  1. Social exclusion

Marginalisation and exclusion are common experiences of migrants especially those who are on a temporary condition and are in jobs usually considered as the 3-D – dirty, dangeous and difficult.

Social exclusion comes in all spheres.

On the economic aspect, migrants are often not covered by existing labor laws. Particular policies are often instituted to govern their working condition and these usually lack mechanisms for protection of their interbationally-recognized human and labor rights.

Migrants receive the lowest wage among all workers or, at the most, a wage that is lower than other workers who are in a similar line of job. Their job security is always on the line, their wages are delayed and their benefits are limited.

The political and civil rights of migrants are also curtailed. Temporary migrants, because of their status are not allowed to take part in political exercises such as elections. In countries in the Middle East, even their self-organizing is not allowed. They are made into a docile workforce who must endure whatever treatment they get.

Culturally, limited opportunities are available for their social and cultural interaction. Learnings of the host countries’ culture are left to their own experience, and ways to expose local peoples to their own respective culture is not common.

Discrimination is rampant against migrant workers. Worse, they are made as scapegoats to economic and social problems that actually arise from national and global crises. They are unjustly blamed despite being active contributors to the economy – as productive workers or active consumers – and even in the social and multicultural awareness and appreciation of the local people.

  1. Suitable accommodation

Suitable accommodation is a major concern considering that most migrants are temporary and low-skilled. Their already meager income is further challenged by the fact that they have to sustain their family back in their home country while contending with the ever-increasing cost of living in the cities where they live.

It is notable that cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong, New York City that are in the top most expensive cities in the world, are some of the major destination of international destinations of migrants.

The problem of accommodation of migrants is most prevalent among foreign domestic workers or FDWs.

Many countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East that employ millions of FDWs who are mostly women have policies or practice that make it mandatory for FDWs (or caregivers and caretakers) to live inside the household they work with. This mandatory live-in arrangement heightens the vulnerability of FDWs to abusive treatment.

FDWs commonly experience long working hours as a result of living and working in the same place. They are on-call for 24 hours a day and seven days in a week. According to the Mission for Migrant Workers or MFMW – an NGO servicing FDWs in Hong Kong that is home to more than 340,000 FDWs – data of the cases they handled for the past three years pointed out long working hours as a common problem of FDWs. Long working hours topped the labor problem of migrants in 2015 at 83%. In 2014, it was 82% and in was at 86.6% in 2013. This year, 2 out of every 5 domestic workers reported working for more than 16 hours each while 3 out of 5 work for 11 to 16 hours daily.

Aside from long working hours, FDWs also gets trapped in abusive situation that they are forced to endure. The celebrated case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in 2014 highlighted the situation of FDWs that oftentimes remain hidden from the public. Sulityaningsih suffered from constant physical, verbal and mental abuses for eight months before her employer – later on convicted – tried to ship her away unnoticed back to Indonesia. However, photos taken by a fellow Indonesian domestic worker who noticed her and spoke to her in the airport became immediately viral in social media. Later on, the campaign for justice for Sulistyaningsih even became an international discussion that helped to highlight the deplorable working and living condition of FDWs.

Sulistyaningsih’s case was not an isolated one as there have been others in Hong Kong or elsewhere who suffered from essentially the same treatment. Still a lot goes unreported as they happen within the confines of private homes.

Aside from abuses, the living condition itself of FDWs needs to be looked at. In geographically small cities like Hong Kong, standards of suitable accommodation does not often mean habitable. Some forms of sleeping arrangements that occur include sleeping in the kitchen or other parts of the house like living or laundry room, as well as sleeping together with their wards who are already young adults. The privacy FDWs deserve is often absent. In 2013, 43% of FDWs in Hong Kong were not provided with private accommodation. This increased to 47% in 2014 and again slightly went up to 48% last year.

  1. Criminalization of irregular migrants

Irregular migration is a usual topic in bilateral and multilateral meetings on migration. It is however unfortunate that discussions on irregular migration are framed and lead to heightened criminalization of irregular migrants and further constriction of borders.

Irregular migration can arise from the grave condition of work of migrants, as well as schemes of agents that perpetuate human and labor trafficking including recruitment agencies (accredited and illegal ones) and organized trafficking syndicates.

Many migrants who are considered as irregular are undocumented do not start out as such. They migrate through legal means but eventually they run away from their legal employment (due to various reasons including labor exploitation or other forms of abuse) and forced to become irregular than get repatriated to face unemployment or indebtedness resulting from their migration.

Trafficking also conrtibutes to the perpetuation of irregular migration. Trafficked migrants find themselves in a different work or arrangement from what they committed themselves to during the recruitment process. They are intentionally misled or are made to sign fake documents. Once in the county of destination, they are already trapped or indebted and have no option but to live and work under insecure conditions.

In the case of workers from the Philippines, for example, illegal collection of placement fees by private recruitment agencies is considered as illegal recruitment and, by definition in the laws of the country, is also part of trafficking. However, the lack of sufficient monitoring mechanism and the problems in prosecuting erring recruiters make illegal recruitment a rampant practice and thus, contributing to the increase in the number of undocumented Filipino migrants.

Despite the fact the irregular workers are also productive workers – they are even worse off as they are absolutely not covered by any labor law protection or have access to legal and social services – they are often looked at in a negative light. They are unjustly seen as job-grabbers or as criminal elements.

  1. Marriage migrants and migrant families

Marriage migration has always been one form of transborder movement. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of marriage migrants. In South Korea, for example, the number of marriage migrants more than doubled from 114,685 in 2004 to 263,678 in 2014.

Vulnerability of marriage migrants has very particular features. While they are also part of the migrant workers, their vulnerability is heightened by the dependence of their security to their spouse during the period of processing their documents. This makes them very much exposed to abuses and violence.

Their social integration is also an uphill battle for marriage migrants. Language is a major barrier to enabling them to land decent jobs, access social services, and develop social relations among the people and community of their spouse. Other hindrances to developing their full potential as active citizens of the country of their spouse includes non-recognition of their skills, widespread prejudices against marriage migrants, and prevalent racism and discrimnation.

  1. Access to social and leisure services

Cities are considered more superior to rural areas in terms of opportunities available and structures present for social interactions and leisure (and sports) activities.

Migrants, however, have limited access to these opportunities and facilities.

Economic barriers are major hindrances to migrants. These impact on their capacity to afford required fees, or they just do not have the time for leisure as many of them are forced to seek out extra income on their rest hours or rest days in order to meet their basic needs in the country where they are, and the increasing needs of their household in their country of origin.

Non-provision of days off is also a widespread problem especially for domestic workers. The lack of rules in many countries on daysoff such as the Middle East allow for FDWs to be made to work without break or even if they do have days off, the time given to them for their own is curtailed by the imposition of curfews or by forcing them to do work first before they can step out of the house.

While communication facilities are efficient in the cities, there are sectors among migrants that are denied access to them either because of deplorable living conditions or deliberate confiscation of communciation devices. The latter is very common among live-in FDWs who are often not allowed to use handheld devices during “work hours” which is very much fluid because of their live-in condition, or they find their devices confiscated with their use heavily dictated.

This problem impacts the social relations of FDWs to their fellow migrants and even to their families back home. Their mental and emotional condition is also very much affected with homseickness hitting them with more impact, or setting in of deep and constant depression. Deaths of migrants are regular news with some of them labeled as mysterious and others judged as suicides. In the first quarter of this year alone, around four FDWs reportedly committed suicide in Hong Kong and depression around problems – from financial to personal – is acknowledged as common triggers of this act.

Migration and Development

Urbanisation and the creation and expansion of cities are largely equated to development. This, however, is still very much debatable as it does not really define the quality of development measured through urbanisation.

In recent years, migration has become one of the key topics in discussions on development. This is most evident in the annual Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) and in the inclusion of migration and migrants in the 2030 sustainable developent agenda agreed by the UN in September 2015.

The GFMD is an annual voluntary forum of states and other stakeholders in migration, including recruitment agencies and remittance services, that aim to maximize the so-called potentials of migration to induce national development. The annual forum focuses on topics of remittance and management of migration to ensure a “safe, orderly and regular” migration.

Meanwhile, the document “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” differs from its predecessor – the Millennium Development Goals – in the fact that the former include some migrant-specific goals and targets. The following are some of the significant mentions of migrants:

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

5.1 End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere

5.2 Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation

5.4 Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate


Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all


8.7 Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms

8.8 Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment


Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries


10.7 Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies
10.c By 2030, reduce to less than 3 per cent the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 per cent


The inclusion of migration in the 2030 development agenda is a positive step. It puts migration into the international, regional and national agendas. Unlike in the previous MDGs, the current development agenda give a level of recognition to the relations of migration to development.


However, migration and migrants-related goals, targest and indicators look at migration not as a development problem to be addressed but as an opportunity for development. Point #29 of the Declaration talks of international migration’s “relevance” to development instead of looking at the steadily increasing number of migrants – from 175 million when the MDGs were formulated to the current 232 million – as a failure of the development framework and strategy of the past three decades.


While there are positive points in the outcome document that can impact on the condition of migrants – particularly Goal
8.8 that calls to “protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment”; Goal 10.3 that aims to “ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including through eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practice…” that may be assumed to include migrants, and; Goal 10.c that targets by 2030 “(to) reduce to less than 3% the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5%” – these are eclipsed by the obvious adherence of the document to the migration for development agenda that serves neoliberal globalization.


It noticeable that most of the targets relating to migrants are put in Goal 10 and in particular in 10.7 that says: Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.


Though the inclusion of the Goal 10 is a step forward, it shows that governments believe that: 1. Migration, that is a “planned and well-managed”, can reduce inequalities within and among countries, and; 2. The concern on remittance is merely on the transaction rate.


As migration and forced displacement are results of lack of development and skewed economic policies including problematic
aid architecture, these analyses are not only superficial but are downright encouragement for countries to further develop and systematize labour export programs in the guise of managing migration; and to exert efforts to increase the volume of remittance as means to address the inequality among countries, inequality within countries (and the inequality between men and women) that have shaped current migration.


For development to be truly relevant to the condition of migrants and responsive to
their aspirations, it foremostly must resolve the economic, political, social, cultural and environmental problems that force people
to leave their country of birth and settle elsewhere. Migration is a right and for it to must be a truly free practice of a right, forced migration and displacement must be put as a development concern.


This forcible displacement puts migrants in a vulnerable condition where they are made to accept abusive and exploitative policies and practices just so they can have a job and provide for their families in their home country who, in turn, have to contend with worsening crisis.


In countries hosting migrants, the prevalent framework is to allow for migration ow that brings in the skilled but cheap and disposable labor the various economic sectors need. Borders are closed and migration policies constrict that ensure foreign workers continue to live and work in the margins. The harsh treatment refugees receive show how governments of most countries of destination view them as burdens and, together with foreign workers, stealers of jobs and of dwindling social services.


In the countries of destination, the rights of migrants as workers, as women and as human beings are grossly violated.



Migrant workers are productive and engaged members in all spheres of an urban community. There are, however, hindrances that limit their activities as stakeholders in development – be it of a city or of a country as a whole.


Foremost that must be addressed by States are the root problems that force the displacement of people including international displacement. Such problems breed numerous irregularities and violations of the rights of migrants form the start of the process of their migration. Meanwhile, while in transit and ultimately in their country of destination, the lack of structural reforms that address the root causes of forced migration make migrant workers vulnerable to conditions that they are forced to endure just so they can hold on to their employment and support their families.


Framework on migration and migrant workers must graduate from looking at them as commodities and an unending source of cheap, flexible, disposable and docile workers. Migration must be framed on human rights in its totality – including ensuring that it is transformed into a practice of right rather due to a lack of choice – to ensure that the whole process from departure to arrival and then to return to their country of origin if they choose to do so, is one that is safe and respectful of their dignity as migrants, as workers, and as human beings.



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