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Nov-11-2010 16:32printcomments

Will Migrants Gain Respect?

"Civil society decries rising xenophobia that scapegoats migrants for broader societal and economic problems that are not of their making" - GFMD delegates

field workers photo by Bonnie King

(LAS CRUCES, N.M.) - Countering racism. Ratifying the Migrant Workers Convention. Doing away with exploitative guestworker systems. Assuring the rights of migrant domestic workers. Regularizing "irregular" migrants. Special protections for women and child migrants. Treating migrant remittances as an income emergency brake rather than an economic engine. Helping Haiti in its time of dire need.

All the above were on the list of the proposals that emerged from the Civil Society Days of the Fourth Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) held this week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Attended by more than 400 delegates from 80 nations, the GFMD was billed as a major meeting examining the situation of the world's nearly 215 million international migrants, according to recent numbers from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division.

In a report prepared for national governments also meeting in the same venue this week, delegates criticized the political and economic climate confronting international migrants, and denounced the massacre of 72 Central American and South American migrants in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas earlier this year.

"Civil society decries rising xenophobia that scapegoats migrants for broader societal and economic problems that are not of their making," the GFMD delegates stated. Deploring the "heavy emphasis on security," the civil society report blasted militarization, detention, border controls and deportation.

"We urge governments to explore alternatives to detention that are not only more humane but cost less as well," the report declared. "Children should not be detained under any circumstance."

Hosted for the first time by the Mexican government, the GFMD was organized by the private BBVA Bancomer Foundation. Other named sponsors included the Spanish-owned BBVA Bancomer bank, MacArthur Foundation, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and Oxfam Mexico.

Separtely, President Felipe Calderon and First Lady Margarita Zavala attended the Civil Society Days of the GFMD. Security was extremely tight, as Mexican troops with heavy-caliber machine-guns and Jalisco state police in military-style uniforms ringed the Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center where the event was held.

Attendees were forced to pass through two police checkpoints, a metal detector and a bag search before entering the premises. Outside the sprawling conference hall on the edge of the resort town, Mexican soldiers scoured an adjacent estuary.

In prepared remarks that cited Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes and his concept of "mestizaje," or cross-cultural fusion, Zavala termed migration "fundamental" to the identity of a multicultural Mexico. She also stressed the need to protect and assist child migrants.

Echoing his wife's previous remarks, President Calderon's words credited migration for helping develop both his country and the "largest economy of the 20th century" north of the border, despite the hardships suffered by Mexican families.

The leader of a country which is under international scrutiny for the treatment of Central American and other migrants passing through national territory to the US, President Calderon detailed several accords Mexico has struck with Central American countries that are designed to regularize immigration.

"Today, migration is not and never will be a crime in Mexico," Calderon insisted. Other Mexican officials who attended the GFMD included Interior Minister Francisco Blake, Jalisco Governor Emilio Gonzalez and Puerto Vallarta Mayor Salvador Gonzalez among many others.

While each country has its own particular experiences with migration, common themes resounded at the GFMD's Civil Society Days. For example, defending domestic workers from human rights abuses and applying international labor standards to an isolated, vulnerable segement of the workforce was an issue that galvanized delegates from across the world.

Instances of horrific treatment that range from rape to torture happen in "Manhattan and Kuwait," said US labor organizer Ana Avendano in an interview with Frontera NorteSur.

Avendano, who serves as the assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO for immigration and community action, said the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep numbers on domestic workers, but an estimated 200,000 people of different nationalities toil away in homes in the state of New York alone.

According to Avendano, the AFL-CIO is actively supporting an international campaign for the specific inclusion of domestic workers in the International Labor Organization (ILO), so household employees can enjoy the rights of other workers-the 8-hour day, social security and time for rest and relaxation.

"We expect that it should be adopted," Avendano said.

"Really, this year should be about fine-tuning the convention." The Obama administration, she said, has taken a stand in favor of a convention for domestic workers in the ILO.

Stranger than fiction Order Now

"Domestic work is a particular kind of work, not just because it takes place in the household, but also because of its fundamental importance in the very fabric of society," states RESPECT, a European network of domestic worker groups and supporters. "Without provision for child-care, care for the elderly, cooking and cleaning, society simply couldn't function."

In the US, New York recently passed a law that applies basic labor standards to domestic workers, and the measure could open the door to organizing a heavily immigrant sector of the labor force, according to Avendano. Nationally, the AFL-CIO is supporting independent domestic worker organizing efforts, Avendano added, as well as a new intitiative called the Excluded Workers Congress that brings together domestic workers, day laborers, taxi drivers, farmworkers, unemployable ex-felons, and other people at the margins of the economy.

International labor advocates gathered in Puerto Vallarta cautioned that resistance to incorporating domestic workers into the ILO is still felt from the governments of Canada, Indonesia and some European Union member states.

"Domestic workers are organizing themselves, but there really is a need to work with the trade unions and civil society," said Rex Varona of the International NGO Platform on the Migrant Workers Convention.

A big issue swirling around the 2010 GFMD had to do with the role of the forum in formulating international migrant policies. Although it grew out of the United Nations in 2006, the GFMD is not a formal meeting of the world body. Organized on an ad-hoc basis, the forum serves as a sounding board and networking space for both non-governmental and governmental organizations.

Civil society representatives credited the Mexican government and GFMD organizers for making sure that this year's forum allowed greater opportunities for interaction between governmental and non-governmental delegates, but it is unclear how much weight the non-binding recommendations emanating from the unofficial meeting will have on international migrant policy, or if they will even have an impact on the next UN high-level dialogue on migration scheduled for 2013.

"Civil society and diaspora groups don't want the Global Forum to be a talk show," insisted Ndidi Njokou of the United Kingdom-based African Foundation for Development. The moderator for the Europe-Africa non-governmental group in Puerto Vallarta, Njokou maintained that a standing committee needs to be established to carry out the work of the GFMD between meetings, as well as "an evaluation process for our progress."

A veteran of the first GFMD in 2006, Njokou said the international gathering has made progress in advocating for migrants. "It is improving as it goes along," she told Frontera NorteSur. "It has kept improving throughout the years, but a lot remains to be done."

Nonethless, some pro-migrant organizations from Mexico and other nations showed up in Puerto Vallarta to protest the GFMD. An e-mail sent by a member of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement charged that the GFMD reeked of "illegitimacy" and only included "carefully selected" delegates whose expenses were paid.

At the entrance to the long jungle road leading into the Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center, a metal gate guarded by dozens of Jalisco state police officers barred protesters from the University of North Tamaulipas (UNT) who had made a time-consuming trek from the Mexico-US border to the Pacific Coast.

"In Mexico, we criticize the (US) border wall, but what do we have here?" questioned UNT Rector Francisco Chavira. "They don`t allow people who think differently to enter. The Mexican government is of the classist kind."

As UNT students chanted "Racist Forum" far from the ears of GFMD delegates, Chavira sharply criticized the meeting as an exercise in demagoguery that "won't do anything."

Charging that corruption in the state and federal governments permitted the Tamaulipas migrant massacre to take place, Chavira insisted that human rights were not respected in Mexico.

According to media reports, Mexican authorities have detained at least eight people for committing the Tamaulipas massacre, while six other alleged complices reportedly perished in clashes with Mexican security forces.

Chavira and his students came to Puerto Vallarta with other grievances. The border educator urged his government to give Mexican consulates in the US the power to issue official identification cards to migrants for voting in Mexico. He demanded foreign-owned assembly plants in Mexico pay the equivalent of the US minimum wage, and called upon Mexican money transfer businesses like Banco Azteca and Elektra to return even a little portion of the profits they earn from remittances back to the families of migrant workers.

"The people inside don't know about the migrant problem," Chavira said. "This a light forum paid for by a private business, and coming from a private sector that benefits from migrant remittances and pays miserable salaries."


Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.