In June 2014, the Thai government abruptly decided to crack down on undocumented migrant labour in the country, resulting in a mass exodus of some 220,000 Cambodian migrant workers who poured back across the border into Cambodia, leaving authorities here to deal with a sudden and unexpected influx of people in need of jobs.
Three years later, in July of this year, it happened all over again, as thousands were trucked back across the border after Thailand issued another abrupt change to its policies on migrant labour.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, the government is currently undertaking a large-scale crackdown on undocumented migrants, including raids that have resulted in thousands of arrests and thousands more living in fear of detention and deportation.
These recurring events, which affect the lives of hundreds of thousands, are manifestations of a wider problem throughout Southeast Asia. Migrant workers, who contribute immensely to the economies of both sending and receiving countries, remain at the whim of mercurial government policies and lack vital protections.
Given their undeniable contribution, along with Asean’s purported commitment to promoting a “people-centred” regional community, Asean has an obligation to do more to protect these workers. This entails responsibilities for both national governments and the regional grouping as a whole.
In 2007, Asean took an important first step towards fulfilling this obligation by adopting by the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers. This document calls on sending countries like Cambodia to implement policies to protect outgoing workers throughout the recruitment process and while abroad. It also calls on receiving countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, to protect the welfare, rights and dignity of migrant workers residing within their borders.
The declaration also commits Asean member states to develop a regional instrument to protect migrant workers. Since 2009, Asean governments have been deliberating over the specifics of this instrument. Many hope the result will be a legally binding treaty to protect migrant workers and their families. Such a treaty would place legal obligations on both sending and receiving countries to protect the human rights of migrants.
But a legally binding treaty is still far from a reality. Asean seems to have come to a standstill on this issue, and there is now talk of the treaty being simply “morally binding”. Given how dramatically Asean has collectively failed migrants thus far, however, it’s hard to imagine how a morally binding agreement would actually compel governments to act. The existing declaration on migrant workers already lacks teeth, failing to include any enforcement mechanism to ensure that member states live up to the commitments within it. Unsurprisingly, in the 10 years since the declaration’s adoption, cases of migrants being severely abused abroad have continued to flow in, and few governments have taken concrete action to protect them.
Asean just celebrated its 50th birthday, and there’s no denying that the regional organisation has come far since its inception. But it is also high time to think critically about how Asean moving forward can advance regional protections for all citizens.
Looking ahead, Asean, both as individual states and as a regional body, must review its protection mechanisms to ensure that commitments made on paper result in changes on the ground that will result in Asean living up to its vision of integrity and of “one community”. This should include the adoption of a legally binding treaty protecting the economic, social, cultural, religious and political rights of all migrant workers.
Migration within Asean is not something that will slow down for the foreseeable future. The significant disparities in availability of jobs and income between different countries in the region provide a strong incentive for people to move in search of better opportunities.
And Asean’s economic integration process has only encouraged more employers and workers to reach and move across borders. But all too often, these migrants are treated as a security threat, rather than as human beings and contributors to the economy.
Governments have a legitimate need to address undocumented workers in their countries. But doing so through a national security lens is shortsighted and will ultimately be unsuccessful. Instead, individual governments must focus their efforts on ensuring that migrants are protected and not treated as commodities.
Migrant workers are integral to our economic development, both at home and abroad. But they are also people. They are individuals, each with their own stories and reasons for packing their bags and heading to foreign countries to look for work.
Many leave behind young children in the care of their elderly parents. The resulting family separation can have long-lasting negative social and psychological impacts on the children, which should also be part of the policy discussion.
Asean governments would do well to bear in mind the human toll that punitive policies toward migrants and a failure to safeguard their rights can have when discussing and implementing policies that affect them.
Mu Sochua is a member of the National Assembly.