Asian migrant women face vulnerabilities in the Arab States

Mar 9, 2009

UNDP report outlines protection policies for countries receiving and sending migrant women

Manila - Despite the substantial economic benefits that Asian women migrant workers generate from their work in the Arab region, they often migrate under unsafe conditions, are targets of sexual exploitation and violence, and are highly vulnerable to factors that lead to HIV infection, says a study released here today by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

In the midst of the global economic crisis, with rates of unemployment multiplying on a daily basis, the situation of migrant workers is under threat. When demand for labour wanes, those in the weakest bargaining position, usually temporary migrant workers and particularly the undocumented, will accept almost any conditions to hold on to their jobs.
Based on almost 600 interviews in four Asian countries and three in the Arab States, the report, HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: from Asia to the Arab States, reveals the social, economic and health toll that migration imposes on emigrating women, particularly low-skilled ones who are lured by job prospects.

The Arab States are the primary destination for many migrant workers from Asia, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, the countries which are the focus of the research. The host countries examined in the study are: Bahrain, Lebanon and UAE.

The report, a collaborative initiative of UNDP, UNAIDS, IOM and UNIFEM estimates that 70-80 percent of migrants from Sri Lanka and the Philippines to the Arab States are women. Between 1991 and 2007, 60 percent of women migrants from Bangladesh left to find employment in the Arab States. Remittances from Filipinos working in the Arab States in 2007 amounted to $2.17 billion. In Bangladesh, migrant workers sent back close to $637 million from the UAE. Current remittances by migrant workers from Sri Lanka amount to $3 billion.

“In this global financial downturn, we cannot forget the needs and rights of migrant workers who are such an integral part of so many economies,” says Ajay Chhibber, UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “If they are found HIV positive, they risk deportation. Once returned to their home countries, they are unable to find work and face discrimination and social isolation,” he says.

Deportation of HIV-positive migrants by host countries and the absence of reintegration programmes in countries of origin can be devastating for the health, well-being, and livelihoods of migrants and their families, according to the report. Furthermore, “the impossibility of returning HIV-positive migrants to migrate again through regular channels… puts them at substantial risk of being trafficked.”

“Most of migrant workers around the world are subject to exploitation and mistreatment, and that is a worldwide problem.” says General Siham Harakeh, Head of the Nationality, Passports and Foreigners Bureau at the Directorate of General Security in Lebanon. “Despite the existence of abused and exploited cases that totally contradicts with human rights, the majority of the Lebanese people respects these rights and deal with migrants as members of their family.”

“Although migration itself is not a risk factor to HIV infection, the conditions under which some workers migrate and their living conditions in the host countries make them highly vulnerable to HIV” says JVR Prasada Rao, Regional Director of UNAIDS in Asia and the Pacific. “In many cases, HIV testing in both countries of origin and host countries breaches migrants’ rights – testing is undertaken without consent, counseling, confidentiality or support,” he says.

"While there has been enormous progress in the Philippines with very progressive and effective initiatives developed by the government and NGOs, this work needs to be further expanded. Programmes in the Philippines need to ensure that all migrants move in safe conditions, that they know how to protect themselves and how to look for assistance if they find themselves in difficult circumstances,” says Renaud Meyer, UNDP Country Director in the Philippines.

The study shows that host countries and countries of origin have an equal responsibility to provide protective policies and programmes. Among those recommended in the report:

•    Migrants who have a medical condition that does not impair their ability to work, such as living with HIV, should not be denied the right to work
•    Health insurance schemes for migrant workers should cover all aspects of health, including HIV
•    Hiring agents and employer blacklists need to be created, monitored and shared
•    Embassy and consular staff in host countries should be trained on the special needs and vulnerabilities of migrant women
•    Reform existing labour laws to cover migrant workers in the domestic sector

The study also outlines positive steps that are being taken in some host countries in the Arab States to ensure responsiveness to the needs of migrant women. In Lebanon, for example, all working migrants have health insurance. In the UAE, a new unified contract to regulate the rights and duties of domestic workers includes a medical aid provision. “The Government of Bahrain, NGOs and the UN are committed to starting a project to strengthen information and HIV/AIDS services for migrant women,” says Sayed Aqa, UN Resident Coordinator in Bahrain.

Click here to download a copy of the "HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: from Asia to the Arab States" report.

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Click here to download a copy of the "HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women:
from Asia to the Arab States" report.

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