Burmese government officials remained absent this week from a major regional conference for migrant-sending nations in Dhaka, despite an estimated 10 percent of Burma’s population travelling abroad to work.
The conference, named “Migration with Dignity” and part of the Colombo Process, is an attempt by 11 migrant-sending countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Nepal, India and Cambodia to improve coordination and protection of migrant workers.
This year focused on domestic workers, “one of the most vulnerable categories of migrant workers who work in isolation and are not covered by domestic law”, according to Dr Chowdury Abrar, professor of international relations at Dhaka University.
Burma sends millions of workers to both Thailand and Malaysia, which as major receiver nation attended in an observer capacity, as did the United Arab Emirates.
Also included in this year’s meeting, the first in five years, were a number of civil society representatives, primarily from the Migrant Forum in Asia, a network of NGOs represented by Abrar.
“We are exalting our own governments to get their acts together” Abrar told DVB, because, he believes, sender governments are often afraid to bring up rights issues with receiver nations over fears about bargaining from a “perceived weak position”.
The lack of formal arrangements with Burmese labour was seen as one reason why Burma was absent. But “at the end of the day you are talking about protecting the rights of migrants with a state that does not protect or honour and provide minimum protection or rights to its own citizens”, Abrar said.
Burma’s new constitution does have a provision for the right of association. Its implementation however is not considered a realistic possibility for the millions of Burmese who migrate for work, says Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. He notes that whenever Burmese migrant workers are asked if they sought help from their embassy, they laughed. Roberston instead describes the regime as “predatory”.
Jackie Pollock of the Thailand-based Migrant Assistance Program (MAP) said that “it has been deliberate policy [from the Burmese government] because they haven’t acknowledged the vast majority who left the country. As far as the Burmese are concerned, they didn’t exist”.
She said the government was afraid “because if they really start talking to migrants and providing services then they have to talk about people’s rights and protecting them, and if they do that overseas then they have to do that at home”.
Abrar sees “a definite need for collaboration and to harmonise policies, and to be more rights-oriented and not just see their migrants as economic agents”.
Pollock notes however that co-ordination in migrant rights is important for the future of Burma as roughly 10 percent of the country travel abroad for work. These people receive little additional skills and return home “exhausted”, and thus unable to help in the development of the nation.
There are thought to be several million migrants in Thailand alone, with working conditions routinely exposed as being almost prison-like. Tight restrictions are often placed on the movement and political association of migrant workers.