GENDER: Feminization of Migration

Women, who constitute nearly fifty percent of global migration, represent an economic resource in many poor countries, making them the main export commodity. However, key United Nations (UN) policies on human trafficking continue to overlook migrant domestic workers in the Middle East.

Domestic care has become a key feature in the socio-economic fabric of developing countries such as Sri Lanka, eager to alleviate an 18.9 percent youth unemployment rate and lessen possible social unrest, which is lately common in many Arab countries. Dependence on the remittances of nearly 130,000 Sri Lankan women migrating to the Middle East yearly as domestic workers has been welcomed by officials who see this lucrative labour market as a key contributor to economic stability. Indeed, last year, Sri Lankan migrant workers sent nearly 289.8 million in remittances with a record growth of 12.3 percent from 2009.

“The private remittances of Sri Lankan migrants have significantly augmented our foreign currency reserves and the national income. It’s estimated that private remittances this year, 2010 will amount to approximately US $4 billion,” says Sri Lanka’s UN ambassador Dr. Palitha Kohona speaking at a general assembly session last November discussing international migration and development. “Sri Lanka is on the verge of rapid economic take off following the decisive conclusion of a three decade long conflict with the terrorist LTTE. The government is making large investments in infrastructure and developing productive assets so that Sri Lanka’s strengths will be optimized in this post-conflict scenario. We have taken many measures on migration management to ensure that migration becomes a key contributor to national development.”

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), Sri Lankan female migrant domestic workers, who accounted for nearly sixty-two percent of private remittances, contributed to increasing foreign currency reserves, reducing devaluation of the Sri Lankan rupee and the repayment of foreign debts like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

“The Sri Lankan government gets a good profit from us; they must take care of us. They must do more to protect us,” Chandrani, a domestic worker and community leader in Lebanon said in an interview with Her Blueprint. “I became very involved in assisting Sri Lankan women and started speaking to many newspapers about the situation and criticized the Sri Lankan embassy for doing nothing to protect their nationals. As a result, the embassy had me detained and after I was released they made sure I could no longer visit the prisons.”

Despite calls by Sri Lankan officials to halt the large numbers of women migrating to the Middle East due to the growing number of complaints of abuse, the Sri Lankan government had been quite content to allow legal and illegal migration to continue.

Human trafficking

Governments are not the only one’s turning a blind eye. Current UN policies on human trafficking are also failing to assist the thousands of women migrating to the Middle East for domestic work.

According to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, illegal and legal recruitment agencies in countries like Sri Lanka would technically be described as traffickers. Thousands of domestic workers who are deceived by labour agents and find themselves in forced labour, debt bondage and conditions akin to slavery, which most women encounter upon arrival, would in essence be victims of human trafficking.

However, the stereotypical image of the trafficked victim and the UN’s focus on sex workers leaves many female migrants to fend for themselves. Not only does UN negate male migrants who are tricked into foreign employment but it also ignores that trafficking is in itself a form of abuse and that women are being forced to migrate globally to fulfill developing countries financial needs legally.

“Trafficking victims come to Lebanon legally. For instance, sex workers from Eastern Europe or other Arab countries enter under artists’ visas. It’s like a work permit that’s valid for one month and renewable for up to six months. A recruiter solicits them in their home country and they’re not allowed to change employers, which is a lot like the sponsorship system with domestic workers,” Ghada Jabbour, Gender and Trafficking specialist at KAFA (Enough) Violence and Exploitation told Her Blueprint.

“Domestic workers and sex workers are being used in a system that is set up to work against their rights as workers or human beings,” adds Jabbour.