By Bronwen Dachs Catholic News Service
People who cross international borders to work often face appalling exploitation, yet this is mostly shrugged off by citizens in host countries, said a U.S. bishops’ conference participant at a global migration meeting in Quito, Ecuador.
“Labor trafficking is common and people tend to underestimate the damage this causes,” said Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking programs in the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services.
“Migrants and their families invest in jobs,” she said, noting that with fees paid to labor contractors, migrant laborers “start their jobs in debt and, with their visas tied to that job, they can’t quit.”
Unscrupulous employers take advantage of migrants’ vulnerability, “yet we find people saying, ‘at least they’re better off than they would be in their own countries,'” Chester told Catholic News Service.
She was one of more than 250 civil society leaders from around the world who attended the Jan. 21-24 Global Forum on Migration and Development. The theme of this annual meeting — for governments, local authorities, businesses and faith and civil society organizations — was “Sustainable approaches to human mobility: upholding rights, strengthening state agency and advancing development through partnerships and collective action.”
People are deprived of basic health care and education through increasing criminalization of migration, said Stephane Jaquemet, policy director of the International Catholic Migration Commission and head of the forum’s civil society coordinating office.
“We encourage governments to be inclusive” so that migrants can receive basic services regardless of their status, he said, noting that where teachers are obliged by law to report irregular migrants, parents will not enroll their children in school.
“In acute humanitarian crises, people must be treated according to their needs,” Jaquemet said in a Jan. 24 phone interview. “Whether someone is a political opposition figure or a woman no longer able to feed her children, the fundamental dignity of every human being is what is important, not the artificial distinctions between refugee and migrant,” he said.
Many participants at the forum were migrants, Jaquemet said, noting that “it’s essential that we don’t substitute for the voice of migrants.”
Chester said migrants told other participants about the risks of their journeys.
“They talked about those who don’t make it to the other side, who are lost along the way and how no one looks for them,” she said.
Many migrants’ sole aim is to work to send money to their families, she added.
“They place themselves second, which makes them vulnerable” not only to exploitation by employers, but also to loss of self-esteem and criticism from family members when contributions are small, Chester said.
“Migration is a phenomenon, but it’s also people,” she said. “It’s frightening — the numbers of people dying on these journeys and the criminalization of migration.”
Jaquemet said countries with good inclusion policies see a reduction in racist and xenophobic attacks. Inclusion means “accepting migrants with all their differences” and working with the authorities to make them part of local communities, he said.
Authorities need to take responsibility for xenophobia in their regions, put in place “proper strategies for inclusion” and make it clear to all that they “will not tolerate abuse” of migrants, he said.
“As long as there are no policies to include migrants, any attempt to fight xenophobia will be unsuccessful,” Jaquemet said.
By improving services for everyone, particularly the poor, local authorities can ensure that they “don’t play one against the other,” he said.
With Ecuador hosting the meeting, migration from Venezuela, where “the conditions in the country are driving people out,” was a major topic of discussion, Jaquemet said.
More than 4 million people have fled Venezuela to escape widespread hunger, low wages, failing basic services and a lack of security. Most are in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil each hosting hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans.
Catholic parishes and aid agencies, including Jesuit Refugee Services and Caritas, “work daily with migrants, providing services that the state doesn’t,” Jaquemet said, noting that many church representatives were at the meeting.
“They mostly work with irregular migrants, who have the most problems,” he said.
The “vast majority of the people we help don’t have money or documents,” said Cristina Pancho, human mobility coordinator for Caritas Ecuador.
“They can’t afford passports,” she said, noting that a passport in Venezuela is said to cost about $1,000.
“Without documents, they can’t apply for visas to do any kind of work” in Ecuador, said Pancho, whose team provides legal, psychological and humanitarian assistance to migrants.
Scalabrinians at the meeting shared their experiences of working with migrants, said Father Claudio Gnesotto, president of the Rome-based Scalabrinian Agency for Cooperation for Development.
“Our goal is to make every migrant feel at home wherever they are,” he said, noting that “we put our best efforts into building an inclusive society.”
“The biggest focus is to help governments understand that every migrant is first a human being with rights and dignity that must be respected,” Father Gnesotto said.