In a Symposium on War, Refugees, Migration and Labour Issues held in Istanbul, Turkey on 24-25 September PSI Migration Programme Coordinator, Genevieve Gencianos and Najwa Hanna, PSI Subregional Secretary for Arab Countries presented PSI union actions in the MENA Region.
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The global number of forced displacement remains at unprecedented levels, and has doubled within the decade. At the end of 2021, 89.3 million people have been forcibly displaced and the number is expected to reach to more than 100 million in 2022. While displacement caused by conflicts, violence and human rights violations is a serious concern, equally alarming is the rising number of displacements caused by climate disasters. In 2021, the number of people internally displaced by disasters (23.7 million) is almost double than those caused by conflicts and violence (14.4 million).
Compounded by the covid-19 pandemic, we have in the last three years struggled with an intersecting crisis dubbed as the Triple C’s (covid, conflicts, climate crisis). This year, while barely recovering from the pandemic, the continued escalation of conflicts, the downward effects on the global economy, along with the dramatic increase in climate disasters worldwide, will see more displacement and forced migration happening in the coming years. The devastating floods in Pakistan that killed more than a thousand people and rendered 33 million destitute wading through floodwaters is but an example of the magnitude of disasters that the world can be facing in the wrath of the climate crisis.
The MENA Region
Over the last decade, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region has been facing a series of serious economic and political crises, from the collapse of the economy and banking system in Lebanon, political upheavals in Tunisia and Algeria, and rising incidents of poverty and inequality in Jordan, as with most other countries across the region. As if life could not get any harder, the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, further exacerbating the hardships of the population. Home to 11.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), 9 million refugees (World Bank, 2021), and hosting more than 40 million migrants, the region is also a global hotspot for climate change, being projected to see a temperature rise by two degrees, which will result to increasing water scarcity, drought and desertification, loss of jobs and livelihoods and more conflicts and violence.
This Triple C’s (Covid, Climate crisis and Conflicts) present the biggest challenges to public service workers who are at the frontlines delivering the services and the population that are coping with the impacts of these crises.
In the midst of these crises, public services have always remained as the fabric that holds societies together. Investments in health care, social care, disaster management and response, clean water, sanitation, public infrastructures and all range of public services is the only way that societies, migrants, refugees and their host communities can adapt to the multiple crises and build resilience. Public service workers and their unions play a unique role as they are the ones providing these essential services to refugees, migrants and their communities, while they also defend safe and decent working conditions, trade union rights, and access to social protection for workers. They are the main advocates in defending access to quality public services for everyone. However, public service unions do not necessarily have the full capacity and resources, i.e. technical, political, logistical, to fully carry out this unique and important role.
Moreover, low level of awareness and misperceptions about migrants and refugees as “competitors” for jobs and social services, present a barrier in the full inclusion of refugees and migrant workers in unions.
PSI upholds the human right to life, safety and dignity. Though there may be different legal frameworks for protection, all migrants, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees are entitled to the full respect of their human rights.
PSI believes that all migrants, IDPs and refugees have the right to decent work and social protection. They should have full access to public and social services, which are key to their empowerment and integration. These rights must apply in practice as well as in law, and equally to women and men, including the provision of gender-responsive services.
On the intersecting crises (Triple C’s), PSI demands climate justice, human rights and inclusive and quality public services, while reiterating the rights-based approach grounded on the principles of solidarity, human rights and addressing root causes.
Climate justice calls for a just and equitable transition for all workers, moving towards sustainable low-carbon energy, and climate finance for loss and damage that is integrated into the public services of countries suffering the most devastation from climate change.
There must be fundamental respect for human rights, humanitarian law and core labour standards in addressing migration, mobility and refugee flows. Countries must create safe and legal channels for migration that are child-sensitive, gender responsive, and rights-based, and refrain from outsourcing their responsibility for refugee protection, militarizing their borders, poaching critical skills and creating temporary migration models that undermine human and labour rights.
Investing in quality and inclusive public services is the best strategy for societies, displaced communities, and host communities to adapt, build resilience, and pursue equitable and sustainable development. We must continue to fight privatization and put people over profit, including ensuring an adequately staffed and equipped public service workforce at the frontlines who are able to deliver services in safe and decent working conditions.
Trade Union Actions in the MENA Region
In the last four years, PSI unions in the MENA Region have embarked on a Project on Human Rights, Trade Unions and Quality Public Services for Refugees and Migrant Workers, in partnership with PSI Swedish Affiliates (Vårdförbundet, ASSR, ST and Vision) and Union to Union. The aim of the project is to build the capacity of public service trade unions to address migration and refugee issues from the rights-based perspective.
The project involves 4 countries, namely, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Algeria in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These countries have been dealing with large movements of migrants and refugees.
Tunisia is a country of out-migration, transit and immigration. With a population of 11.3 million, more than 1.2 million Tunisians are estimated to be living abroad. Following the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, more than 25,500 Tunisians, mostly young people, crossed the Mediterranean in perilous journeys to reach Italy (IOM, 2016). More than 500 perished or were reported missing. Tunisia also serves as an immigration and transit country for migrants coming from the Maghreb and from Sub-Saharan Africa aiming to cross to Europe from the Tunisian coasts.
More than 345,000 migrants entered Tunisia when the civil war broke out in Libya in 2011. The number included 137,000 returning Tunisians and the rest were foreign nationals mostly from Egypt, Bangladesh, Sudan and Chad. An estimated half a million people crossed the Libya-Tunisia border in 2011. There are an estimated 300,000 Libyans living in Tunisia though their status is difficult to determine. It is also estimated that there are around 2,000 Syrian refugees in the country.
Tunisia is a signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. It has not ratified the UN Migrant Workers Convention nor the ILO Conventions on Migrant Workers C97 and C143. Article 26 of the new Tunisian Constitution prohibits refoulement, however, there is a reported huge gap between this principle and the reality that refugees and asylum-seekers are facing in the country. Tunisia is said to be frequently in breach of its obligations, leaving asylum-seekers with no effective legal status. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, detention and even deportation. Without legal status, they could not rent property, engage in business, or take up formal work. They do not have access to health care or education for their children, and in many cases, even have difficulty registering their children’s births.
Owing to its geographic location in North Africa, its vast land area, porous borders and gateway to Europe via the Mediterranean coast, Algeria is an important country of transit and destination of migrants and refugees from the Sub-Sahara. However, data is unreliable and difficult to obtain. The government claims that there are 25,000 Sub-Saharan Africans in the country, though non-governmental organisations claim the figure to be four times higher (IRN, 2016). When the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) opened its first office in Algiers in early 2016, it has recorded nearly 22,000 migrants passing through Arlit in northwest Niger on their way to Algeria between February and the end of September. The figure is just a fraction of the 269,533 recorded making their way from northern Niger to Libya during the same time period. This number is expected to rise as neighbouring countries continue to face political turmoil. Undocumented migrants are reported to be working in a variety of sectors such as in agriculture, construction and tourism in the Northern part of the country and in the garment industries and domestic service in the south. With no access to human and labour rights, undocumented migrants are subject to arrest and deportation. Migrants are victims of racist slurs and violence, with no recourse to justice. Hundreds have been wounded in clashes with Algerians in recent years. Health facilities do not treat migrants without documents and going to the police could result in arrest and deportation. Yet, Algeria has ratified the UN Migrant Workers Convention and the ILO Migrant Workers Convention C97. It is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1969 African Union Convention governing specific aspects of refugees in Africa. Moreover, Algeria is host to 165,000 Saharawi refugees living in refugee camps in Tindou. Displaced from fleeing from the Moroccan forces who advanced through Western Sahara during the Western Saharan War in 1975, the Saharawi refugee situation is among the most protracted situations globally (DRC, 2017). At the onset of the Libyan crisis, 12,296 Sub-Saharan migrants crossed into Algerian borders in 2011. With conflicts and political instability in Libya and in surrounding countries, the number of irregular crossings is expected to continue.
Lebanon is the country with the highest refugee per capita ratio in the world. The official number recorded was 1.01 million Syrian refugees (UNHCR, 2016), but in reality, the number is around 2 million living in Lebanon. In view of the refugee population, UNHCR data shows that 53% are children below 18 years of age, and 52% are female. With a refugee population exceeding 25% of the total population, and with public institutions that are under-resourced, Lebanon’s capacity to handle the crisis is heavily overstretched. Public service delivery, which was already facing serious deficiencies before the crisis, has seriously deteriorated. Lebanon has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. However, the Lebanese government maintains an ’’open border policy” whereby registered Syrian Refugees can live and work in Lebanon (ILO, 2013).
Yet since the introduction of tougher residency regulations for Syrian refugees in 2015, including a $200 fee, many have found it difficult or impossible to renew their permits. Unable to work without fear of arrest, families increasingly rely on their children to earn money to survive (The Guardian, 2016). A 2015 study by UNICEF, Save the Children and the ILO estimated that 1,500 children work on the streets of Lebanon, making them highly vulnerable to severe exploitation.
Meanwhile, there is tension and heightened competition in the labour market resulting from the unexpected influx of refugees. Employers are taking advantage of the situation by driving down wages, depriving workers of social benefits and subjecting them to precarious working conditions. Most of the refugee households are headed by women, who also face difficulties finding work and doing childcare. Syrian refugees who were able to find work are mostly concentrated in agriculture and in personal or domestic service, and a smaller scale in construction. These jobs provide very little income with no security or protection.
Next to Lebanon, Jordan is the country in the world with the second highest share of refugees compared to its population, with a ratio of 89 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. The majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in urban areas and in poverty, with over 85% of the refugees living below the poverty line. 48% of the refugees are children, and 4% are elderly (UNHCR Jordan, 2018). The Jordanian government records the total number of Syrians in the country to 1.4 million before and after the height of the conflict. Of the total number of Syrian refugees, about 82% live in urban areas and 18% live in camps.
The Government of Jordan has taken steps to open formal employment opportunities for Syrians. Nearly 50,000 refugees have active work permits (UNHCR Jordan, 2018). On March 4, 2018, Jordanian authorities began to regularize the status of many Syrian refugees who had been living in towns and cities without permits, offering thousands of vulnerable refugees protection from arrest for being outside refugee camps without authorization, and increasing their access to jobs, aid, and education. On 24 January 2018 however, the government revoked the eligibility for subsidized health care for Syrians living outside the refugee camps (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
To date, the government continues to implement the Jordan Compact, which aims to improve the livelihoods of Syrian refugees by granting new legal work opportunities and improving the education sector. By 2018, labour authorities had issued or renewed at least 160,000 work permits for Syrians. Most professions, however, remained closed to non-Jordanians, and many Syrians continued to work in the informal sector without labour protections (HRW, 2018).
Faced with these challenges, PSI worked with its unions in these four countries, building their capacities in embarking on the following strategies and actions.
Capacity Building, Advocacy and Organizing
Engaging union leaders and members in evidence-based and participatory research, outreach and field visits to refugee and migrant communities, training workshops on international human rights norms and labour standards, organizing drives, advocacy events, and campaigns with a view to increasing their understanding of migrant and refugee rights, promoting inclusion and fighting racism and xenophobia.
Throughout 2018 to date, national awareness and sensitization workshops engaging hundreds of union leaders and members, male and female, were conducted in Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Algeria. These workshops helped enhanced participants’ understanding of migration and refugee issues, UN and ILO Conventions on migrants and refugee rights, including the examination of national policies and existing good practices related to refugees and migrants’ rights in their countries and region.
The workshops helped in raising awareness of union leaders and members of the States’ human rights obligation to respect and promote the human rights of refugees and migrant workers. It helped them examine the situation of refugees and migrants in their own localities and workplaces and raised their awareness on what workers and trade unions can do to fight for human and labour rights for all workers.
During the workshops, union members examined the difficult issues, such as demystifying the myth that refugees and migrants are a burden to public services and a competition to jobs through the evidence gathered in the mapping and participatory research, i.e. identifying the sectors where refugees and migrants are often employed in precarious conditions, the exploitation that they face and the need for union intervention in such cases.
Good practices were identified to provide examples, such as the work of the PSI affiliates in the water sector in North Lebanon where unions fight to provide access to safe drinking water to refugees and host communities, the representation, assistance and organising work done by SNAPAP and SNATEG in Algeria and the work of the general union UGTT in Tunisia in defending refugees and migrant workers, as driven by the PSI health, municipal and social services unions within the UGTT.
The capacity-building and awareness workshops resulted in the formulation of a “Training Manual for Trade Unions and Migrant Workers,” which is one of the intervention tools developed within the project. The training manual provides a 4-day module of walking the participants through the phenomenon of labour migration and forced displacement, contextual analysis of the political, social and economic situation in their respective countries vis-à-vis migration and employment policies and access to quality public services. The module also provides an in-depth understanding of the UN and ILO Conventions relevant to migrant and refugee workers, other global governance processes such as the UN Global Compact on Migration (GCM) and the UN Global Compact on Refugees, the PSI’s Programme of Action on Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, and using all these tools in promoting social dialogue in their respective national contexts.
In 2021, PSI affiliates were able to build their capacities in the mechanisms and processes of the GCM with the aim to present a shadow report on the implementation of the GCM from a trade union perspective and to monitor access of migrant workers to their rights.
Along with these activities, PSI affiliates in the MENA region also developed information, education and communication materials, such as pamphlets, campaign posters and videos[See below].
As the world continues to battle the covid pandemic, the climate crisis also continues to deepen, with its most profound impacts witnessed in disasters caused by extreme weather occurrences such as, forest fires, floods and typhoons or by slow-onset events such as, droughts and desertification.
Public Services and the Triple Cs: Covid, Conflicts and the Climate Crisis
Networking and Alliance Building at the National Level
Establishing a PSI Migrant and Refugee Rights Activist Network in the MENA and joining other networks and alliances with civil society and other stakeholders in defending migrant and refugee rights at the national level.
During the covid-19 pandemic, PSI affiliates in Algeria, Kuwait, Jordan, and Tunisia conducted humanitarian and awareness actions and provided personal protective equipment to migrants and raised their awareness on how to protect themselves and their families from the virus.
In Kuwait during the pandemic, PSI affiliates, in coordination with their trade union centre (KTUF) convened regular meetings with leaders of migrant worker associations to find solutions for their issues, such as expired residency permits, late salaries and unsafe living arrangements, and worked closely with the Public Authority for Manpower to solve urgent issues affecting the migrant workers.
In Tunisia, a bilateral agreement was signed between the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health that stipulates that all migrant workers, including undocumented migrants, have the right to receive health care in the public hospitals. PSI affiliates played a key role to ensure the good implementation of this agreement. Moreover, PSI affiliates in Tunisia joined their trade union center (UGTT) in advocating for the rights of migrant workers to organize and join trade unions, which became effective as of December 2020. UGTT distributed membership cards to all migrant workers, including to undocumented migrant workers, who were mostly concentrated in informal and low-paid sectors, such as in municipal services and garbage collection. Migrant focal points were established within UGTT with the purpose of organizing and welcoming undocumented migrant workers into the unions and providing them the necessary legal and other forms of assistance.
Influencing Regional and Global Policy through Solidarity-Building
Engaging PSI unions in the MENA in regional and global policy on migrant and refugee rights, such as the UN Global Compact on Migration and the UN Global Compact on Refugees, in alliances with other Global Unions and civil society.
PSI affiliates in the MENA region are actively engaged in the regional review of the UN GCM, participating the GCM-led processes as well as in the Civil Society Regional Conference on the GCM in the Arab Region. They focus their work on the GCM Objectives that are important for the unions, such as addressing drivers and structural factors (Objective 2), pathways for regular migration (Objective 5), fair and ethical recruitment for decent work (Objective 6), saving lives and missing migrants (Objective 8), access to basic services (Objective 15), anti-discrimination (Objective 17), skills development and recognition (Objective 18) and portability of social security (Objective 22).
PSI affiliates are joining their partners, civil society organizations, other trade unions, and the Global Unions in building strong alliances for the respect of human rights for migrants and refugee and fighting discrimination. Among these important networks are the Trade Union network for migrants in the Mediterranean and Sub Sahara (RSMMS) that includes PSI affiliates from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and the Cross Regional Center for refugees and migrants (CCRM).
In solidarity with PSI affiliates globally, PSI MENA affiliates mark important international days, such as 21 March Anti-racism Day, 20 June World Refugee Day and 18 December International Migrants Day with joint statements, workshops and public events commemorating these dates by raising awareness on migrant and refugee rights.
Conclusion and way forward
As the countries in the MENA region grapple with on-going economic, social, political and environmental crises that are exacerbating poverty, inequality and forced migration, it is all the more imperative to strengthen the trade union movement and to support workers’ solidarity. By reinforcing union values and building workers’ power, trade unions can take up their role in correcting injustices and working in social dialogue to pursue an inclusive, gender-responsive, human rights-based trade union agenda that puts people over profit. Such agenda includes the most vulnerable part of the workforce, i.e. refugees and migrant workers, who are often concentrated in informal and precarious work, with no access to rights and representation and no social protection.
The important work of PSI affiliates in the MENA region is only starting to create ripples in addressing the root causes and consequences of the multiple crises that are driving forced displacement and migration. While international responses remain weak, the challenges remain and will only grow in intensity and complexity. Amidst all these, building worker power and solidarity within and across borders will be the bedrock of the trade union movement, as we continue to rise up to all these challenges, to uphold human rights, to defend the most vulnerable and to fight for social justice across the globe.