Migrant coalition-building in Amsterdam

June 25, 2009 — Comment

Written by Liz Fekete

If you want change, argues the Transnational Migrant Platform (TMP) in Amsterdam, you need to build a broad coalition capable of working simultaneously both on the domestic and the international front.

Over the last six months, the IRR has been trying to find out more about the pioneering work of the TMP which was launched in June 2008 in Amsterdam, as an umbrella organisation to unite migrants, undocumented workers, asylum seekers and refugees from many regions of the world, including Latin America, Philippines, Turkey, Africa and the Maghreb. One way of finding out more was to join the TMP forum – held on 13 December 2008, to mark international migrants’ day (as well as the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

TMP founding organisations include the Commission for Filipinio Migrant Workers (CFMW), the Organizacion de Trabajadores Domesticos Emigrantes Latino Aamericanos (OTRADELA), the European Centre of Migration and Development (EMCEMO), the Africa Roots Movement and the Transnational Institute. At the forum, attended by fifty representatives of the various affiliated organisations, the IRR had a chance to hear the views of representatives from many of these groups. It soon became apparent that one of the unique strengths that the TMP brings to migration and integration issues was its coalition-building approach whereby a broad range of contacts across interest groups – in migrant communities, within the NGO-world and amongst trades unions – are pooled. It is as a broad-based coalition that the TMP can develop resources to effect change at a domestic and international level, simultaneously. Great emphasis is also placed on a bottom-up, migrant-led approach, with those with secure legal status coming to the aid of those living without documents and therefore denied basic rights. TMP founding member, Nonoi Hacbang, spoke of the need to bring about a ‘convergence of our strengths and develop a strategy of action based on self-organisation’.

Prioritising rights under international law

Foremost amongst the TMP’s concerns is the need to improve the legal status of migrant workers in the Netherlands, to stop the criminalisation of those without papers and to encourage the trades unions to accept into membership migrant workers, whether documented or undocumented. But it is a struggle that also necessitates a European and international approach if the lack of a human rights dimension in EU migration policies is to be successfully challenged. At the moment, no European government has ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers that guarantees the basic human and social rights of migrant workers, irrespective of their immigration status.

One highlight of the forum was the launch of the Commission for Filipino Migrant Workers (CFMW) and RESPECT’s (Rights Equality Solidarity Power Europe Cooperation Today) international campaign for the rights of migrant domestic workers. ‘RESPECT, with its europe-wide membership, has been working together with our international partners to put pressure on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to adopt a specific convention on domestic workers’, Fe Jusay, co-ordinator of RESPECT, told the meeting. ‘Already the governing body of the ILO has agreed to include the item “Decent Work for Domestic Workers (Standard Setting)” on the agenda of its ninety-ninth session in 2011. So today, we launch the campaign to ensure that the rights of all domestic workers including migrants will be strongly protected in the Convention.’

Both Petra Snelders (chair of Respect NL) and Marlyn Villegas (TRUSTED Migrants) spoke of the high levels of discrimination and exploitation in the workplace, accentuated by the criminalisation of the undocumented. ‘The overwhelming desire of migrant workers to pay taxes and be integrated into Dutch societies for the sake of our families and children was frustrated by the legislative framework’, argued Marlyn. ‘Migrant work is indispensable and needs to be acknowledged as such’, stated Petra Snelders who reminded the audience that large numbers of Filipino, Latin American and African women (and increasingly migrant men are employed as domestic workers), working in private households as domestic workers, are excluded from national labour legislation and vulnerable to exploitation.

Immigration policing – a pressing problem

A large part of the forum was given over to discussion of another pressing concern – namely the break-down in police-community relations that followed the government decision in October 2006 to set a target for the detention and removal of asylum seekers of 12,000 people per annum. As Dutch police were expected to realise the government quota, through a performance contract (prestatiecontract), immigration raids began to spread fear in the community. This fear grew following the targeting of a church in Rotterdam and a refugee solidarity café in Utrecht, and the sudden death in October 2007 of the 34-year-old Ghanaian sans papiers, Mike Osei. (He fell from the seventh floor of a building during an immigration raid in Biljmer southeast Amsterdam.) Only a few months before Mike Osei’s tragic death, in June 2007, the Campaign to Stop Police Raids was formed after police raided a concert by a popular West African musician in café Het Vervlog, arresting 111 of the 250 concert-goers. During the heavy-handed police raid, in which horses and dogs were deployed, police photographed and demanded proof of identity from all Black people at the venue (White people did not face similar checks). Police initially claimed that the raids were part of an operation against internet fraud but nearly all those arrested were questioned about their immigration status and seventy of those detained were issued with deportation orders two days after the arrest. Other detainees accused of immigration irregularities were ordered to be released in a landmark ruling in the Amsterdam first instance court since their arrest was based on a discriminatory and unlawful police act. However this was overruled by the Ministry for Internal Affairs (IND) and the migrants were deported before their appeals could be heard.

For the Campaign to Stop Police Raids, ‘the police used immigration powers to target the African migrant community for arrest without a criminal investigation, thereby conflating immigration and crime law enforcement and policy’. While undocumented migrants and refugees often found themselves without police protection when they needed it, immigration powers were being used to carry out raids on undocumented migrants, with criminal and immigration investigations being conflated underlining the popular perception that undocumented migrants are criminals.

The right to police protection

The Africa Roots Movement was represented at the TMP forum by music promoter, Thomas More, a key mover in the campaign for police accountability. Alongside the Dutch solidarity fund XminY Solidariteitsfonds, the Africa Roots Movement organised a public forum on 4 October 2008, with a discussion panel on police repression against Black communities, principally in Amsterdam Zuid-Oost. ‘The one positive thing that emerged out of the police raids was the opening up of a dialogue with the mayor of Amsterdam’, said Thomas More, outlining the background for the demand and what it has meant in practice. ‘Out of this action grew a grassroots movement that also started a dialogue with the police. From here, has emerged a concrete consultation process whereby every three months, the community, local police and the local commissioner have a meeting.’ Now, the local commissioner of the Amsterdam district Southpost has given a commitment that any undocumented worker can file a criminal report and not be interrogated over his/her immigration stutus. Furthermore, a community policeman will be appointed to deal with such crime reports.

For Thomas More, these are very important concessions, as migrants without papers often suffer high incidences of crime; they may be robbed (some people are repeatedly robbed every time they are paid) but they cannot seek redress by reporting the robbery to police for fear of an investigation into their immigration status. In the absence of police protection, the Africa Roots Movement, which sought advice from the Newham Monitoring Project in London, have now set up a free legal advice service. If the victim of a crime is too frightened to approach the police, ‘we forward the report’ on their behalf. ‘We are now receiving between seven and ten complaints a week. We want to spread this initiative to other parts of Amsterdam’, concluded Thomas More.

An international movement of migrants

For TMP, the insecurity faced by the African migrant community and other undocumented migrants in the Netherlands reveals the failure of intergovernmental bodies to take a positive approach to migration and development issues, the sort that puts human rights at the centre. Both Nonoi Hacbang and Abdou Menebhi director of EMCEMO felt that though things might seem bleak on a domestic level, on an international level migrants now comprise a new and important social movement. They saw this demonstrated first-hand at the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD). Here migrants’ associations, migrants’ rights NGOs, trades unions, women’s organisations, peasant organisations, fisherfolk, indigenous people from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Oceania came together to launch the ‘Joint Civil Society Declaration on Migration, Development and Human Rights’ and to campaign against the EU’s new ‘return directive’. According to Abdou Menebhi, ‘we migrants have welcomed the protest responses to the EU Return Directive from Latin American Presidents as well as from some African leaders – we were very inspired that world leaders let their voices be heard on the human rights of migrants’.

At the TMP forum, documents outlining the background to the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), were distributed. These explained how the GFMD was initially convened in New York in 2006 as a High Level Dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) to tackle the contemporary nexus of migration and development issues. But, whereas the initial intention seems to have been to offer civil society and NGOs a role in a UN led policy dialogue, the process was very quickly hijacked into a non-binding inter-governmental meeting which held its first GFMD in Brussels in 2007 and its second in Manila 2008. Migrant advocacy has succeeded in opening a limited space within the GFMD where civil society organisations can participate for two days – the Civil Society Days (CSD/GFMD). However, migrant organisations feel that this has become a cordoned off space excluded from substantial dialogue or decision-making. In response to this, migrant organisations held a parallel civil society forum in Brussels providing a venue for broader participation of migrant organisations. In Manila, the civil society mobilisation was organised within the platform of People’s Global Action (PGA) and this resulted in a major participation of trade unions, migrant organisations and other civil society organisation from all global regions. Thus the organisations that came together in the PGA 2008 to launch the ‘Joint Civil Society Declaration on Migration, Development and Human Rights’ at Manila, were also protesting against the erosion of human rights perspectives within the GFMD and calling for a return to the global migration policy process within the UN framework as the best guarantee of a human rights perspective on migration issues. For the TMP it is paramount that within all debates about migration and development the inalienable rights and human dignity of migrant workers be central.

Integration of migrants into trades unions

Wilma Roos of the FNV Mondial, the global programme of the Dutch Trade Union Federation (FNV) (which has accepted the membership of migrant workers, both documented and undocumented since June 2006) was also speaking at the TMP’s December 2008 forum. For her the issue of migration is now becoming central to the work of the Global Unions Federation (ten sector-wide international trades union federations with affiliates in all continents). Global Unions issued a policy-statement to the second GFMD entitled ‘Constructing an architecture of protection of human rights and trade union rights for migrant workers and their families’. Among other things, Global Unions argues that governments should ‘frame migration policies around core labour standards’; give equal importance to development issues when framing migration policies; respect international conventions such as the UN Convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families, as well as the various conventions and declarations of the ILO. Furthermore, Global Unions calls ‘for a resolute shift away from the current narrow focus on temporary forms of migration to fill labour market shortages and further the economic gains to capital in the global economy’. For it is precisely this approach, argues the unions, that is leading to ‘frequent incidence of violation of the fundamental human and trade union rights of migrants’. There is particular criticism of the GATS Mode IV of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the temporary movement of natural persons. With its ‘narrow focus on labour as a tradeable service’ as well as ‘temporary forms of labour migration’, the WTO is playing a detrimental role in the shaping of bilateral and regional migration agreements, argues Global Unions. And within such migration agreements, no concrete commitments and monitoring goals related to guaranteeing the well-being and protection of the rights of migrant workers and their families, are included.

In such a climate, argued Roos, it is vital that trades unions respond to the needs of migrant workers and provide them with assistance as to how to assess their basic human rights. Dutch trades unions are backing the formation of migrant centres and help desks in the countries from which workers migrate.

What next?

Where next for TMP? The Third GFMD will be held in Athens from 3-6 November; its central theme is ‘Integrating Migration Policies into Development Strategies for the Benefit of All’. On this occasion the People’s Global Action 2009 will also hold its activities on 3-5 November. Will the TMP be there? Definitely, they have already started organising and are linking the preparatory process with the Athens based hosting committee and the Migrant Rights International (MRI) network which has together with the Migrant Forum Asia (MFA) been in the forefront of developing the People’s Global Action (PGA). On 29 May, the TMP held its first preparatory Europe Consultation bringing together the organisations from Europe who participated in the ‘Turn Over’ ceremonies in Manila last October as well as other organisations interested in preparing in Europe the GFMD and PGA process 2009. Migrant europe-wide networks and migrant organisations from six countries participated and agreed a Plan of action which includes holding National Consultations among migrant, refugee and other civil society organisations on the agenda of the GFMD 2009 and organising a Europe level Conference on 26 September. It was also agreed to set up a European Working Group (EWG) to co-ordinate the preparations for these activities which aim to strengthen and further develop a europe-wide migrant network and ensure the projection of migrant voices on migration, development and human rights are forged into a substantive agenda which can be further developed beyond Athens 2009.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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