Tackling challenges of migration in the face of the Qatar crisis

Kathmandu – Experiences from the Philippines and Nepal suggest that a multi-lateral approach to international labour agreements could benefit weaker countries of origin like Nepal, while also boosting more resilient ones like the Philippines.

The crisis in Qatar in 2017, which has been the target of an air and sea boycott led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since last June, has sent jitters through the Asian countries that send significant numbers of migrant workers to the Gulf region.

In Qatar, 90 per cent of the residents are foreign workers. However, the actual magnitude of the impact on their job situation and livelihoods varies from country to country according to each government’s ability and political will to regulate and shape migration.

Seeking to promote a regional sharing of experiences and best practices among migrant advocates, Johannes Kadura, head of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Philippines, and Annette Schlicht, Resident Representative of FES in Nepal, initiated an exchange between Philippine and Nepalese experts.

In August 2017, a first video conference with experts from the Philippines and Nepal was held to gather and discuss ideas about how to regulate migration for the benefit of national economies in the face of unpredictable external shocks like the Qatar crisis.

William Gois, Regional Coordinator of Migrant Forum in Asia and Ellene Sana, Executive Director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in Manila, discussed this topical issue with Ganesh Gurung from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu and Ramesh Badal from the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions. Kadura and Schlicht joined the discussion and were able to gain critical insights from the various experts’ input.

The Qatar crisis highlighted a stark difference in the level of support that workers can expect from their respective governments in the Philippines and Nepal, as became clear in the course of the video conference as well as in a series of related discussions that the two FES directors conducted in their own countries. For instance, as Gois pointed out, the Philippines successfully negotiated memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with five Gulf states in support of the rights of overseas Philippine workers. The problem of oversight and enforceability of the MOUs remains, but they nonetheless place the Philippine workers in a much more favourable position than Nepali workers who have none as yet. 

The problem lies in the lack of a concerted and collective effort among the countries of origin to negotiate binding agreements with the host countries and to develop common strategies to manage crises like the one in Qatar.

In the same vein, the Philippines initiated a discussion with the United States on how to treat migrant crises, defined as related to climate change or conflicts. However, as with the MOU with the Gulf, this initiative remained strictly bilateral and would not translate into support for workers from other countries of origin including Nepal.

As the discussions showed, this is precisely the problem: the lack of a concerted and collective effort among the countries of origin to negotiate binding agreements with the host countries and to develop common strategies to manage crises like the one in Qatar. It leaves the countries of origin in a much weaker negotiating position and exposes migrant workers, especially low-skilled ones as from countries like Nepal, to grave risks. Furthermore, working on a multilateral approach would not only benefit the workers at the bottom of the pecking order. In the long run, a more advanced country like the Philippines will also need to maximize its leverage vis-à-vis the host countries.

“Countries of origin should combine their efforts and collaborate much more closely.”

Another trend is contributing to the urgency of the issue: Due to increased geopolitical tensions, the Gulf region as such may become far less attractive as a region of destination, making it necessary for sending countries to establish working relations with other host countries. Instead of resigning themselves to this trend, the countries of origin should combine their efforts and collaborate much more closely.

Inspired by these important insights, Kadura and Schlicht decided to strengthen collective efforts among countries of origin. In 2018, the two country directors plan a series of activities with stakeholders and experts from the Philippines and Nepal. An important objective will also be to further ownership of related development policy programmes on the side of the migrants themselves, who are all too often left out of the critical process of shaping these programs. FES Philippines and FES Nepal are excited to collaborate on this important endeavour. ###

For more information on the activities in Philippines, contact Johannes Kadura, Director of the FES Philippines office based in Manila and Annette Schlicht, Director of FES Nepal for information on the activities in the country.  

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