A Hidden Burden

By Perla Aragon-Choudhury, Womens Feature Service

Karie studies in an expensive college. Her family can afford the education because both her parents work abroad. After she takes care of school work during the week, she rewards herself by partying hard on weekends. Don’t her parents object to her hectic nights out? Says Karie, “They say they want me to enjoy what they couldn’t when they were my age. And anyway they send me an allowance.”

The lack of home discipline when parents are working abroad is not unique to the Philippines. Thailand, too, has witnessed a rise in juvenile delinquency because of the missing parental supervision. This and other social and economic implications of large-scale migration for work were discussed by well-known academics and sociologists from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, at a recent migration lecture series in Manila. The series was organised by the Women and Gender Institute (WAGI) of Miriam College.

Dr Aree Jampaklak, a sociologist from the Institute for Population Studies, Mahidol University, Bangkok, spoke of migration and family life in the context of Thailand. She quoted studies on migration and the labour force as well as the ongoing Child and Health and Migrant Parenting in Southeast Asia, a study involving 1,000 households per country.

“The households of women migrants are better off than others,” Jampaklak told a packed audience that included students, research interns, representatives of government as well as private agencies that help migrants. “Overseas migration is viewed in a positive light… Women migrants are seen as role models for teenagers who seem to not want to go in for higher education,” she added.

However, she also quoted data on the presence of more family and community problems because of the sudden availability of money in these families, from a study entitled ‘The Impact of Migration on Children Left Behind in Thailand’, which shows that internal migration increases social costs. “The children of internal migrants,” she said, “receive little attention in terms of health and schooling even if they have to be cared for by their extended families.”

Another fall-out of migration – an increase in separation/divorce rates, mostly among women – was addressed by Dr Nguyen Ngoc Quynh of the Center for Economic and Community Development, Vietnam. Her report showed that in Vietnam the number of single parent households is higher among migrant households. According to Quynh, women migrant workers find more freedom abroad than in what is “the Vietnam way of living and culture”, only to face conflict upon return. “Or a wife works abroad but finds that her husband has used her money to marry someone else,” she said.

“In general,” Quynh said, “migration and remittances play an important role in economic development and in poverty reduction. The impact is big but not optimised. We’ve found a negative impact of migration on social issues.”

As for Indonesia, although it is a major source of international labour migration, Dr Aswatini Rahurto of the Research Center for Population, Indonesian Institute of Sciences, felt, “We have complex problems in recruitment. It is time-consuming and needs three levels of sponsors – at the village, district and national levels. And then, the papers have to go to Jakarta.” This means that although private enterprises can come in legally to process papers, perhaps due to the extensive bureaucratic procedures quite a number of applicants prefer to go undocumented and thus becoming vulnerable to abuse, which in turn causes anxiety among relatives left behind.

Rahurto cited a recent case where nurses sent to the Netherlands were affected by changes in government policy in their country. First, the government stopped the labour export of nurses and then resumed it.

All the experts agreed that governments need to be more perceptive of the needs of the vast migrant force that inhabits South East Asian nations. Issues like protection of the migrant labour force, economic and investment opportunities for those who return, and care for the families left behind, need to be addressed urgently.

For example, even as Indonesia deals with the problem of undocumented workers, it has done so within the paradigm of the unmet expectations of people waiting for a chance to work abroad. To protect migrant workers and their families from this, Rahurto and other academicians and advocates called for studies and data on ways to increase educational qualifications (presently Grade 6) and decrease the number of undocumented workers. “We also have to push our governments to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of Migrant Workers and Their Families,” she added.

For Vietnam, Quynh sees a dilemma when migrant workers return after one to three years abroad. As she put it, “Generally, Vietnamese professionals go to US, which may seem like a brain drain but there is also a brain gain when they do return. For them we need to establish credit programmes and support funds.”

Like Rahurto, Quynh perceives a need to conduct more studies on migration as an issue in Vietnam “so that we will have more results to wake up policy makers and emphasise the results of migration. The government favours remittances and encourages poor families to work abroad, but the impact of this strategy has not been good.”

Jampaklak added her voice to those in favour of conducting more studies, especially in Thailand, saying that this would provide reliable and comprehensive data on the general impact of migration on the country where the workers seek employment as well as the effect on families, especially children, left behind. In fact, she pointed out that the impact on families was still unexplored in Thailand. Urged Aurora Javate-de Dios, executive director of WAGI and head of the Migration Studies Department of Miriam College, Manila, “In our research studies, we must never lose sight of the social cost of migration on the families left behind.”

Said Yasmin Busran Lao, a feminist development worker and peace advocate in Mindanao, the Philippines, who was part of the discussion, “Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable in Vietnam, Burma, the Pacific and the Caribbean. Governments may be the biggest human trafficker as they encourage migration as a cover-up for their failures.”

There was consensus on the fact that governments should, first, try and ensure employment in their own countries so that people do not have to work abroad. However, if people do migrate for work they should have legal protection once they are abroad; and investment incentives for those who come back.

Said Dean Leticia Shahani of Miriam College International Humanitarian and Development Studies, “The Philippines has long seen migration. I have seen rural Philippines after the migration of its people. Returning workers invest in houses but migrate again when they find no work here.” According to Shahani, ‘Balikbayans’, or returning migrants, should be elevated to investor status, “In agriculture, they (make investments) in high-yielding seed varieties or in high-yielding carabaos or in plants for perfumes or in herbs that cure. The tropics are a gold mine for the fashion and food systems of the West.”

To workers abroad, she had a message, “To build a nation is the greatest undertaking. We have the means to free ourselves. So come back.”

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.