The only real alternative to the exploitation of migrants is genuine grassroot organising

Vittorio Longhi

Vittorio Longhi

To mark International Migrants Day (18th December), Vittorio Longhi, author of The immigrant war, discusses the exploitation of migrants and how to overcome this.

Every day an average of two coffins arrive at the international airport of Kathmandu.

They are bringing back the corpses of Nepali migrants who went to work in the Middle East or in the Persian Gulf.  According to the authorities they die in accidents, particularly on building sites or in road accidents. But many are murdered by traffickers, and many others, especially women, commit suicide because of sexual abuse and harassment.

In the Americas in the last ten years, about 2,000 people have died trying to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. These deaths are usually due to exposure or dehydration – as the migrants cross the deserts of Arizona – but also drowning, in the case of those trying to cross the rivers. The most striking number, however, refers to Latino migrants who are kidnapped by criminal gangs and killed because they fail to pay a ransom.

As for those who have tried to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean, it is estimated that since 1990 at least 20,000 people have died.

These are not the numbers of mere accidents, these are the numbers of an actual war: a war against immigrants.

And the conflict does not relate only to the undocumented nor does it stop at the borders. Even when migrants succeed in obtaining a legal work permit, pulled by the labour demand of richer countries, they are still faced with violation of core rights. Historically, the worst jobs with the hardest working conditions and the least pay are reserved for migrants. In addition to this, they often face discrimination and exploitation,  and even  xenophobic and racist attacks.

This happens even more frequently in times of economic crisis, when migrants are seen as competitors in the local labour market and therefore a target and an easy scapegoat for public anger against widespread unemployment.

How sustainable is the current migration system in the long term? What is the international community doing about it? How can we manage migration realistically, giving people both dignity and safety?

The migration question has certainly not been resolved by militarising borders further or by reducing visas and permits, often following domestic political agendas, instead of a realistic evaluation of actual social, labour demand and development needs.

The global phenomenon of contemporary migration cannot be left to the decisions and solutions of individual states.

There is no doubt that there is an urgent need to develop effective cooperation through regional agreements within the scope of multilateral relationships between industrialised countries and developing countries.

However, the governments of receiving countries are reluctant about the possibility of global migration governance. They are unwilling to transfer the power over border control and the conditions under which migrants stay on their territories to some supranational body.

Oddly, the governments of sending countries also do not seem keen on enforcing a binding regulatory system that would interfere with their ability to supply cheap labour to richer countries and benefit from their remittances.

As for the international community, none of the UN agencies and other international bodies that deal with migration issues, from the ILO to the IOM, now has the role of coordinating national or regional policies, let alone carrying out a function that is binding on individual states.

The existing international treaties that try to regulate labour migration and ensure safety and dignity along the whole migration route, have been ratified and implemented by a relatively small number of states, and rarely from richer receiving countries.

Therefore, the only concrete, immediate, alternative to further exploitation and violation of human rights is genuine grassroots organising by migrants.

This phenomenon has come to the surface in the last few years, and this has happened in different manners and places. A new generation of migrant workers is revealing all its potential for conflict, as migrants change from being passive victims of exploitation to become new, conscious social agents, capable of fighting for their own rights and contributing to the revival of a wider protest.

Whether it is the struggles of Asian workers in the building sites of Dubai, of the Mexican farm labourers in the fields of California, of the undocumented African cooks in the restaurants of Paris or of the Moroccan metalworkers in Italian factories, migrants are more and more determined to bring labour back to the centre of contemporary societies.

These struggles, although spontaneous and uncoordinated, are connected to the multitudes of the Occupy movement and the Arab uprisings; all show people wanting to restore dignity to labour, social justice and a future to new generations – of migrants and locals together.

Vittorio Longhi is the author of The immigrant war, available to order with 20% discount from the Policy Press website.

3 Responses to “The only real alternative to the exploitation of migrants is genuine grassroot organising”


  1. 1 Sonia Dolinsek December 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Reblogged this on menschenhandel heute.

  2. 2 Sefi December 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Hi there, thank you for this post. But can you give an example or two of how migrants can organize in order to bring about change? While it does sound like a great idea that can prevent labor exploitation, it does not seem like a very realistic option. Many migrants – especially undocumented ones – prefer to live under the radar. And what you are suggesting might expose them to contact with the authorities.

  3. 3 vittorio January 11, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    @Sefi
    thanks for your comment. actually this is the main point of the book and the stories collected show how migrants, even when they are undocumented, can fight back exploitation, usually with the help of trade unions and NGOs. of course, the very first step is to have full labour rights recognised, and therefore documents and a legal status. this has happened and is still happening in France, in Italy, in the US, etc. you can find all the examples in the book.


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