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Migration and Migrant Workers: Discerning Responses as Churches

Summary of major learnings from the meeting of the Working Group representing the South East Asian, South Asian, Middle East and Gulf regions at Bangkok Christian Guest House, Bangkok, 17-20 July 2011

20 July 2011

Summary of major learnings from the meeting of the Working Group[1] representing the South East Asian, South Asian, Middle East and Gulf regions

at Bangkok Christian Guest House, Bangkok, 17-20 July 2011

1. While acknowledging that labour migration has always been a global phenomenon, it must however be underlined that today it is a big business that involves a number of key players. Many Asian governments and their economies benefit a great deal from the foreign exchange remittances by the migrant workers who in most cases live and work under sub-human conditions and in hostile contexts. Unfortunately, hardly any of these governments do anything to protect and support them. In most cases, they are treated as liabilities when they are actually assets.

2. The present capitalist economy thrives on human and environmental abuse and exploitation. Migration caused by political, economic and ecological factors fits into this logic and consequently the hegemonic powers control the debate. There is also often a thin line of distinction between migrants and refugees. Majority of migrant workers are in a way economic refugees as these are from the under privileged sections of our societies - dispossessed, displaced, victimized and rendered powerless on account of the failure of the state and its mechanisms to protect and ensure opportunities for them.

3. In such a situation, struggling for the basic human rights of the migrant workers is an urgent and important concern for all civil society organizations. Many migrant workers are harassed, discriminated against, exploited and they live and work in sub-human conditions. However, we also recognize that migration evokes different reactions in different contexts. For e.g., some governments are reluctant to take up cases of human rights violations with other governments for the fear of losing the benefits they gain through their ongoing bilateral relations and negotiations. We also recognize that these are best sought at national levels as each country seems to be operating a set of considerations as far as sending and receiving migrant workers. Churches and regionally based ecumenical organizations can network with other civil society organizations in impressing upon governments in each specific context.

4. Having heard stories of blatant exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in many of our regions and countries and also by making ourselves aware of such situations around the world, we reflected on the human tendency to exploit the vulnerability of the weak and the disempowered that goes on at various levels. Governments, structures, systems, communities, families and persons are tainted by this tendency which unfortunately stands out as the most shameful trait of our human civilization. Abuse, rape, trafficking, and new forms of slavery, etc, all have their roots in this trait and we as churches must recognize that we are a part of this sinful ethos and must seek forgiveness from God for our complicity and begin to rectify by standing in solidarity with those who are thus denied of the opportunity of life with dignity and basic necessities.

5. Amidst the multidirectional movement of people across the world because of various push and pull reasons, there is a conspicuous element of racism that determines the conditions of migrants from certain ethnic and geo-political contexts. For e.g., the Dalits, Indigenous Peoples, and those from Afro-descendent backgrounds and those from certain regions are treated harshly, or even rejected.

6. In many countries migrant workers are seen as those taking away jobs and opportunities that belong to the local communities and thus they are exposed to attacks and hostile attitudes. But on the ground level, migrant workers are usually those who do jobs that local people do not want to. They add to the local economy, often living and working in appalling situations. This xenophobic reaction as well as the tendency to deny the needy stranger are concerns that faith communities must take up and help communities to be open and compassionate.

7. Migrant workers go through enormous emotional and psychological trauma on account of being away from their families and of their loneliness often in sub-human living conditions. They are not able to be joined by members of their families; not able to see them for several years; not able to travel back when their family members are sick of dying because their passports are confiscated by their employers; not able to travel because they have to pay back loans borrowed to pay the agents who facilitated their travel; work long hours, mostly on their feet, without rest or relaxation; little or no contact with friends or local community; and with little or no access to health care.

8. Of all the migrant workers, women are the worst victims. It is said that over 55% of Asian migrant workers are women. Most of these are domestic workers, often exposed to sexual abuse and harassment, harsh treatment, and made to work long hours without any rest, health care and with little or no contact with anyone outside their work places.

Against this background, we as representatives of churches and ecumenical organizations believe that we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to be engaged with the challenges arising out of present day migration and the life of the migrant workers. We need to discern our distinct response as churches even as we work with wider civil society organizations to seek the protection and the rights of the migrant workers and their families. Against the backdrop of these common considerations, we have identified the following actions for local congregations, churches and ecumenical organizations as appropriate and urgent:

9. Local congregations:

a. Tending to the emotional needs of the migrant workers and their families needs to be seen as an important pastoral priority. There is often a wide social disconnect between the two sections. Sometimes the families are not aware of the living and working conditions of the migrant workers. We hear of stories of families pressurizing the workers to stay on because of the better economic conditions of the families back home even if such continued life situation is traumatic or detrimental to the worker himself/ herself.

b. Church’s holistic ministry includes spiritual care and nurture. This aspect needs to be seen as an important way of instilling in the migrant workers a sense of self-worth and personal accountability besides submitting oneself to be within the ambit of God‘s grace.

b. Counselling and pastoral support, pre departure orientations are some actions that churches can undertake.

c. Many of our congregations today are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-denominational. Churches need to be helped to become aware of this reality both as sending and receiving communities.

10. Churches:

a. Churches in the receiving countries and contexts need to be open and inclusive communities. If they are not, they are mere religious cults. Churches need not and should not treat the migrant workers as desperate dependants like the way the wider society does but make them feel that they are human beings, and provide pastoral support whenever possible.  

b. Attempts be made to give visibility to the concern of migration within the life and ministries of the churches.

c. The concept of migrant churches needs to be reflected theologically, particularly in certain contexts in the Gulf region. These are not recognized as a local even after several decades of existence.

d. As mentioned earlier, women migrant workers are often in great need of support and accompaniment. Churches can run shelter homes for women in distress, and attempt to heal the trauma of the victims of rape. Human Sexuality and health concerns of the migrant workers need to be taken seriously.

e. Ministries that some of our churches run for the migrant workers often run the risk of being branded as means towards conversion. While we should not shy away from our ministry of caring for the needy, we must also engage people of other faiths in our ministry, not just as recipients but also as partners in work. Churches in many contexts have been in the forefront of responding to the needs of migrant workers and therefore they must persist by seeking partnership with other faith communities.

f. Churches must also respond to the areas of reintegration, management of earnings received from abroad and in skills development.

11. Ecumenical Organizations:

a. Just as much as we cater to the personal needs and rights of the migrant workers, we as larger church bodies also have the responsibility to expose and resist the causes that force people to migrate. We identified some, such as the persecution or discrimination of religious and linguistic minorities, environmental catastrophes, increasing rural unemployment and poverty, displacement and dispossession for the sake of development that benefits the privileged few, prolonged conflicts, and the current neo-liberal economic policies that advocate economic growth through massive abuse of natural and human resources.

b. The challenges of migration and migrant workers, particularly the affirmation of human dignity needs to be an area for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Churches have certainly played a pioneering role and must consider linking up with groups from other religious traditions and other civil society organizations. In view of the ways in which human rights language is not tolerated in some of our contexts, we feel that it may be worthwhile to develop and nurture interfaith approaches and cooperation to reach some of the above goals. In other words, our advocacy efforts need to be context specific and churches must be encouraged and equipped to play this role.

c. Give visibility to the stories of churches’ engagement with migrants. During our sharing we were enriched by the stories of work done by St Martin’s church in Sharjah, the Kowloon Union Church, the churches and organizations in the Philippines, the Korean churches for Migrant workers, and Bethune House of Hong Kong. These powerful testimonies of churches being sensitive and available to the needs of the migrant workers and as sanctuaries of hope and support, need to be made known to others elsewhere.

d. Well-coordinated networks of churches and ecumenical organizations in both sending and receiving countries will enhance the potentialities of churches to become sanctuaries of support and hope. Establishing and strengthening the links between churches such as the ones mentioned above will help a great deal in effective results besides encouraging and inspiring others elsewhere to respond. Church leaders must be brought together to see the conditions in work places.

e. In the light of what we have shared and heard, we are convinced that the struggles and sufferings of women migrant workers be an important concern for global ecumenical action in defense of their rights. We also suggest that migrant women be included as a major concern of churches’ women’s ministries. This would also enable churches to co-operate with existing women’s networks both within the church and wider contexts. One practical and feasible area that we were able to identify for ecumenical action is to work to the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers (June 2011), while continue to support the work of the UN Steering Committee on the Ratification of the Rights of Migrant Workers. We, however, recognize that that this would be a long drawn process as many countries have not ratified and are not likely to ratify in the near future.

f. The reality of the human tendency to exploit the weak and the vulnerable, has particularly reached a situation of institutionalization. We realize that modern-day slavery is more gruesome and has strong support bases among many of our political, economic and cultural instruments. Churches cannot turn away from this shameful aspect of our world and generation of which they are a part. Therefore, we feel that it is urgent and necessary for churches and ecumenical organizations to initiate a global level theological debate on this trait.

g. Ecumenical organizations such as MECC and GEM can work to open and develop spaces for church-state dialogue for the rights and protection of the migrant workers in some difficult country contexts. In order to achieve the above goals, ecumenical organizations and churches must look for collaborations and work together with civil society organizations.

h. We strongly recommend a WCC led Global Ecumenical Awareness and Action programme that responds to the emerging wide range of political, economic, social and ethical concerns to inspire churches to respond creatively to this major global phenomenon and also to discover themselves afresh. Perhaps a Call for a Week of Action in solidarity with Migrant workers may be considered.

i. An ecumenical e-mail group of partners may be initiated and coordinated for better sharing of information and coordination of efforts. This would help in identifying a network of professionals who are in support of migrant workers. Information about the issues of refugees and stateless people needs to be circulated among churches. This must include sharing of information about available resources both at national and international levels.


[1] This is the first of the series of discussions on Churches Together in Addressing Migration which will culminate in a Global Gathering in October 2012, along with a parallel process of reflection on the reality of migration and its implications to the churches self-understanding and mission. This will be followed by a similar working group in October 2011 in the Americas and the Pacific and in Beirut, Lebanon in December 2011 for the Middle East, Europe and Africa Regions.