Migrant labor and human rights: building connections between civil society in Japan and Southeast Asia

Managing international labor migration in an increasingly global society has emerged as a paramount challenge of the 21st century. As migration flows continue to grow worldwide, Asia has become a key region that is both the source of as well as the home to the largest number of international migrants in the world according to UN statistics. However, in spite of the growing need for coordination among sending and receiving countries, the international conversation, particularly among civil society stakeholders, has not been sufficient. In light of these emerging trends, the Asia Social Integration Department at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) launched a new initiative to encourage networking between ASEAN countries and Japan to promote a more holistic discussion of migration issues and bring the voices of migrant workers, advocates, and academics to an international audience.

As part of this effort, SPF invited three migration and human rights experts from countries that send a large number of migrant workers to Japan – Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – to meet with advocates, academics, and other stakeholders in Japan. The three participants were Mr. Daniel Awigra, program manager for ASEAN Advocacy with the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) in Indonesia; Ms. Cecile Pauline Sanglap Montenegro, president of Batis-AWARE (Association of Women in Action for Rights and Empowerment) in the Philippines; and Mr. Vu Ngoc Binh, senior advisor at the Institute for Population, Family and Children Studies (IPFCS) in Vietnam. Over the course of a week from the end of November to early December, the three participants attended a series of workshops and field visits in Osaka, Kobe, Yokohama, and Tokyo.

When discussing the inspiration behind this new initiative, Fumiko Okamoto, director and senior program officer for the Asia Social Integration Department at SPF, explained that her group was impressed with the advocacy work in ASEAN, but noticed a lack of coordination with Japanese NGOs working on similar issues. “If civil society in both sending countries and receiving countries understand the issues, we can collaborate with each other to improve the situation,” said Ms. Okamoto, noting that SPF as a private foundation has the ability to connect these actors. Mariko Hayashi, program officer for the Asia Social Integration Department, also observed that often non-government actors in sending countries and receiving countries tend to focus only on their direct concerns without grasping the bigger picture. These countries “need to know what’s happening before migrants come here, what happens to the families and communities left behind, and what happens after they go back” said Ms. Hayashi. “Migration is really continuous, so that’s why we think there should be more of a network between the sending countries and receiving countries.” With this visit as a first step, the program is poised to welcome participants from a variety of countries and possibly bring Japanese civil society stakeholders to ASEAN countries to deepen regional networks moving forward.

Three perspectives from Southeast Asia
Cecile Pauline Sanglap Montenegro

While the program participants each specialize in different fields, they are united by their dedication to the human rights dialogue in their country as well as the concerns of migrant workers. Cecille currently serves as the president of Batis AWARE, an organization that supports women survivors of human trafficking and other abuses who are returning to the Philippines after working overseas. Her years of advocacy on behalf of female migrant workers have been informed by her own experience working as an entertainer in Japan in the 1990s. “I was a migrant worker for 10 years here in Japan and all of the discrimination and unequal support from the companies, the managers, and employers that I had is still happening right now,” said Cecille.

Beyond her personal experience, Cecille’s artistic talent served as the key inspiration for the program she currently runs at Batis AWARE. “I asked myself, as a former migrant worker, what is the best of me that I can use to help other people, especially other women who are also having this experience like what I had before?” said Cecille. She found that interpreting her memories through painting became therapeutic, which led her to design an empowerment program based around art. She noted that the reaction has been very positive “because some of the women and children can’t speak about their issues vocally because some of them are ashamed.” However, Cecille envisions a future for women to become more than the products of their experiences. “I really want victim survivors to not only be a victim and not only be a survivor, but to also be an inspiration for women.” Moving forward, she hopes to connect the program participants with academics and universities to increase awareness and push for change in the local community.

Daniel Awigra
Daniel Awigra

Awigra is currently a program manager with the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), an Indonesian coalition of NGOs seeking ASEAN integration and regional implementation of human rights standards. While ASEAN countries in particular have reaped the economic rewards of labor migration, Awigra pointed out that “the huge benefit of these people working abroad is not followed by the protection of their rights.” To address this disparity, Awigra is currently working on a project to increase the accountability of ASEAN governments and other regional players to ensure meaningful implementation of migrant labor protections agreed to by heads of state at the 2017 ASEAN Summit. “We are trying to fill the gap to say to governments that you can’t just say good things in the international forum. You also have to follow up,” said Awigra.

As part of this effort, Awigra and HRWG in collaboration with SPF published a baseline study in 2018 outlining the conditions for migrant workers in ASEAN countries to serve as a starting point for regional discussions. “By sharing our baseline study and the mechanisms that we have in Southeast Asia, hopefully we can create tools to communicate [with other countries] so that we can make a bridge between sending countries and Japan,” said Awigra.

The full article can be read on the Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s website.

From Immigration to Integration

Beneath the glitzy, modern towers of central Jakarta, with the sun reflecting its heat upon the ground, a handful of tents are perched on the side of the road, right next to the UNHCR building in Kebon Sirih. These tents however are not temporary; these have been the permanent homes for many refugees stranded in Jakarta.

Mahmood is a 40-year-old Afghani refugee who have resided in Indonesia for over 5 years. Out of fear of being persecuted, he ran away from his home, leaving his wife and 8 kids, searching for a safe place to call home. $8000 was how much he paid the people smugglers to get him out of Afghanistan.

His journey is difficult and rough to say the least, and far from over. In 2013 he left Afghanistan in the hopes of coming to Australia. He first went to India for 12 days, then Malaysia for 4 days, and then he took a boat to Medan, and then to Jakarta. Here, he registered his name to UNHCR, before making his way to Australia.

“In the past, in January 2014, I came to Australia by boat. Then 12 days with the immigration, border protection of Australia in the big boat. After that they send me back to Jakarta, in the orange boat. My boat was demolished,” he said.

Australia has a policy of returning boats carrying refugees before it reaches its shore. In the process, boats carrying refugees are intercepted by Australia’s border force before entering Australia’s water, then refugees are ultimately transferred into a small, cramped, and dingy orange boats to be sent back to Java. Mahmood fell victim to Australia’s petty politics of the gambling of refugees’ lives in returns for popularity with its electorates. He was officially deemed a refugee by UNHCR 20 months after he first registered.

“I’m hopeless now,” he said when asked of what hopes he has.

Mahmood is just one case in many of refugees who are stuck in transit countries, in danger of returning back to their homes yet unable to go their intended destinations. In Southeast Asia alone, countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have been the host of many refugees from Somalia, to Rohingya to Afghanistan among others.

Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) and Adeline met Mahmood and other Refugees last year to celebrate Christmas.

The problem however is that refugees in these countries ultimately have no rights. As neither Thailand, Malaysia nor Indonesia have signed or ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugee Rights, they therefore have no rights in being there, nor have any rights to citizenship. They are not only living in poor conditions, but unable to receive education or proper health care, unable to work and risk being deported due to their legal status as being “illegal aliens.” As the world is becoming increasingly isolationist, the case of refugees being stuck in transit countries will only rise.

Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia claims that despite not a party to the Refugee Convention, they would provide minimal protection to refugees, including adherence to non-refoulement principle on humanitarian grounds. Yet this is promise is fragile to political changes, and does not insure refugees proper living conditions.

While the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) has a body to protect human rights, their refugee protection mandate remains weak. It is therefore necessary for states within ASEAN to ratify the Refugee Convention to assure some rights to refugees and for the region to cooperate in creating a plan of action for the protection of refugees. But more importantly, it is necessary to tackle the original reasons that cause people to flee their home. In an era where states are increasingly becoming more isolationist in a more globalised world, it is no longer possible to simply turn a blind eye against conflict that can cause an influx of people to flee their homes. Origin, transit and destination countries are responsible for protecting the rights of refugees.

In the wake of the International day of Human Rights, Mahmood’s case reminds us of the plight of those who are persecuted and risked their lives in the hopes of finding a better place to live. In the spirit of ‘gotong royong,’ we must remember that help is also needed for those who are not a citizen and who is simply looking for safety.


This article is written by Adeline Tinessia. Adeline has been intern at HRWG for the past couple of months. She is studying a bachelors of International Security Studies, taking a focus on Southeast Asia and specifically on Indonesia.






Migrant Workers’ Rights in ASEAN Region: A Baseline Study

Labour migration is a global growing concern in the 21st century. In the ASEAN region, migrant workers form the backbone of the sprawling fishing industries of Thailand, the concrete jungles of Singapore and the lucrative plantations of Malaysia. They also traverse public-private boundaries to ‘maintain’ the smooth running of households, thus allowing their employers to participate in the national workforce.

Despite this huge significance, holistic measures and legal frameworks to respect, protect and fulfill migrant workers’ rights at a regional level remain inadequate. Ideally, there should be a legally binding regional instrument that guarantees the rights of migrant workers throughout the migration cycle. However, a decade of elusive negotiations proves to be unsuccessful. ASEAN states still cannot come to an agreement on the adoption of such an instrument. As an alternative, ASEAN states have recently adopted ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ASEAN Consensus).

This choice is largely criticised because the document simply imposes moral weight, as opposed to legal obligations, on ASEAN states. This means that ASEAN Consensus merely governs the basic principles and norms without specifying any concrete and directly applicable measures to protect migrant workers. Furthermore, most of the principles enumerated in the ASEAN Consensus are subject to national laws of ASEAN states, making the protection of migrant workers relatively uncertain and weak.

In order to ensure the utmost protection, promotion, and enjoyment of the rights of migrant workers, it is important to understand the situation and context of human rights problems affecting migrant workers in the region. Against such a backdrop, the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) carried out a baseline study and organised a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) on 30-31 August 2018 with the purpose to collect crucial information and data from representatives of Civil Society Organization (CSO) in each ASEAN Member State (AMS). This baseline study is aimed at identifying the current conditions pertaining to the implementation of migrant workers’ rights, focusing in particular on the following issues that are already discussed in the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ASEAN Consensus):

  1. decent work and social protection
  2. undocumented migrant workers and cross-cutting human rights issues
  3. access to justice
  4. information, empowerment, and recruitment
  5. repatriation and reintegration
  6. cooperation among AMS and mechanisms
  7. standard-setting and ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Family Members 

It is paramount to have a baseline study on issues that have become a political commitment of ASEAN Member States, for it could help ensure the effective implementation of such a commitment in addressing human rights abuses against migrant workers Migrant Workers’ Rights in ASEAN Region: A Baseline Study is aimed at offering an insight into the human rights situation of migrant workers in the ASEAN region post the 2017 ASEAN Consensus. As a result of collaborative work of ASEAN civil society, this book shows a common concern on the state of migrant workers as well as the hope of more collaborative work among ASEAN states to improve such situation.

Download the full book in Google Drive or Dropbox.