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For two days in Cairo, representatives of BWI affiliates from Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands met to strategize on how to ensure the rights of migrants and refugees.
The meeting, coordinated by BWI with support from FES and hosted by the General Trade Union for Building and Wood Industries Workers, took place in the backdrop of intense negotiations within the European Union to approve a deal that would provide 3 billion euros to Turkey doubling the already 3 billion euros offered last year. Those present in Cairo was highly critical of the “one-for-one” plan, whereupon Syrian refugees who arrived in Greece would be sent back to Turkey and in exchange European countries would take one Syrian refugees.
“This agreement is not only unjust and goes against the very essence of humanity but more importantly it goes against the responsibilities and obligations of governments to ensure the rights of migrants and refugees,” said Ruud Baars, Chair of the BWI Migration Ad Hoc Working Group.
Although Turkey is hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees it is not the only country in the region with a large number of refugees. Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt also face enormous challenges to provide adequate services to the thousands of Syrian refugees present in their countries and address the impact in the labour market — particularly in the BWI sectors. However, unlike Turkey, there has been no commitment of financial support by the European Union expressed to these countries.
The participants reaffirmed BWI’s Statement Calling for Fair Migration Policies that was passed by the BWI World Council last November. The Statement called on BWI and its affiliates to urge the European Union to:
“Since the statement was approved the situation on the ground has worsened, where thousands continue to risk their lives fleeing war, poverty, and the impacts of climate change. It is imperative that trade unions continue to push their governments to seek a comprehensive, fair, and equitable policy that focuses on rights,” stated Piet Matosa, Vice-President of the BWI Africa and Middle East and North Africa Region.
Due to the increasing anti-migrant and xenophobic sentiments prevalent in many of the European countries, those representing unions in Europe also stressed the need for BWI affiliates to work with socialist parties to develop pro-migrant and refugee policies and statements to diffuse the hysteria within the general public regarding migrants and refugees.
“It is important that we develop effective and accurate information and data to counter the myths and misconceptions that many in Europe have when it comes to migrants and refugees, stated Rita Schiavi, of Unia. She continued, “Right-wing governments are irresponsible by portraying migrants and refugees as being criminals, burden to the social welfare system and taking away jobs from nationals. In reality they contribute tremendously to the economy.”
This sentiment was echoed by Merin Abbass, Director of Regional Trade Union Projects for FES. Highlighting the example of Germany, Abbass stated that in Germany, there was currently a need for 600,000 skilled workers to fill the vacancy in Germany and there is speculation that in 30 years Germany would need at least 15 million in the labour market.
In addition to discussing the refugee crisis, the unions also shared their experiences and strategies in outreaching to migrant workers. Of particular note were the efforts of the GSTU of Lebanon, GFBTU of Bahrain, and the GTUBWW of Egypt despite the enormous political challenges the countries continue to face after the 2010 “Arab Spring.” Recognizing that one of the major impediments for ensuring the rights of migrant workers in the GCC countries is the kafala system, the unions called for the abolishment of the kafala system and urged all government to adopt international conventions and protocols related to the migrants and their families.
As a way forward, the unions in the MENA region committed to a set of national and regional strategies including taking stock of each of the union’s policies and activities related to organizing and ensuring the rights of migrant workers, formulating organizing strategies, and developing resource materials to outreach to migrants and refugees about their rights.
An important development for the GTUBWW according to its President Abdel Monem El Gamal is the proposed establishment of a special committee within the union to develop and implement specific activities and policies regarding the increasing presence of migrants and refugees in Egypt as well as the large number of Egyptian workers who migrate abroad to Jordan, Kuwait and other parts in the region for work.
In his closing statement, Gamal emphasized, “the need for unions within the MENA region to coordinate their efforts to promote the rights of migrants and refugees — a phenomena that is not new but due to the recent displacement of millions of people from Syria, Iraq, and Libya, it has been increasingly challenging for all countries address the economic and labour market implications. However, through mutual cooperation and with the continued support of our international global union, the BWI we can meet these challenges.”