People across the world leave their homes, families and countries in search of work and education, and to escape poverty, discrimination and conflict. Many risk everything, even their lives, for security and a chance to earn a living. At every step, they are vulnerable to exploitation, fraud and human rights abuses.
To mark International Migrants Day, migrants from around the globe have told Amnesty International how they have been exploited, detained and attacked on their search for a better life.
Migrants living in Malaysia, South Korea, Mexico and the US have described how they deal with appalling living and working conditions, unscrupulous employers, abusive immigration detention staff and the ever-present threat of arbitrary arrest and detention by the authorities. Migrants with irregular status* are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses.
All interviews were conducted by Amnesty International researchers between November 2008 and July 2009. All names have been changed.
Migrant stories Dev - "we waited for three months without any work" Margarita - "he said if I didn’t have sex with him he would send me back" Carmen - "instead of helping me, they handcuffed me" Marcella - "I lived in a shipping container - one room with a window"
Dev's story, Malaysia
Dev left his family and home in Nepal when he was 19 and made the journey to Malaysia to work as a cleaner. He is one of over three million migrant workers in Malaysia. He told Amnesty International:
“I left because of fighting in Nepal. The country had lots of problems between the communists and the army. Young men were being taken by communists to join the fighting. They kill you if you refuse. I was very scared so I applied for a visa for Malaysia.
I contacted an agent and came to Malaysia on a cleaner’s visa. I paid the agent 80,000 Nepali rupees (US$ 1000) to bring me here. I had to borrow money and I was supposed to pay back 1000 rupees per month with 320 rupees interest.
The agent told me that I would work as a cleaner when I arrived in Malaysia but I never got any work from the agent. When I arrived at the airport in Kuala Lumpur I waited for four hours. The agent finally came and picked me up with other people from Nepal who were coming as cleaners.
He took us to a flat where we waited for three months without any work. The agent never gave us any money so we had to go outside and meet Nepali people and explain what had happened and ask for food and money. The agent took my passport and never gave it back.”
Dev was later able to find work by himself, in a factory and also working for a construction company. His agent did not renew his visa and refused to return his passport.
Dev became an irregular migrant, without legal permission to stay or work in Malaysia. The wages he is paid are very low compared with other workers, but he knows he cannot complain because he does not have a work permit. He does not earn sufficient money to enable him to send funds back to his family in Nepal.
Dev would like to return home to Nepal but is now unable to do so as he does not have a passport and is scared of being caught by the authorities.
Margarita's story, Mexico
Margarita and her partner Miguel left El Salvador in October 2008 in search of a better life in the United States. In El Salvador, Margarita worked in a clothes factory and made five dollars a day, which was not enough to feed her two young children and send them to school.
Like most Central American migrants, the couple planned to make the journey without documents, on the roof of a freight train, which would take them to Mexico’s border with the United States.
On 5 November 2008, Margarita and Miguel were travelling on the top of a freight train in Chiapas State, Mexico, when it stopped unexpectedly and military vans approached the train tracks.
The couple jumped off the train and ran into the bushes. They were followed by two armed soldiers who shot several times into the air until they caught up with them. Margarita told Amnesty International:
“You don’t imagine that your dreams can end in a moment on this journey. The soldier pulled me by the hand and told me to walk further into the bushes while pointing his gun at me.
He took me far away from the train tracks until we were completely alone. He told me to take my clothes off so that he could see if I was carrying drugs.
When I refused, he pulled my trousers down and sexually assaulted me. He asked me how I was going to repay him for the bullet he had to shoot because of me.
He told me I had to have sex with him to make it up to him. He said that if I didn’t have sex with him he would send me back to my country. He said it would be quick and that if I didn’t make a fuss he would let me go.”
The soldier eventually let Margarita go and she was not raped. Others do not escape. Amnesty International has received several reports showing that women migrants are frequently subject to rape, particularly by criminal gangs in Mexico. Those responsible are hardly ever held to account.
Carmen's story, USA
Carmen arrived in the United States from Mexico in 1998 and has raised a family there. Two of her three children have US citizenship.
In April 2008, she was arrested for failing to appear in court for an alleged misdemeanour. She was taken to jail and interrogated by an immigration officer, who told her she would be deported.
Carmen spent 24 days in jail. At her court hearing the judge recommended that she be released. However, immigration authorities continued to hold her as an immigration detainee.
After almost three weeks in immigration detention with no indication of when she would be able to return to her family, Carmen tried to kill herself. She recalled:
“I felt I would have a nervous breakdown, being locked up. The kids needed me. I started hearing voices, criminalising me for not being with my children. I thought it was not worth being alive.
I had a sock that I used to clean everything. I heard a voice telling me - wrap the sock around my neck and kill myself. My cellmate was reading a book. She was a sweet African-American lady who spoke a little Spanish. I started hanging myself. She said, 'what are you doing?' I don’t know what happened but everything started turning dark.”
In response, officers handcuffed Carmen and took her to another cell. Carmen was later released but is still waiting for her case to be resolved.
"I was not respected as a human being. Whether I have the right documents or not, I’m still a human being. I was breaking down but instead of helping me, they handcuffed me…
The first morning I woke up after I got out, I didn’t know where I was. The kids were very happy to have me back. I had a lot of time to think and re-examine my life and spend more time with my family. I used to think birds in a cage were so pretty but no one should be deprived of freedom – no one should be caged."
Marcella's story, South Korea
Marcella, a 34-year-old woman from the Philippines, arrived in South Korea in April 2006, on the Employment Permit System (EPS).
Through the EPS government work scheme, South Korea became one of the first Asian countries to legally recognise the rights of migrant workers and grant them the same status as Korean workers, with equal labour rights, pay and benefits. However, in reality, migrant workers continue to face hardships and abuse.
“When I arrived, I worked at a factory in Osan, Gyeonggi province where we manufactured heating coils for rice cookers. I was paid KRW 786,000 (US$815) per month.
My boss was not nice; he swore at me and pressured me to work faster. For example, he wanted me to produce 1,000 heating coils per day. It was very hard to do 1,000, as you have to connect the wires and because they’re so small, your fingers hurt, especially your thumb and index finger.
I lived in a shipping container - one room with a window. Sometimes I would hear knocks on my door in the middle of the night. I would get very scared. It was very cold in the winter. I had to buy a heater myself, but it was still cold. In the summer it got very hot even with a fan, which I had to buy with my own money.”
Marcella was unfairly dismissed from the factory after asking her boss for a day off at Christmas.
Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Amnesty International’s researcher came across many similar stories of unfair dismissal between March 2008 and July 2009. Many migrant workers did not complain against dismissals because of the language barrier, unfamiliarity of their rights and due to the lengthy and complicated processes involved.
*Many migrants start off with legal permission but become irregular migrants; that is, they do not have legal permission to remain or work in the country they are in. This can happen for a number of reasons, for example because employers or agents fail to renew work permits, or they provide fake ones.