The High Cost of Low Protection for Migrants on the Margin

Apr 28 , 2024
By Yonas Zewdie

In the East and Horn of Africa, a region including 18 countries, migration patterns are profoundly influenced by challenges ranging from armed conflicts and political instability to environmental degradation, climate change, and scarce economic opportunities. This geographic expanse serves as a source, transit, and destination for migrants, recording 7.7 million international migrants as of 2020. The convoluted web of movement includes migrant workers, asylum seekers, and refugees who often follow similar pathways — be it the eastern route leading to Yemen and the Gulf, the southern route heading towards South Africa, or the northern passage towards North Africa and Europe.

Migrant workers from this region find themselves predominantly in low-skilled employment in destination countries due to several hurdles, including unrecognised qualifications and limited proficiency in the local languages of their new homes. These barriers are compounded by insufficient access to quality education and vocational training that aligns with the demands of their destination countries. For those with irregular status, the challenges are even more pronounced. Legal restrictions often limit them to informal sectors where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Employers in these sectors may leverage the migrants' lack of legal status to offer low wages and substandard working conditions without adequate legal protections.

Despite their contributions to the labour markets in their host countries, migrant workers often face marginalisation. The lack of social and legal protection exposes them to various forms of exploitation, including long working hours and unsafe working conditions, without sufficient legal recourse. The precarious nature of their legal status heightens their vulnerability, leaving them susceptible to abuses that they are often too fearful to report due to the potential repercussions such as deportation.

Social protection policies are crucial in addressing these vulnerabilities.

Social protection, as defined, includes access to healthcare, income security, and family support, ensuring a safety net that guards against poverty and social exclusion. However, substantial gaps in coverage exist worldwide. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), four billion people globally lack social protection, with only 29pc of the world's population having adequate social security coverage and 55pc completely uncovered.

For migrant workers, the limitations in accessing social protection are compounded by legal and practical barriers. These include restrictions based on their nationality or status, short durations of employment, and the complexities involved in the portability of social benefits across borders. These issues are recognised in international frameworks such as the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which emphasises the importance of ensuring social protection for migrant workers.

The framework argues for the imperative of extending social protection to migrant workers. Such measures not only safeguard their rights but also enhance their well-being by providing access to essential services such as healthcare and education, irrespective of their nationality or migration status. Addressing the unique challenges faced by migrant workers, particularly those in low-skilled and informal sectors, requires comprehensive legislation and administrative measures that do not discriminate against them.

Efforts to ensure social protection for migrant workers must include various strategies. Countries of origin and destination are encouraged to ratify and implement relevant ILO conventions and recommendations, develop national policies that include social protection floors for all, including migrant workers, and enforce social security agreements that coordinate social security systems across borders. Bilateral labour agreements and memorandums of understanding should incorporate social security provisions to further these goals.

These legislative and administrative initiatives should remove the barriers migrant workers face in accessing social protection. This includes addressing the discrimination inherent in existing laws and ensuring compliance with social security laws. Raising awareness among migrant workers about their rights and entitlements is crucial for empowering them to advocate for themselves effectively.

Comprehensive and inclusive social protection policies are urgently needed to uphold the dignity and rights of migrant workers. These policies contribute to the broader goals of reducing poverty and inequality, as outlined in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Such policies are essential not only for protecting migrant workers but also for realising a more equitable and sustainable global society .

PUBLISHED ON Apr 28,2024 [ VOL 25 , NO 1252]

Yonas Zewdie ( is a communications officer for the Better Regional Migration Management Programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) country office for Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

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