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Born free
by Asa Butcher
2006-12-19 10:06:20
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It is common knowledge that UN Resolution 55/93 proclaimed December 18th International Migrants Day and we have all been busily planning events to celebrate the aforementioned day, but what exactly is the day supposed to encourage or highlight? Can immigrants enjoy the day or is it purely a migrant’s affair? What is the difference?

International Migrants Day Dictionary.com defines ‘migrant’ as an itinerant worker who travels from one area to another in search of work, while ‘immigrant’ is a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence. My own understanding through these two definitions is that a migrant never settles and an immigrant does, which makes the migrant worker sound like a drifter without roots.

Migration is characterized by its temporary nature, primarily motivated by economic reasons and the dream of a better life. Sadly, many migrant workers face poor working conditions, violations of human rights and are employed in dangerous, difficult and dirty jobs. The growing threat of human trafficking, especially for women being forced into prostitution, emphasizes the need for days such as December 18th.

Around the world there are hundreds of organizations trying to solve the problems and end the dangers of migration, but individually they lack the power to effect real change. December 18th aims to unite these organizations and encourage governments to create new legislation to tackle the issue. However, instigating these changes takes a great deal of campaigning, political support and finance, which is not always readily available.

In 2005, the UN estimated that there are 190 million international migrants, about 3% of global population, and they are supposed to be all protected under a series of standards that the International Labour Organisation established and also the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families adopted by the United Nations in 1990.

Who qualifies as a migrant, as opposed to a short-term worker or even an immigrant? How long does somebody have to live and work in a country before the status changes? I have lived in Finland for nearly five years and I guess that makes me an immigrant now, but was I ever a migrant? I came to Finland knowing that it would be for the long-term, I would raise a family here and one day play with my grandchildren here, so there was never any doubt in my mind concerning the duration of the stay.

I have met many other foreigners who are in migrant limbo and experience the same problems, albeit on a much lesser scale, of abused migrants around the world. Many are professionals who take on jobs that do not utilize their full potential and are usually de-skilling, while others struggle to obtain permanent contracts and legal wages. Over the summer there was the news story of the Ukrainian berry pickers who came to Finland as seasonal workers, but a dry summer wiped out Lapland's berry crop and, in turn, wiped out the pickers’ earning potential.

In the beginning, they found themselves in the position of being ignored by Finnish authorities and being offered little help from their own embassy, and some workers were being given food by local villagers. These situations prove the need for better migration law and protection for migrants, especially in an age of xenophobia and discrimination.

The situation of the Ukrainian berry pickers was solved, but many countries present far worse circumstances for migrant workers than being unable to fly home. Slavery, human trafficking and prostitution are just three of the by-products of abused and it is days such as International Migrants Day that we must take a moment to think about what we can do to end the nightmare for those trapped by ruthless individuals.

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