Migrant Life: An Interview with Colin Rajah

A political refugee from Malaysia, Colin Rajah has been an activist for migrants’ right for almost 25 years. He is co-founder and Coordinator of the Global Coalition on Migration; the Secretary for Migrants Rights International; the Director of the International Migrant Rights and Global Justice Program at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; and co-founder and Co-Chair of the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development & Human Rights. Rajah has authored numerous publications and delivers lectures worldwide on migration. He spoke with The Politic in advance of the 2013 U.N. High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development.

Colin Rajah speaking at the Graduate Institute of Geneva.
Colin Rajah speaking at the Graduate Institute of Geneva.

The Politic: It would be an absolute understatement to say that you have gone through tough times when trying to settle abroad. Could you describe one or more of your personal experiences that led to you advocate for migrants’ rights?

For a lot of people who settle abroad, you can count the challenges on almost any level, whether it’s getting a job, applying for social security, or applying for a driver’s license like here in California. There are daily challenges for migrants everywhere in the world, but obviously for those that make up the working class and what might be called ‘unskilled labor.’

There are a lot of challenges people might face – including my own family and myself – over the years. Sometimes something as simple as traveling with a student visa can be challenging. I was coming back [to the U.S.] on a plane the day before yesterday. The flight was from Hong Kong, and the lady next to me was coming to visit her son. It was her first time in the U.S. She had this form that was all in English, and she had all kinds of documentation. Just think of the level of preparation she had to go through. I was sitting next to her, and I spent a full hour on the plane helping her fill out the form and explaining what she had to do when she got to the U.S. This reminded me again how challenging it is for this lady to do something as simple as visit her son.

The Politic: Do you think any migrant has a moral duty to advocate for respect for other migrants’ rights? Or is there no moral duty, and yet it’s still good to advocate?

I wouldn’t call it a moral duty. If anything, I would say it’s a moral duty of policymakers to look at this issue much more closely. I feel that it’s a matter of self-interest. I think that migrants, and organized migrant communities, are essential in saying something. When the policies come down the line, we have to respond to, because whatever happens affects us on a very deep, personal level – our families; our communities; where we live, work, and play; our daily routine.

Unfortunately, when you look at a lot of policymaking around migration – international policymaking especially – migrants organized at the community level (not just individuals) have their voices left out significantly. If you go to New York and sit in on a U.N. session, you’ll often find a lunchtime or intermezzo event is a migrant panel. This happened just recently, at the Committee on Population and Development session a couple of months ago. They had a lunchtime session on migrants, and they were all excited about it. They had a really good moderator who organized the panel in a talk show format. These amazing leaders talked about their personal experiences as anecdotes, but not about policies they think are important. [For attendees,] it became like: ‘Oh, this reminds us why it’s important to work on migration. It’s very cute. It’s important to listen to people.’ But those voices are not central when you go back to the ‘serious’ panels about policy discussion.

I think this approach is wrong and absolutely misses the point. The policies that emerge from those discussions are flawed because they’re missing some important perspectives. I can’t say how important it is for migrant communities to organize themselves and take on this battle as well and challenge policymakers, N.G.O.s, and allies and make their voices heard.

The Politic: You’ve done much work organizing civil society at the international level – for example, through the Global Coalition on Migration. Do you find it challenging to gather civil society groups from different regions at the international level rather than at the local or national level, or is it easier when you put migration in a global context?

It depends. There’s an easy route: You can look at some of the international N.G.O.s that are working on issues of migration and development, academic groups, so-called experts and researchers, even the private sector. It’s easy to organize them because they are really operating at the international level.

It is, however, much more challenging to look at where the organized migrant communities are happening – at the local, national, and regional level – and bring those together. There’s a huge gap in capacity for these organizations and networks to operate at the international level and sustain the attention and work required to have an impact. It’s not easy, because there are many challenges that need more responses on the ground at the local, national, and regional level.

Just take what’s happening in the U.S. right now. A lot of the local community organizations working around migration are focused not just on basic issues like local policing and accessing language education. Now we have immigration reform. If you asked local community organizations to be active at this national level– where it’s a few steps removed from the daily grind and what’s facing them immediately – people may conceptually believe it is important, and they already do think it’s something they should be working on. But when you put together the limited amount of resources they have and all the immediate challenges they’re facing, it’s hard to dedicate any amount of resources.

Having said that, it’s our priority to organize internationally with those kinds of groups at the Global Migration Coalition. Just organizing the regional consultations for the High Level Dialogue, for example, we could have easily gotten together the big N.G.O.s on migration. Instead, we looked at grassroots networks and how we can support them, not just by having a one to three day consultation, but also by building their infrastructure, holding their alliances from the region, and building the region from the bottom up. That’s very challenging, but that’s the kind of dedication that’s needed. I’m amazed and constantly humbled by what can be achieved with just a little bit of support.

The Politic: Is the support you give to these small grassroots organization usually financial, or is it support in kind, or support by opening up new networks? What are the tangible things that you offer grassroots organizations through the Global Migration Coalition?

The financial support is very minimal, essentially negligible. What I think is really important and unique about the GCM is that it’s about pulling together alliances and consolidating our forces, and in that, we start to build up power. As an individual, I can go to conferences and offer my personal opinions, but now we’re supporting networks at a broad level.

I’ve always talked about this as a bubble-up and trickle-down process. We collect the conditions on the ground and the reality people are facing, and we bring that reality all the way to the global level: That’s the bubble-up process. And at the global level – with all these global, regional, national, and local leaders – we can deliberate together and say, ‘How can we challenge this, how can we change this, how can we propose real solutions and real alternatives? Then, how can we implement this, how can we take collective action?’ That’s the trickle down process – action that happens on a local, national, and regional level.

In 2006, during the first High Level Dialogue, we recognized that the African civil society voices were very few and very sporadic. We invested a lot of resources in organized groups of migrants and returned migrants as well as development organizations that already exist in Africa, giving them the space to deliberate and build their own infrastructure. (We didn’t want to build new stuff; that would be the biggest mistake we could make.) What’s come up now is the Pan-African Network in Defense of Migrants’ Rights, an emerging network in the region.

The Politic: What are the outcomes you want to see from the High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in October, and what role will civil society play in securing those outcomes?

I’d like to see negotiated outcomes that hold states to follow through and implement something. Having a Chair’s summary, I think we all believe this, given the previous High Level Dialogue and all these years of forums, negotiations, and discussions.

Having said that, I’m pessimistic about what can actually come out from the High Level Dialogue. It would be good if governments could agree to follow through on some basic protections – like for migrants in crisis, the reform of the recruitment sector, labor migrants – and beginning with the steps to decriminalize migration.

It’s important to look at the High Level Dialogue as a forum not ending this year, but beginning a multi-year process. How can we benchmark, year to year, accomplishments, so we can have end goals and move in that direction? The problem is, everybody speaks about what we can accomplish at the High Level Dialogue this year, and that’s a very pessimistic outlook.

Now, what can civil society’s impact be? I think it’s still up in the air.  We’re doing our best to have a well-developed process. We’ve organized regional consultations – in Africa, Asia, South America, Europe, the U.S., Canada, Central America – as a forum to bring together organizations in those regions. We’ll also have a Civil Society Steering Committee that helps consolidate views on issues. We have two days before the July 15th Interactive Hearings [a day for civil society groups to speak with State representatives about the High Level Dialogue] to deliberate on issues, so when we hit the ground on July 15th, we are actually presenting outcomes and wanting to get government reactions.

Even with everything we’re doing, I’m very pessimistic about what kind of impact we actually have. As much as we try to stay connected to what’s happening at the High Level Dialogue, we see that different governments have different self-interests and do not incorporate or even pay attention to what civil society is thinking.

The Politic: Do you think States will listen to civil society? Do you feel like you get the respect that you want, that you deserve? Or do you feel like States fail to give you due consideration?

There’s no generalization. There are some States that pay much more attention, or have a much more open door to listening, to what civil society says.

The Mexicans are pushing forward their own proposal for an outcome [for the High Level Dialogue]. They have had meetings with civil society representatives, saying, ‘Here’s what we’re proposing. What are your thoughts?’ They’re not saying, ‘What do you think we should include?’ It’s almost the opposite.

There are other States – some of the South American governments – that are a bit more open, although that’s quite a broad generalization. At the same time, I think there are also a lot of States where listening is one thing, but hearing is another. They have briefings and discussions with civil society organizations but don’t necessarily follow through. It’s like they’re saying, ‘We’ll listen to you, but this is what we’re proposing, and you need to understand that.’

Even within States, you have different forces. You have the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry that don’t necessarily operate on the same level or follow the same framework or policy objectives.

You have to deal with different ambassadors, when ambassadors change, and people in their missions change. They bring a different flavor. And that’s always the challenge in international advocacy work.

It’s hard to generalize and say yes or no, States are very open to us or they are not, because it’s very different from one State to another and from one point to another point.

The Politic: How would you describe the conditions for irregular migrants detained in the U.S.? Would you deem the conditions of their detention, trial, and either integration or deportation fair and just? Or are there specific areas in which improvements need to be made?

To say that improvements are needed is a gross understatement. The Detention Watch Network in the U.S. focuses on these issues and has some really good proposals, recommendations, and reports. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights also has a long history of producing reports on some of the conditions around detentions and deportations.

The detentions and deportations regime in the U.S. and in many other countries is built on a national security framework. It’s that notion – of criminalization of migration – that we’re trying to challenge. It looks at migrants as criminals and not as victims of circumstances who have a lot to contribute. If you look at them as criminals, I think that their treatment is very different.

Also, you now have a whole industry built around the detention and deportation processes. There’s a lot of money and resources dedicated to it. This makes things very hard to challenge and change.

Saying improvements are needed is almost minimalizing it, so I can’t even say that. I think we have to look for a significant level of reform, and there are different efforts both nationally and internationally trying to do that. Again, Detention Watch Network is one such network that looks at civil society activists in the U.S., lawyers, immigrant groups, and advocacy groups that are trying to shift the system.

Trying to include this issue in the immigration reform bill (not that I am well-versed in the day-to-day changes in the bill) is still very much a challenge, because I think a policymakers’ feelings and the popular sentiment in the U.S. are to start with criminalization, to start with securing the border, to only let in the best and the brightest. It sets up this notion of ‘the good immigrant’ versus ‘the bad immigrant.’ It skews everything in that direction.

The Politic: Regarding the immigration bill being discussed by the U.S. Congress, is there any legislation you would like to see for irregular migrants in the U.S., both ones who are already detained and are waiting to be deported, and also ones who are living ‘under the radar’ and are unknown to the authorities?

My personal and organizational opinion is that the system is seriously flawed and doesn’t take into account the root causes, the ‘push factors,’ in many regions, sometimes brought on by U.S. policies themselves. It’s critical to understand this before we even look at what’s happening here [in the U.S.]. Then, we will start to understand why people are forced to move.

We’re talking about a humanitarian crisis that’s basically invisible to most people. Especially now, as we approach the summer months, many people we may never know of will die trying to cross the border [from Mexico to the U.S.] looking for a better life, just trying to escape poverty, trying to sustain better livelihoods. Then, there are people who are detained and deported and have to try again. And there are people who are forced to live ‘under the radar’ just because of the notion of a national security framework that criminalizes people who are migrating in general.

When we talk about real reform that’s needed, we have to understand what’s happening. It’s challenging for people like us who are operating on an international level to understand the national priorities that need to come into play when negotiations happen, because we look at the conditions that people are facing in their home communities and the very unequal distribution of wealth and development around the world. There’s also what’s happening in certain regions, like war and militarization. Obviously, when you look at this issue in that sense, who wouldn’t want to escape that or try to find something better for their family?

The Politic: One advantage to working at the international level is that you get exposure to many different governments’ policies. Is there one country in particular that you think has very fair and just procedures for handling irregular migrants, a country from which the U.S. could learn?

That’s hard to say, because there are countries that are more ‘sending countries’ or ‘transit countries’ or ‘receiving countries.’ In terms of handling incoming migrants, we have to look at receiving countries. It’s hard to find countries that can be held up as models. (At the same time, some sending countries have good policies in terms of immigrants, but they’re not the countries that have an influx of migration. A country may have really good policies and can sign the Convention on migrant workers’ rightsbecause it doesn’t have any migrant workers.)

It’s important to recognize the different interests countries have. For example, there’s a lot of somewhat unfair criticism of Mexico right now, saying that a lot of what they’re pushing around the High Level Dialogue and elsewhere comes from the fact that there are a lot of Mexican migrants crossing to the U.S. So this is more of a Mexico-U.S. matter. It’s a challenge to understand this criticism and try not to succumb to it. Some of Mexico’s proposals make sense all around, regardless of the situation in different regions.

A protest for rights of irregular migrants on the Mexico-US border.
A protest for rights of irregular migrants on the Mexico-US border.

I think you’re absolutely right about being able to step back at an international level and look at migration from a broad perspective. You could say, ‘Yes, of course we can deal with this issue, if countries could just come around to it and look at it from a global perspective.’ The challenge is, governments and States don’t do that. They often look at it from their national interests. Even the missions in Geneva and New York at the U.N. are bound by that. Even though there are skilled diplomats who are good at considering global interests, they are also bound by their national policies, frameworks, and interests.

The Politic: Is there anything else you would like to share with university-level students or other readers of The Politic?

Previously, I coordinated a national chapter network of student organizations on various campuses around the country looking at international development issues. The U.S. is very insular and myopic; it looks at issues on a domestic policy level and at our national interest. The U.S. has a lot of influence internationally – economically, politically, and even socially. I think it’s important for our young, emerging leaders at Yale and everywhere else to be informed.

Take as much time as you feasibly can to experience a different perspective and get off campus. Find internships in different organizations and agencies, especially abroad. Every chance you get, travel and work and live in communities abroad. You come back with a radically different perspective and outlook. It just blows my mind how many people graduate from campus and walk straight into an important job where they have influence over international policy development and have never even spent more than a month traveling abroad, let alone living in different communities.

I just came back from Indonesia, where I talked to a couple of students from Michigan who have taken a year off to work with different organizations in India and other parts of Asia. They related to me what a mind-blowing experience it is. It not only challenges what learned in the classroom but also enhances that significantly.

To your readers, and students on all campuses around the country, I would say go for it. Take any chance to get off campus that you can, because you will become a much better leader in your future endeavors as well as a student.


Rachel O’Connell is interning at the International Organization for Migration in Geneva, Switzerland.

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