Monday, August 15, 2011

Plane baby sparks debate

Was Plane Baby's Migrant Mother a Victim, Too?

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (Sept. 19) -- The sensational case of a Filipina migrant worker who gave birth on a flight from the Middle East and dumped her newborn in the trash highlights broader problems facing migrant workers, activists say.

The case gripped the Philippines and global media in recent days, after plane-cleaning staff found a baby in the trashcan of a Gulf Air flight from Bahrain to Manila.

On the Internet, outrage over the mother's behavior was mixed with Facebook cooing over the baby -- dubbed George Francis for the airline's flight code, GF -- and offers to adopt if the mother didn't come forward. Gulf Air staff looked after the infant at the Manila hospital where he was sent.

But on Thursday, the story took a dramatic twist when a Filipina migrant worker came forward and confessed to being the baby's mother. She told a Philippines lawmaker that she had worked in Qatar as a maid and was raped by her employer, according to The Associated Press.

When her pregnancy was discovered, her employer forced her to return to the Philippines, she said, according to Rep. Lani Mercado, the AP reported. She abandoned the baby out of fear for what her family would say.

The woman had been identified as the possible mother through the passenger manifest after blood was found on her seat on the plane, 40D, according to ABS-CBN

The woman has come in for plenty of criticism. But migrant workers activists say people shouldn't be so quick to judge. In many cases, migrant workers are justifiably worried that seeking justice for sexual or other abuse can backfire.

"I'm sure one of her reasons for not complaining is because in many cases if you complain, you are the one who will be in prison," said Eni Lestari, chairwoman of the Hong Kong-based International Migrants Alliance. "And in many cases, these women are not being protected by their own governments.

"In some countries, there will even be a threat of being accused of agreeing to have sex with the boss, when they didn't," she said. "In the eyes of the law, they can become a criminal, not the victim."

Lestari said most Asian migrant workers, like the Gulf Air mother, are women who work as maids. Often they have few or no days off, and suffer from physical or sexual abuse. In Hong Kong, she said, the legal burden is on the migrant worker to prove, through physical evidence, that sexual abuse occurred.

"Many such cases are unreported, leaving migrant workers dealing with the whole trauma and effects of sexual abuse, even while they have the responsibility of being the bread-winner of their family," Lestari said.

Some 11 million Filipinos live and work abroad because they can't find work that pays a living wage at home. They're part of a global migrant workforce estimated at 214 million. According to the website of the rights group Migrante International, about 2,000 Filipinos leave the country every day bound for 182 countries worldwide.

"The abuses and exploitation they experience in their place work are prevalent. These range from contract violations, rape, sexual harassment, mysterious deaths, among others," the group says. "Women migrant workers in particular are most vulnerable to abuses and maltreatment."

A 2009 U.S. State Department human rights report said foreign workers in Qatar had disputes with employers over leaving the country. "In some cases, sponsors sexually harassed and mistreated foreign domestic servants," the report said. "Most domestic servants did not press charges for fear of losing their jobs."

The report cited one unnamed foreign embassy in Qatar that reported 700 cases of sexual harassment against maids in 2008 alone. "When the domestic employees brought harassment to the attention of authorities, the employees were often deported, and no charges were filed against the employer."

But an Amnesty International staffer said Qatar and the Middle East shouldn't be singled out for poor treatment of migrant workers. "It's a worldwide phenomenon," said Wilnor Papa, Amnesty's campaign coordinator for the Philippines. "What we see here is not enough protection given to migrant workers."

Papa said the plane baby case likely reflects migrant workers' low levels of education, poor awareness of rights, and lack of sufficient legal protection from countries hosting migrant workers. "It's really sad that because of her fears of how family and the law would treat her, she would rather give birth and leave her child there [on the plane]," Papa said.

"She's not given that many options, and she doesn't know her options, and that's one of the problems," he said. "Not a lot of the migrants are educated, and not many know the law can protect them."

He said many migrant workers end up doing different work than they signed up for, and some even get trafficked into illegal brothels after being lured abroad with promises of legitimate jobs.

Papa said that while returning to the Philippines from London via the Middle East on a flight last year, he talked to migrant workers returning home -- including a nurse who'd been put to work as a maid, an engineer who'd become a driver, a woman whose hands had burnt because of a cleaning agent her boss forced her to use, and another woman who had been abused. "Stories like this happen on a regular basis," he said.

Papa said both sending and receiving countries needed to implement existing laws protecting such workers, and pass tougher ones. He noted that few hosting countries had signed or ratified the U.N. Convention on the rights of migrant workers. (Forty-three countries are party to the convention, including the Philippines, according to the U.N.'s website. Qatar is not among them.)

The International Migrants Alliance's Lestari said there are also ongoing discussions on a draft international convention for domestic workers, which could provide a mechanism to better protect migrant maids' rights.

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