Migration and the Media

Migration and the Media

April 2015

Hélène Harroff-Tavel, Technical Officer, ILO Geneva. April 2015

“The United Nations is fundamentally challenged in the way it communicates to a global audience,” argued a senior executive of an influential media network last September in Geneva. All the journalists and editors who subsequently engaged in the International Labour Organisation’s media initiative on fair migration have shared the candor of his remarks, urging the Organisation to conceive new ways of communicating with the media.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation further raised the bar of expectations by encouraging the ILO to imagine a project that would bring real value-added to the protection discourse in the Middle East region. So began the daunting task of designing a media initiative that would engage substantively with journalists and trade unionists in the region on the interrelated issues of labour migration and human trafficking. The objectives of the initiative include familiarizing participants with ILO policy prescriptions developed on the basis of international standards and empirical research, promoting the use of appropriate rights-based language,  and supporting the production of “untold” stories.

In doing so, ILO partnered with Panos Institute Europe, which has an established reputation of training journalists on sensitive issues. Together, they drafted a specific training approach taking into account the sheer scale of labour migration to the Middle East , the reliance on a restrictive ‘kafala’ sponsorship system binding the migrant worker to the employer, and the fact that media is largely controlled in the region. Such limited freedom of press is emblematic of other human rights’ violations in the region, including the lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

The ILO-Panos regional media initiative has to date consisted of one inter-regional meeting of editors from South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, three national workshops focusing on Jordan, Bahrain and Oman, and one global workshop with the Al Jazeera Network. Consequently, the project has advanced the migration protection agenda in two distinct ways. First, it provided a chance for the ILO to explain the relevance of international labour standards as well as its policy agenda on fair migration to the media and trade unionists. They in turn wanted to discuss the application of these standards at the national level, in particular with regards to the issue of the kafala, which the ILO’s Committee of Experts has said may be conducive to forced labour. Second, the media initiative has built bridges between the labour movement, human rights organizations, grassroots NGOs and journalists reporting on human and labour rights, allowing them to explore together on “untold” stories and defend democratic values.

The media initiative faces considerable challenges in reaching its stated objectives in such a volatile region. But the seeds of change have been planted, and Spring is upon us again.



1. For example, an “illegal” migrant worker should be referred to as an irregular or undocumented migrant worker. To learn more about the rights-based language for covering migration issues, please see the media friendly glossary on migration developed by Panos and the UN Alliance of Civilizations.( http://www.panoseurope.org/publications/media-friendly-glossary-migration)
2. According to recent data, there is an estimated 25 million migrant workers living in the Middle East.