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May 11, 2018

Responding To: Addressing Pandemics and Global Migration

Thoughts on the International Migrants in China and the Reproductive Health of Transnationals

Professor Jennifer Bouey, Georgetown University

In the last three decades, China’s rise in the global economy has been aided by the seemingly endless supply of low-cost workers who were surplus laborers from the heartland of rural China.  In 2009, more than 150 million Chinese rural-to-urban migrants moved to the coastal cities  to work in the booming factories of the world’s largest export industry.  Recently, however, we have awakened to a new reality — China’s cheap labor supply is drying up due to a rapidly aging society partly attributed to the one-child policy; the closing wealth gap between the rural and urban areas in China continues to grow; and a new labor-absorbing infrastructure-construction industry in the interior provinces of China due to the government’s anti-recession stimulus package after 2008. Since the early months of 2010, Chinese factories in a few coastal cities have been struggling to find workers to help fill export orders. The media reported that factories in Guangdong have even hired many illegal workers from Vietnam and elsewhere (Yuexin, 2010).  Around the southern borders of China, Vietnamese, Laotians, Burmese, and Cambodian workers also found it easy to get jobs in the factories through their own networks. In the detention centers of undocumented international migrants in Guangdong province, two-thirds of the detainees were migrants who crossed the southwest borders of China from neighboring countries.

On the other hand, many migrants in Asia risk their lives to cross the borders through unauthorized land or sea routes in order to relocate themselves and their families to a more secure environment. They include North Korean smuggled refugees, undocumented Cambodian workers and trafficked fishermen in Thailand, overstay Bangladeshi workers in Japan, stateless Rohingyas, trafficked Vietnamese brides in Korea and China, and Karen refugees in Thailand, to name a few.   Many of these migrants’ decisions to cross the nation’s border are driven by their natural instinct for survival to go to a more secure environment even when the movement itself poses great risk to their physical and mental health. Within the broad category of unauthorized movement, the various definitions of irregular migration include undocumented immigrant labor, human trafficking, people smuggling,  and asylum seeking,  with the boundaries of these definitions often blurred and interchangeable. 

Women and girls on these migration journeys carry a disproportionate burden of vulnerability from gender specific-violence, discrimination, and exploitative working conditions that are detrimental to their reproductive and sexual health.  Simultaneously, host countries vary in their support to the migrants’ health, but the lack of basic personal, economic, food and health security in these host settings causes stress and poor mental health, which add to their risks of substance abuse and HIV infection.  International humanitarian aid provides some funding, especially when a dire situation is exposed in the media.  This aid, however, tends to be short term.  In this general context, how do we support the reproductive and mental health care needs of women and girls in an irregular migration process?  What is the best model for a host country to provide basic reproductive health and mental health services to these women and girls? How might one use humanitarian aid effectively to address the most critical problems? How can one establish multi-sectoral collaborations to sustain humanitarian aid for women and girls on the migration routes? Responding to these questions is the overarching aim of a future case study we hope to conduct on two borders of Myanmar: Myanmar Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees cross the border due to ethnic conflicts; and Myanmar-China, where many women and girls cross the border to China for economic gains. 

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