New EU-UN ‘PROTECT’ project supports women migrant workers and children in Southeast Asia

Representatives of the European Union, Ministry of Labour and United Nations with participants at the PROTECT project launch.© ILO
Representatives of the European Union, Ministry of Labour and United Nations with participants at the PROTECT project launch.© ILO

Bangkok (Thailand), 25 March 2024 - The European Union (EU) announces a financial support of € 13 million to the United Nations (UN) for a new initiative called ‘PROTECT’, which aims to strengthen the rights of women migrant workers, children, and at-risk groups in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The three-year PROTECT project will promote decent work and reduce vulnerabilities of those at risk of abuse and exploitation by ensuring safe migration and upholding labour rights, as well as preventing and responding to violence against women and children, human trafficking and migrant smuggling.

David Daly, Ambassador of the European Union to Thailand, said: “People worldwide are forced to leave their homes in search of opportunities and better lives. Along their journey in transit and at their destination, women migrant workers and children are at a higher risk. We are proud to continue supporting our UN partners in this new project aimed at addressing a global phenomenon at the regional level. Together with Thailand and other partner countries in the region, we will provide protection for women and children, strengthen migration governance, tackle human trafficking and migrant smuggling, as well as develop legal pathways for sustainable migration policy.”

There are 10.6 million migrants in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, of whom nearly half are women and 1.3 million are children. Migrants, especially those in low wage occupations, and persons who are forced to migrate, face many challenges including labour exploitation, human trafficking, abuse during smuggling journeys, harassment and violence against women. Women migrant workers are also more likely to end up in informal sectors where they are offered temporary jobs and little to no social protection. Children accompanying migrant workers face a high risk of abuse, exploitation and trafficking as well as inadequate access to child protection services.

The ‘PROTECT’ project will be implemented by four UN agencies namely the International Labour Organization (ILO), United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The agencies will work with relevant stakeholders in four Southeast Asian countries to strengthen laws and policies, and improve capacities and mechanisms to better protect target groups’ rights and increase access to information and services.

Noting the significance of the new project to the region, Chihoko Asada-Miyakawa, ILO Assistant Director General and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific said, “Labour migration is a driver of economic and social development in countries of origin and destination, benefiting migrant workers, communities, and employers alike. Migration governance policies and approaches need to be gender responsive, more inclusive and in line with international labour standards if we are to provide the protection and access to decent work that migrants deserve, which is critical for social justice.”

"Addressing the pervasive issue of violence and harassment against women migrant workers in Southeast Asia is imperative. Through this joint project, we will continue to champion their rights, safety, and dignity, working towards a future where all women migrants can work and live a life free from violence, fear and exploitation,” said Alia El-Yassir, UN Women Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

“Children on the move are incredibly vulnerable, especially in the context of labour migration,” said Debora Comini, UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific. “They risk exploitation, abuse and violence; they are deprived of access to education, health, and social protection. Migration policies and practices must be child-sensitive and uphold the rights and best interest of every child, regardless of their migration status.”

“To break the cycle of exploitation and abuse, the protection of victims of trafficking and smuggled migrants before and during the criminal justice process is critical,” said Masood Karimipour, UNODC’s Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Under this new project, UNODC will build on its work with law enforcement and justice counterparts in the region, ensuring that victims’ rights continue to be upheld and criminals held to account.”

The PROTECT project, which runs until December 2026, builds on the results and lessons learnt from two earlier EU-funded projects: ‘Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region’, which was implemented by ILO and UN Women, in collaboration with UNODC from 2018 to 2023, and ‘Protecting Children Affected by Migration in Southeast, South and Central Asia’ implemented by UNICEF from 2018 to 2022.