Hamsa: Documenting labour migrant rights in Asia to improve evidence-based advocacy

Migrant Forum Asia and HURIDOCS worked together to create a simple solution for recording violations of labour migration rights among a network of 50+ organisations.

By Kristin Antin HURIDOCS on

The Hamsa database and accompanying mobile application is a comprehensive solution for recording, managing, analysing, and sharing information on labour migration rights. The system was created by HURIDOCS and Migrant Forum Asia (MFA), a network of more than 50 local organisations in Asia and the Gulf. In Sanskrit, Hamsa means migratory bird and is a symbol of good fortune, evoking our aim to make labour migration safer for all migrant workers.

For rights groups in countries most affected by violations, collecting and processing data for advocacy have been difficult. The MFA network of organisations consists of NGOs that provide psychosocial and/or legal support to migrant workers. Often, they are overwhelmed by urgent requests to help migrants in danger. This partnership between HURIDOCS and MFA aimed to provide these groups with a simple solution for strengthening evidence-based advocacy in order to address systemic violations against migrant workers.

HURIDOCS’ role in this project has been to develop the Hamsa database and mobile application and build the documentation capacity of 20 MFA partners in both migrant sending and receiving countries. In this blog post, we will briefly describe the context, what was achieved through this project, and what we learned.

The Hamsa logo

The problem

Migrant workers in the Asia region face a myriad of challenges, starting from recruitment in their country to treatment in their new location. These challenges include (source: MFA):

  • Arrest and detention of migrant workers as “undocumented workers” because of the rampant practice of passport confiscation by employers and recruiters.
  • Despite the cap on recruitment fees in many countries in the region, the majority of the migrant workers pay exorbitant recruitment fees.
  • Abuse in the workplace: there are many documented cases in which migrants are abused by employers, not paid, forced to work overtime for no pay, lack of occupational safety and health equipment, and inadequate living conditions.

Many of these challenges represent significant rights violations that often need to be addressed on national, regional, and international levels. In order to advocate on these levels effectively, MFA and its network knew that they needed to collect and communicate meaningful information on these violations.

On the global and regional scale, this is an important moment for migrant rights organisations in Asia. A number of important agreements and meetings provide significant opportunities for advocacy, including the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (signed in November 2017); the Abu Dhabi Dialogue; and the Colombo Process.

“In order for us to be more convincing, we need more evidence and more documentation among partners. For example, there is a lot of talk at these regional dialogues on how to bring more accountability to the recruitment process. In order for us to advocate for change, we need data on what is happening in the recruitment process.”


What was achieved

To collect the necessary information about violations against migrant workers, MFA and its network needed a system that would allow the network to systematically collect information from each of the 50+ member organisations. HURIDOCS worked with MFA to customise our Casebox platform for this purpose (this system is called Hamsa). Each member organisation logs in to the system with their own account and there they enter information by completing a form designed specifically for the MFA network. The members also have an option of using the mobile to capture information and send to the Hamsa database. Through regional workshops, a subset of these member organisations received in-person training from HURIDOCS on how to use Hamsa (in addition to a guide and instructional videos).

As we worked with the MFA network to design and implement the Hamsa system, the most common challenges and concerns included:

  • some members already have their own database system already and it would require extra work to enter into Hamsa,
  • challenges in gathering complete information from their clients and verifying its accuracy,
  • the limitations on those who can enter the case data into Hamsa due to: the sensitivity of the information and the confidentiality commitments the partners have made to their partners, and the lack of sufficient equipment to use the system (computers, internet, etc).

Despite challenges faced throughout the project, we’re proud of what MFA and its network achieved:

MFA is successfully including data from Hamsa in its advocacy reports. MFA has used its data to produce a report on the Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia to support the network’s evidence-based advocacy efforts. MFA and its network are recognising themselves as an important source of information on migrant rights in the region, and intend to use data-supported reports in long-term advocacy efforts and campaigns.

Growing interest among other partners in contributing to and using evidence-based advocacy. MFA partners outside of the initial group of users have expressed interest to use the Hamsa system to contribute to this data collection initiative.

A demonstrated increase in capacity and willingness of partner organisations to enter data into Hamsa. Over 2100 cases have been added to the database, which exceeds our original goal. Four organisations have entered close to 100% of their case information into Hamsa, and others to varying degrees.

These achievements so far show that this project has succeeded in securing a shared understanding and investment among the MFA network to contribute to the Hamsa database in order to produce evidence-based advocacy on migrant rights in the region.

Staff at BOMSA, an MFA member in Bangladesh, shows HURIDOCS pictures from the trainings they have carried out with women who are preparing to travel abroad for work.

Lessons from this project

This project has reminded us of some valuable tips for other networks interested in implementing a similar data collection project.

Prioritise simplicity and clarity over perfection. The original data model was too complicated, and few understood it. Together we looked carefully at what needed to be simplified, what was essential, and how we can word it to make it as accessible as possible. This is not an easy process because it involves making hard choices on what not to record, and what the best shared concepts are to describe a complex reality.

Agree on what it takes. It is important that each partner understand how their contribution will support the larger advocacy goals and ultimately support each partner’s mission to end violations of migrant rights. They need to know that their time and effort is worthwhile and has value.

Technology needs to support workflow, not break it. Figure out early on how to customise the technology so that it supports each organisation’s workflow. This is especially important for organisations that deliver services to victims of violations because for staff, providing support to the person sitting in front of them will always be more important than entering information into a database.

We would like to thank the Foreign Commonwealth Office for supporting this project. Most importantly, we want to thank MFA and its network of partners that work tirelessly day and night to deliver much-needed services to migrant workers across the region. We greatly admire the work you do.

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