Dynamics of Migration in South Asia

M Masud Hossain Khan
M Masud Hossain Khan - Editor
34 Min Read
symbolic image, courtesy: dnaindia.com


Migration is as complex as it is diverse, so predicting the impact of policy changes will be problematic until more research is done and better data obtained. In particular, the gender implications of migration are poorly understood and require more research. Migration also has important social and political implications along with the economic impacts.

Conventional wisdom declares that international labour migration is a natural consequence of globalization – the process of rapid economic integration among countries driven by the liberalization of trade, investment and capital flows as well as rapid technological change. (Serriere, 1999)

The migration landscape has changed quite dramatically since 1994. Exacerbated disparities between the North and South, an expanding global economy, geopolitical transformations, wars, ecological disasters, and many other occurrences, have had and continue to have a profound impact on people and on their choices to stay at home or to go abroad. Today, it is estimated that 175 million people live outside their country of birth.

There are inseparable linkages between migration and remittances. Such linkages can make a visible contribution to the process of development. The creation of an integral policy framework that recognizes these linkages is central to enhancing the development benefits of both migration and remittances. Three broad issues can be highlighted in this regard.

- Advertisement -
  1. Facilitating greater mobility of international labour.
  2. Expanding formal financial institutions to encourage expatriate workers for using formal channels to send money.
  3. Maximizing the developmental potential of remittances both at the national level and the migrants’ family level.

Investment opportunity for the expatriate workers should be increased and they should be made aware about it. Private sector may be involved in it with the govt.’s supervision and post-arrival briefing should be introduced and strengthened for the returnee migrant workers.

Though economic difficulties and lack of opportunities are often the major factors resulting in population movement both regular and irregular, from time to time conflicts have also shaped the migration scenario in South Asia.

Migration issue is diverse in the South Asian region in the sense that almost all kind of dimension of migration is present in this region. There are both origin and destination countries; labour migration both long term and short term; trafficking in persons; refugee and what not.

There are three broad aspects of migration – intra-country migration i.e. rural to urban migration mainly, intra-regional migration i.e. migration within South Asian or SAARC countries and international migration.

As a result of rural to urban migration the population of Dhaka city has been raised to more than 10 million from 0.5 million in the last 40 years. Migration within SAARC countries also has increased. It is believed that many Bangladeshi people are working in India and Pakistan as low-paid labourers. On the other hand about 150 thousand people from SAARC countries are working in Bangladesh. Migration from Bangladesh started from late 1950s and it increased after the independence of the country in 1971.

People from South Asia mostly emigrate to the Middle Eastern, North American, Europe and South East Asian countries. Mostly semi-skilled or low-skilled workers go to the ME countries and highly skilled and professionals have demand in North America, Europe and Australia.

After the emergence of independent states in the Indian Subcontinent in 1947, about 30 million people have moved from one part to another to either avoid prosecution or meet basic needs.

The migrants from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are mainly labour migrants while Afghanistan’s outflow has in a large extent been refugees. India and Pakistan are the sixth and tenth top countries hosting the largest number of migrants including refugees. There are also a large number of Burmese refugees residing in Bangladesh. This analysis highlights the complex dynamics and varied nature of migration in the region.

- Advertisement -

Migration of working people helps both the recipient and sending countries. So instead of stopping, it should be made disciplined and regulated. Both the sending and recipient countries should cooperate each other in this regard.

A well-educated diaspora can improve access to capital, technology, information, foreign exchange, and business contacts for firms in the country of origin. At the same time, high-skilled emigration may reduce growth in the origin country because,

  • other workers lose the opportunity for training and mutually beneficial exchanges of ideas;
  • opportunities to achieve economies of scale in skill-intensive activities may be reduced;
  • society loses its return on high-skilled workers trained at public expense;
  • the price of technical services may rise.

In Asia, it is estimated that every year some 2.6 million workers left their countries under contracts to work abroad over the period 1995-99. The South Asian countries accounted for 46 per cent (about 1.2 million) of this outflow. South-East Asian countries make up 50 per cent (IOM World Migration Report).

Development Perspective of Migration

At present, the debate on migration and development has only become more vigorous and reflects the interests of wide ranging stakeholders. International migration is now at an all-time high with around 3 per cent of the world population living and working outside their country of origin. Extreme economic disparities continue to prevail between the “North” and the “South” making increased migration pressures a future certainty.

Finding solutions to the development gap between migrant sending and recipient countries by acquiring the development potential of millions of present and future migrants has become an international policy priority.

Poverty and Development Impacts

Empirical evidence suggests that remittances have significant impacts on poverty and also on long-term economic development. In a study of 74 low and middle income developing countries, the World Bank has demonstrated a statistically significant correlation between remittances and decline in poverty. Specifically, the study found that a 10 per cent increase in the share of remittances in a country’s GDP leads to a 1.2 per cent decline in poverty.

This study also found that a 10 per cent increase in the number of migrants leaving a sending country will lead to a 1.8 per cent decline in the share of people living on less than 1 USD per day. According to the ILO, remittances constitute more than half of household income for recipients in Bangladesh.

Factors in the Migration Dynamics of South Asia  

A host of factors have contributed to the various phases of movement of people in South Asia. For centuries people in South Asia have been living together. They have moved due to economic difficulties, natural disasters, religious and ethnic conflicts, war and civil unrest. In recent times, globalisation and growth in ICT have further accelerated migration, adding new dynamics to migration in South Asia. Various pull factors in destination countries including expanding markets, labour shortfalls and aging populations also motivate people to migrate across borders.

Economic and social conditions continue to be the major reasons behind population movement in South Asia. With forty percent of the world’s poor, South Asia remains among the poorest regions of the world. 45 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line of one dollar a day. About one third of the populations of Bangladesh (49.8 percent), Nepal (32 percent) and Pakistan (32.6 percent) and a quarter of the population of India (28.6 percent) and Sri Lanka (25 percent) are estimated to be living below the poverty line. The war in Afghanistan over the last two decades has left a huge portion of the population living in poverty; some estimation put this proportion at 70 percent.

Three major types of voluntary international migration could be identified in South Asia, i.e. the emigrants as settlers to Europe, Australia or North America; contract labour migrants to the countries of the Middle East, South East Asia and elsewhere; and the intra-regional short-term movement of people within the South Asian region i.e. seasonal economic migrants.

In India, it is estimated that there are around 20 million Indians throughout the world, comprising one of the largest diaspora communities. India also has a large number of its citizen working abroad as short-term contract labourers. In 2002, the number of contractual labourers from India was 0.37 million which is lower than 1993 when it was 0.44 million. The major destination for Indian contractual labour is the Middle East (75 per cent).

According to the 2001 census data, 762,181 emigrants were recorded in Nepal representing 3.4 per cent of the population. Most Nepalese migrate to India as they have historical links and an open border between two countries. In the 2001 data, it was noticed that only 68 per cent migrated to India, which is a considerable decrease from 89.2 per cent in 1991. Nepalese migrants were bound towards new destinations – Saudi Arabia (8.9 per cent), Qatar (3.2 per cent), UAE (1.7 per cent), Hong Kong, China (1.6 per cent) and Anglo America (1.3 per cent). The data also indicated that 53.2 per cent were absent for 1-5 years representing temporary migrant workers and another 15 per cent were absent for 5-10 years – this group can be considered as permanent settlers abroad. Nepal also hosts a large number of immigrants. In 2001, the immigrant population (in-migration) consisted of 2.7 percent of the total population.

Pakistan has a large flow of international migrants. Many migrant workers take up employment opportunities in the Gulf States. It was estimated that by 1980, 2 million Pakistanis had been employed in the Gulf States. Estimated labour migration outflow in 1997 was 15,392,955. Pakistan has a significant diaspora population: an estimated 2 to 3 million people of Pakistani origin are living in developed countries.

In Sri Lanka, data showed that in 1998, 158,287 migrants left Sri Lanka, of which 66.5 per cent were women. Most of the migrants migrate to the Middle East. The other destinations include Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Cyprus and a smaller number go to East Asian countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

For Afghanistan, the focus of data collection has been mostly on displacement issues and there has so far been almost no work done on the scope and nature of Afghan migration dynamics. However, most Afghan migration to neighbouring countries is economically motivated. The Afghan diaspora worldwide consists of some one million persons.

Migration for higher education is also a major issue in South Asia. Though students from all over South Asia are studying abroad, India saw the maximum growth in 2002-2003; an increase on 11.6 percent and is second to only China in terms of proportion of the international student population.

None of the South Asian countries except for Sri Lanka has ratified the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. None of the eight countries of South Asia has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Irregular Migration

Alongside regular migration, irregular movement of people is also significant and a grave concern for the South Asian countries. In the past two decades, there has been an alarming growth of irregular migration in the South Asian countries. India and Pakistan are often used as major transit countries for the irregular migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, and to migrate to the Middle Eastern and European countries. At the same time, India and Pakistan are also source countries. Air routes are also used to reach the Middle East, European and South East Asian countries irregularly. As long as there is demand in the destination countries for work and a supply of labour, migration will occur irregularly, particularly in the absence of regular channels.

Rising irregular migration, together with expanding smuggling and trafficking in persons and transnational crimes, such as drug trafficking and terrorism, have posed an increased challenge for the South Asian countries to effectively address the problem of irregular migration. These circumstances and difficulties have energised greater regional cooperation, which may become the first step in developing a sustainable regional migration framework.

Smuggling and Trafficking

Human trafficking is a major problem in South Asia also. Smuggling and trafficking are major criminal activities that enable irregular movement of persons, often with exploitation and abuse. Such groups have thrived and have been able to create sophisticated channels of irregular migration because of the demand for illegal commodities. Until the entry into force of the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2003, the sanctions for traffickers and smugglers in human beings were low relative to other forms of international criminal activity.

Smuggling and trafficking presently constitute the third largest source of profits, for international organized crime, behind drugs and guns. The U.S. Department of State estimates that criminal organizations reap 9.5 billion USD in profits per year from trafficking and smuggling of persons across international borders. According to recent estimates, between 600,000 and 800,000 persons are trafficked across borders annually. The most likely victims of trafficking are women and children.

Although it is estimated that there is considerable trafficking in the region, exact numbers are difficult to obtain. All countries in the region feature as origin, destination or transit countries for trafficking victims.

The regressive impacts of human trafficking are considerable in the region. Economic losses to communities and governments resulting from trafficking are enormous if considered in terms of lost returns on human or social capital investments.

A Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution was adopted by the South Asia Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) in January 2002. The convention is yet to come into force. In 2003, ten Asian labour migrant origin countries including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from South Asia have jointly launched a consultative process to manage labour migration known as the “Colombo Process”.

Combating Trafficking   

In the area of prevention, the measures should be aimed at: strengthening, or in some cases adoption of, national anti-trafficking legislation; increased sharing of information on trafficking; targeted information and awareness campaigns to educate vulnerable constituencies; and coordination amongst authorities/agencies to counter trafficking in persons.

Forced Migration/Displacement  

In South Asia, people are also forced to migrate, both internally and cross borders because of conflicts and natural disasters. Natural disaster induced displacement is a major issue in South Asia. Floods, earthquakes, cyclones and the recent tsunami have resulted in massive displacement. Chronic flooding in Bangladesh causes major displacement of people on a regular basis.

Recently, the tsunami displaced tens of thousands in Sri Lanka and some parts of India. Estimates of people displaced in Sri Lanka range from 1 million to 553,000. In Bangladesh, about 64 thousand people are displaced by riverbank erosion every year. It is estimated that 70% of the total slum dwellers in Dhaka, are IDPs due to riverbank erosion.

Displacement due to conflict is an issue in South Asia. At the end of 2003, some 164,567 refugees were living in India. Most of these came from China, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. India also saw some major displacement within the country with more than 500,000 people internally displaced including 157,000 in Northeast India. Nepal also hosts 20,000 Tibetan refugees. The Maoist insurgence in Nepal has also displaced many Nepalese.

The main cause of displacement in Sri Lanka is the armed conflict between the LTTE and Government forces. Tamil state began in 1983 there have been repeated and massive displacements of civilians resulting in 732,000 IDPs and 84,000 refugees at the end of 2002.

The conflict in Afghanistan resulted in refugee influx to Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan hosted 2.2 million Afghan refugees at the end of 2002.

The emergence of the recruiting industry in the late 1970s and 80s is an important feature of the migration processes in South Asia. During the initial phase of the early 70s, recruitment was mostly dealt by the states. Now, over 90 per cent of the recruitment in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh is carried out by private recruitment agencies. These agencies is help expanding labour market in foreign countries on the one hand and on the other it is also causing suffering to thousands of migrant workers.

The flow of women migrants is another major trend of migration in South Asia. Over the last decade, large number women have been going abroad independently from this region. It was estimated that about 1 million to 1.7 million women were working as domestic workers in Asia and Middle East in early 1990s. The figure is now much higher. The number of female domestic workers has increased almost 11 times over 25 years, while it is about six times in the case of male workers over a 20 year period.

Migration of highly skilled is another type of migration that has increased in recent years along with the increase in investments in products and services related to IT. Indian IT professionals dominate this category of migration.

Circular migration of migrants is also gaining importance in South Asia. With large diaspora communities living in developed countries, the origin countries (e.g. India) are developing policies to direct diaspora investment. Many migrants return to their country and utilize their newly developed skills.

In the wake of the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks on US soil, national financial regulators in the Western world have become increasingly concerned about the potential security implications of global financial flows especially with respect to their potential use in terrorist financing and money laundering activities.

Impacts of Migration on Sending Countries

Remittances, the most important economic impact of migration, from both international and internal migration are significant in the region. Out of the estimated annual figure for world-wide international remittance flows of US$ 100 billion, about 20 per cent flows into South Asia. India accounts for 78 per cent, making it the world’s largest remittance recipient country. Bangladesh accounts for 12 per cent of the remittances flowing into the South Asian Region – some 2 per cent of the global remittance flow.

Social impacts of migration are also there. The new skills and knowledge transfer of migrants contribute significantly to the development of the origin countries.

There is also a debate among the development practitioners in respect of the impact of migration as to whether migration reduces the country’s skilled workforce thereby creating brain drain and consequently has a negative effect on the development process. There are also those who believe in brain gain through brain circulation.

One of the best ways to manage migration in South Asia is to deal with the issue within a broader migration management framework, bringing in all different types of population movements. There is also the need to manage migration in collaboration with other affected countries within a regional framework. Measures may be taken to regularise labour migration within and outside the region and reduce the causes of trafficking in persons or smuggling in migrants.

Policies aiming at limiting migration by one country could lead to an increase of irregular migration and trafficking in persons in another. A natural integrated labour market cannot be managed by restrictive migration policy or unrealistically strict border controls.

South Asian countries also need to have a common stand in protecting the rights and interests of the migrant workers from this region for easy bargain with the recipient countries. So they also need to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990.

Women Migrants

There has been a steady increase of female migrants over the last five decades. According to the ILO, women now constitute more than half of the migration population worldwide and between 70 and 80 per cent of the migration population in some countries.

While both men and women migrate for many of the same reasons—women often have a very different migration experience. During the migration process, they are frequently at a much higher risk of gender discrimination, violence, human trafficking and sexual abuse. Women are physiologically at a greater risk of HIV/AIDS infection than men.

Among the South Asian countries the women migration from Pakistan and Bangladesh are restricted which also leads to irregular migration and even trafficking. On the other hand, there is almost free flow of women migration from Nepal and Sri Lanka. Women from these two countries are vulnerable to exploitation which sometimes leads to physical and sexual abuse.

Migration and Health

A growing health concern relates to the transmission of infectious diseases and its relationship with human mobility. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 2003 was marked by the largest number of countries with populations suffering from polio due to importation of the disease, a phenomenon which translated into costs exceeding 20 million USD in “emergency mop-up activities.” In addition, there are significant and growing concerns related to migration and diseases such as, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis B.

Resourcing diaspora

Mobilizing the diaspora as a development force is an option gaining increasing currency among policy makers. Other than transferring capital through remittances, migrant diasporas have also been instrumental in channelling flows of FDI to their home countries. According to a recent IOM study on Migration and Development in Asia the Indian diaspora contributed 9.15 per cent of FDI flows to India in 2002. The Chinese diaspora contribution to FDI in China was even higher.

For instance, the migrant Indian IT community in Silicon Valley, California, has been a driving force behind the development of the Indian software industry. Similarly, the Chinese diaspora has played a central role in the explosive growth of high tech industries in Taiwan and mainland China.

Governments are therefore seeking to enhance diaspora related contributions to their domestic economy through a variety of means. Principally, they have sought to cultivate ties with their migrant diasporas by liberalizing dual citizenship and other immigration laws, facilitated diaspora investments and financial linkages with the home country. Source: IOM, “Migration and Development: A Perspective from Asia”, IOM Migration Research Series, No. 14 (November 2003)

Migrants’ Vulnerability   

Migrants face difficulties in enforcing their rights. Many migrants are socially and economically marginalized, living in poor, physically segregated communities and oftentimes without access to social services. Migrants are at much greater risk of HIV/AIDS. A report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) confirms that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is particularly high among migrant workers. Access to the legal system is often hampered by linguistic and cultural obstacles, fear of public institutions and ignorance on their part of human rights principles and state practice.

Where effective redresses are non-existent or inaccessible at the national level, international justice remains elusive because of the lack of effective international enforcement mechanisms and monitoring activities. Often deportation shortens attempts to seek legal redress for rights violations.

Trade and Labour Mobility

Labour mobility is tied to an important migration and trade consideration, one which is located at the forefront of current discussions in multilateral trade negotiations: trade in services through (human) service providers, or what is referred to as Mode 4 of the GATS. Mode 4 is considered to be the smallest of all the modes of service supply defined in the GATS. Although in practice, commitments by WTO members are limited to the higher skilled.

States should recognize the growing relevance of short-term migration and the movement of persons in the context of trade of services, and work towards developing greater information on the movement of highly-skilled workers and on the “trade value” of such moves.

Challenges to Ensuring Protection

Despite continued international and regional efforts that focus on the plight of refugees, ensuring their protection is often difficult to attain.

For protecting the rights of the migrant workers in foreign land, cooperation and monitoring of the governments concerned i.e. sending and recipient countries should be increased. Contracts should be transparent and information should be disseminated clearly to the would-be migrant workers.

Addressing Protracted Refugee Situations

Long-term strategies to tackle protracted refugee situations include conflict prevention, conflict resolution, poverty reduction programmes and development projects. In highlighting these objectives, the Agenda for Protection calls on States, intergovernmental organizations and UNHCR to give greater priority to dealing with the root causes of refugee movements.

It encourages support for the UN’s work on conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peace-keeping and peace-building in war-torn states. It indicates that more intensive mediation should be undertaken by regional organizations as well as by states which have an influence in the conflict-affected countries. It points to how reconstruction of countries in post-conflict situations can be a way of facilitating voluntary repatriation and thus address protracted situations. In conceiving poverty reduction programmes and development projects, the Agenda for Protection calls on States to include refugee hosting areas in their development plans. In most regions of the world, women and girls constitute between 45 and 55 per cent of the refugee population.


Regional and international efforts to cooperate and coordinate on migration issues, first and foremost through the exchange of information and experiences, also have become an important feature of governance in this field.

Migration is increasingly perceived as a development tool. As a result, migration considerations are more frequently incorporated into poverty reduction strategies and broader development policies. How to capitalize on the benefits of migration is certainly gaining credence by the sheer volume of remittances, and through the economic benefits generated by diaspora.

Human trafficking is undoubtedly one of the migration-related areas that has gained the most international interest since lately. Many developments have been made, including the ratification of the Trafficking Protocol, which establishes an international legal definition for trafficking.

Internal migration is an equally important area of consideration both in terms of its scope and its impact.

There are additional factors that hinder further progress in meeting the challenges of migration. These include a lack of: awareness and understanding of the social and economic implications of migration; political will to manage migration flows and address the consequences of migration; trained or qualified staff; institutional capacity; and resources to manage migration flows, especially irregular migration and human trafficking.

The labour sending countries face some common issues. These are:

  • Protecting migrant workers from exploitative recruitment and employment practices and in providing appropriate assistance to them including pre-departure, welfare and reintegration services.
  • Optimizing benefits of labour migration through developing new markets, skill development of prospective migrant workers and increasing remittances using formal channels.
  • Building institutional capacity and effective coordination among the agencies concerned.
  • Increasing cooperation with the labour recipient countries to protect the interest of all the stakeholders including the migrant workers.
  • The existing laws and regulations relating to migration need serious review to meet the demand of the time.

Today’s dialogue will help us to address these issues and formulate a common framework to maximize the benefit of migration and regulate irregular migration.


  1. “The Policy Challenges of Migration” Global Economic Prospects 2006, The World Bank
  2. Labour Migration in Asia, IOM 2003
  3. Haque, Md. Shahidul, Migration Trends and Patterns in South Asia and Management Approaches and Initiatives, IOM
  4. International Labour Migration Institutions of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka in Ferment the Philippines as Catalyst, IOM Regional Office for South Asia, Dhaka, November 2002

Follow us on Google News

Share This Article
Mr M Masud Hossain Khan is the Editor-in-Chief of the Star Avis, a global news and articles portal in English language with options for reading in a few other popular languages, a student of economics at Concordia University, Canada, and a Development Consultant with expertise in socioeconomic and rights issues having long work experience in developing countries, especially South Asia in Bangladesh.
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply