There are over 150 million labor migrants around the world a significant number is from south Asia. Nearly one in every three people in India is a migrant and one in every sixth is a migrant in Pakistan and similar statistics were found in other countries of South Asia. With the increase in urbanization, in South Asian countries, a lot of people are migrating from rural to urban areas for better livelihood and employment opportunities.
There are two sets of migrants in urban areas, one who moved from rural areas to an urban area and settle permanently, and the second set of migrants, who moved from rural areas to cities to work and then return to their native places in rural areas, they are called short term migrants or seasonal migrants. These short term or seasonal migrants are the most vulnerable and they are the ones who need policy interventions. This is a common phenomenon in all South Asian countries.
In this context, Prof. Babu P. Remesh, Professor and Dean, School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, who along with his two colleagues recently prepared an excellent report ‘SAAPE South Asia Migration Report, 2020’. He has presented and discussed the underline causes of migration of the poor from both within the country and regional perspective in a webinar organized by Center for Work and Welfare, IMPRI, Delhi in association with Counterview.
Prof. Babu P Ramesh highlighted some of the key concerns of migration in the Southeast Asian region. He talked about the similarities between South Asian countries, the shared concern, and a possible solution that promotes informed and rights-based migration. Labor migration is a central phenomenon in South Asia, which needs to be understood through an inter-disciplinary approach by giving equal emphasis to economic, social, political, and psychological issues.
It cannot be studied purely through a singular discipline’s lens or approach. Migrants can be divided into two streams: One who migrates to make a living and another those who migrate for economic up-gradation. He discussed different streams of migration for the poor, who migrate to make a living within the country, and those who move outside, as internal migrants, intra-regional migrants, international migrants, refugees, and stateless people.
He highlighted how migration has shaped the South Asian region as rural distress is one of the key drivers of migration in the region. The rural area is not in a position to provide adequate employment opportunities to the increasing labor force, and the employment crisis has deepened during the recent past. Due to this, there is an effect on seasonal migration as well within these South Asian countries.
Another important issue in the region is political tensions, as per the Global Peace Index, the Southeast Asian region is the second least peaceful region in the World. Climate change is also a driving factor causing migration and rural distress. Overall, there are multi-layered drivers for migration in South Asian countries. Many of the migrants move to a particular region, where they don’t even know if they will get enough facilities or entitlements, and whether they will be treated on par with the local communities.
He said that some of the similar shared concerns about migration in Southeast Asian countries are internal migration as a major stream of migration and intra-regional migration where countries within the region have strong migrant communities. There are similar patterns of women migration in these countries, where patriarchal norms are dictating migration decisions.
He suggested that there should be free movement for women and the governments should promote migration else it leads to undocumented migration, trafficking, and sexual abuse. Most of the migrants from South Asian countries move to GCC countries where they are ill-treated and are not given proper wages and decent working conditions and the support from the state is gradually declining and countries are emerging as a neoliberal state which is moving away from pro-poor interventions. No active state interventions are happening in promoting informed and right based migration.
Women migration is often dictated by patriarchal norms in South Asia.
There is no proper data of migrants as well. Regulatory systems are very weak in South Asian region countries. COVID-19 also brought up a lot of shared concerns about loss of jobs, health concerns, discrimination, etc. Migrants are people who cannot stay away from employment for long as they are most vulnerable and poor. So, there is a need for more solidarity. This provides an opportunity for us to think about common solutions. One is to have effective policies for the re-integration of displaced migrants and there is also a need to ensure dignity to intra-regional migrants. We need initiative promoting migrant rights by utilizing protective measures of labor laws and signing and honoring international labor conventions.
He added that the government should address the migration issues at the point of origin itself. Policies like MGNREGA in India should be encouraged and promoted in South Asian countries to stop the seasonal or circular migrants. There is a need for institutional support such as microcredit but such assistances are being withdrawn and this is where solidarity needs to play a major role. Such solidarity increases and develops during the crisis only.
Most of the South Asian countries are very much similar to each other in terms of Xenophobia, gender issues, etc. We need to look at ways to solve these problems together with proper policies and government support. Prof Babu highlighted, there should be solidarity in line with SAARC in South Asia, which is a bank of labor power, and this can help these countries to bargain effectively.
Prof. R.B. Bhagat elaborated that India has a huge agrarian crisis along with social and cultural conflict and climate change, which are inter-related factors, and academically it is challenging to segregate their effect. The agriculture crisis can be seen from its contribution, which is contributing only 14% to India’s GDP but employing about 45% of the workforce.
He raised questions like how to double the per capita income and if agriculture production is doubled do we even have the market for its consumption. He added that we need proper reforms as existing ones are lacking to provide the needed push to rural agriculture and employment. More production cannot guarantee a higher income to the farmers. People in rural areas need non-farm jobs, which are not available enough at present.
There is a need for pro-migration policies that view migration as a livelihood choice.
Like in India, we have a large number of potential migrants, and looking at the wide wage differences a lot of people from relatively underdeveloped regions such as Bihar would like to move to developed regions such as Kerala. He also pointed out that there are a lot of issues and there are illegalities created through our mechanism of administration and laws for migrants.
He added that by one stroke of law people become illegal in the destination places. These problems should be tackled with a humanitarian approach. South Asian countries are both destinations and origins of migrant workers. There should be more positive integration with development within the framework of sustainable development. COVID-19 is being called the great equalizer, and it will bridge the gap between the rich and poor which is not the case earlier.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, only the governments are coming up with policies and ways to help people equally across the economic classes and social groups. He also pointed out that recently a strong wave of female migrants has been observed from Kerala and Sri Lanka and it came to light that although remittances decline in the COVID-19 time there has been no change in the remittances sent by the women. We need pro-migration policies and it should be looked at as it is a choice of livelihood for millions of people in the South Asian countries.
We acknowledge Tanya Agrawal for assisting in making this event report.
By Dr Arjun Kumar and Ritika Gupta, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)