Migration trends in Asia
With more than half of the world’s population, Asia also hosts more than half of the world’s migrant workers each year. Labor migration within Asia grew exponentially in the first half of the 1990s. Rapid economic growth and declining fertility led to strong demand for labour in the new industrial economies of East and Southeast Asia. Nearly all countries of Asia experience both emigration — and often transit migration.
But it is possible to differentiate between mainly destination countries (Brunei, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan), countries with significant emigration (Malaysia and Thailand), and mainly source countries (Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam).
At the policy level, migration has already become an accepted part of the development discourse. This is because migrant remittances work against the conventional, top-down, bureaucratic approaches and let the most needy people directly enjoy income and opportunities. But debt is critical to labour migration. There is a simultaneous debt economy building up with this extensive labour migration taking place in Asia. There are a number of financial costs the labour migrants have to bear apart from the brunt of foreign worker levy of the formal migration system. • Fees charged by recruitment agents and middlemen in both sending and receiving countries (including hidden charges in the form of short payment of agreed wages). Registration fees; passport fees. Visa fees, exit permit fees, etc. Travel and transport expenses before departure, air tickets, expenses in transit. Interest on loans and mortgages to finance overseas travel. Various government levies and legal costs. Repatriation costs. A majority of migrant workers are forced to pay their first year’s entire earnings to cover these costs, while the trafficked labour becomes a victim of lifetime debt bondage.
Due to a fierce competition of resources, the labour class is forced to move ahead of their personal savings and opt for external financial resources. This creates a niche for vested interest groups to take profit from. This creates a system for debt migration economy.
In general, there are two kinds of debt conditions for Asia’s interregional migration. One is debt bondage migration in which migrants do not pay their recruitment and travel expenses up front, but rather work them off with employers after arriving in the destination country; it is also called ‘advanced sale of labour’. The other is debt migration, in which migrants pay their recruitment and travel expenses up front, borrowing from money-lenders and relatives and/or selling family assets, such as land, houses, gold ornaments and livestock. This form of debt migration is common among migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, where money and assets are received in inheritance.
But, unfortunately all the migrants are not able to work themselves out of the debt. Nearly 97 percent of migrants opt for multiple financial resources; their personal savings hardly make up three percent of their required finances. Research reveals that even after working for a period of 2 to three years, about 66 percent of migrants still have outstanding loans. The major part of these loans comes from the traditional money lenders, who charge around 10 percent interest a month and if not paid, the amount keeps doubling on yearly basis.
The low skilled class from South Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan undergo similar experiences in the GCC and other Asian countries. This situation may change in the form of credit from formal financial institutions. The policy analysts suggest low-cost loans to all potential migrants, on similar strategy as of housing loans with fixed repayment time frame.
As a major factor, the trade unions in the concerned countries have not played an active role in the protection of migrant workers. Despite a relatively stronger position of trade unions within the Asian countries, they face a number of institutional problems to remove the obstacles. According to ILO study, • It is difficult for trade unions to approach the migrants to offer services while they are abroad. • Due to absence of proper documentation, the trade unions lack access to relevant information related to migrant workers. • The trade unions are generally nonrepresented in policy making for migrant workers. • The migrants work for such a wide range of employers abroad that the language and cultural barriers cause communication problems. • The illegal migrant workers are not keen to contact trade unions for fear of deportation by authorities. Also, in certain cases the trade unions display insufficient organizational facilities and untrained personnel. The domination of migration agents and labour brokers is partly due to the unwillingness of receiving states to make bilateral temporary-worker agreements with countries of origin.
The economies of East and Southeast Asia seem likely to pull in large numbers of migrant workers in the future, a trend that may have far-reaching social and political consequences. Liberalization of policies and bilateral agreements between the Asian countries may truly strengthen the epoch of rapidly growing migration and population diversity in Asia