Issues in Contemporary Migration in Asia

by Manolo I. Abella
International Labor Organization (ILO)



Recent events in Eastern Europe remind us of the volatility and unpredictability of population movements. Before the end of this decade, we will undoubtedly see migration movements in the world that will be of historic significance as people adjust and adapt to the recent political upheavals and changes in different parts of the world. Happily, most of these developments involve a shift from totalitarian regimes towards greater democratic order and political freedoms for individuals. Many of these movements will now be driven, not by the need to escape from oppression, but to find a better economic future as opportunities for livelihood and productive employment are not evenly spread among nations. The plight of shiploads of Albanians seeking entry into Italy dramatically demonstrated this phenomenon. Such scenes are now repeated daily, though less dramatically, in other parts of Europe as differences in living standards between the East and West become glaringly apparent with the help of modern global communication.

The acceleration of international migration flows is, to be sure, not only due to increasing emigration pressures in the Third World. It is also a reflection of growing economic exchanges in an increasingly interdependent global economy. About 20 million workers are estimated to be employed as short-term contract employees in countries other then their own, presumably because the latter have, a need for their services. Foreign capital flows as well as trade in goods and services entail increasing flows of what Bohning calls the "highly invisible" migrants - those highly skilled workers, technicians, managers and professionals who are welcomed in countries of employment because they are engaged in the transfer of technology, the transfer of financial capital or the transfer of corporate culture. In the European Community alone, they are estimated to number about two million people. In East Asia, no estimates are available, but their numbers are certainly just as large if not larger because of the very active policies of many rapidly industrializing countries of the region to induce foreign investment and the transfer of technology.

Growing Emigration Pressures

According to the recently released Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), about 1.5 million people from developing countries are admitted each year for settlement in the industrialized countries. With about 38 million people estimated to be joining the labor force of developing countries every year - many with already intractable problems of unemployment - the emigration pressures being built up make these flows puny by comparison.

Growing anxieties about these pressures have created a growing clamor for more and more restrictions on immigration in the developed world. Unfortunately, these measures do not address the root cause of the problem, namely: continuing poverty and the increasing violence of political conflicts in many parts of the world. What immigration controls have accomplished is to create contradictions in the political and economic foundations of progressive liberal democracies in the West as foreigners continue to gain entry through every crack in the wall. In increasingly affluent welfare states, clandestine migrants constitute an underclass of people who enjoy no rights and draw no benefits. In the words of Cohen, they are the new "healots" or slaves.

In Asia, emigration pressures are increasing in spite of the end of superpower rivahy and in spite of the region’s impressive record in economic development during the past decade. Ethnic conflicts, such as the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka and more recently the expulsion of Rohingyas from Burma, continue to create emigration pressures. To these must be added population pressures and environmental degradation which often go together resulting in economic distress; high rates of migration to already overcrowded cities leading to various forms of marginalization and urban violence; and high rates of unemployment, especially among the educated. These various factors operate with varying intensity in different parts of Asia.

For instance, in the world’s most densely populated country, Bangladesh, they all seem to come together, creating cumulative pressures for people to emigrate. Bangladesh has a population that will continue to grow at the rate of 2.7% a year for the rest of this decade, putting added pressure on its very limited resources and creating ever-growing colonies of dislocated people in the cities.

The expectations that economic growth would ease emigration pressures is not likely to be realized in the short- or medium-term in many countries of the region. In fact, it is likely that increasing income is serving as the lubricant for greater mobility. Emigration is a costly investment and would be unaffordable for many at low levels of economic development. Thus, one may expect emigration pressures to continue and even worsen in some of the region’s most populous countries before they decline. China and Indonesia, countries which have experienced high rates of economic growth during the past decade, both have increasing rates of internal migration. It is expected that they will then have higher rates of emigration, which, after all, is just an extension of the pattern of growing mobility that accompanies economic development.

In countries experiencing emigration pressures, the response of most governments has been to facilitate rather than to contain it. The reason is obvious and in a real sense compelling. The total value of official remittance inflows worldwide was estimated by a recent World Bank study at US$65.6 billion (Russell and Teitelbaum, 1992). These do not include all remittances but only those reported as such by central banks or monetary authorities. By comparison, the total value of all official development assistance in 1988 was only US$51 billion. Remittances, in fact, rank only next in size to the total value of crude oil exports. Because of the impact on their balance of payments as well as employment, labor emigration has come to be viewed as a favorable development.

Trends in Asian Labor Migration

It is an understatement to say that there is a grave risk involved in making generalizations about trends in Asian migration. Asia is a vast region containing more than half of the world’s population, expanding over an area from the Persian Gulf to the Tasman Sea and encompassing more than 40 politically independent and autonomous states. What forms and streams of migration get noticed and recorded are often only a part, and sometimes even the smaller part, of all the movements of people actually taking place. In many parts of Asia, traditional rural to rural movements across borders often escape formal state controls - sometimes because authorities tolerate them or sometimes because they have given up trying to regulate them. In the large continental countries, like China and India, international migration is insignificant in comparison with the movements of people within the national boundaries, but more is known of the former because it involves passing through formal doors for exit and admission.

Separating specific forms of migration, like labor migration, from other forms (political refugees, environmental refugees, business migrants and settler immigrants) is likewise a daunting task. The three million Afghans who crossed over to Pakistan during the early 1980s were initially political refugees fleeing from violence or persecution in their country, but today many of them are still in Pakistan, not because of threats to their safety, but because of the employment they have found in that country.

Similarly, the deforestation in Nepal has forced many families to migrate to neighboring India and Bhutan in search of work and livelihood, but few, if any, of them ever are recorded in immigration statistics. At any time, there are many thousands of technical and managerial people working as expatriate staff of multinational companies in countries other then their own who also often escape notice since they are admitted on temporary visitor visas. Although the numbers are probably not large, there are also marriages entered into to seek admission as families of citizens of another country, masking the economic motivation for emigration.

Compared to the size of their populations, contemporary emigration rates from most Asian countries are unimpressive. The growing numbers of people leaving China every year are totally insignificant in relation to her population. The same is true of the subcontinent in spite of the freedom enjoyed by Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to leave their countries anytime they wish. In Southeast Asia, emigration rates have been more noticeable, partly because of their smaller populations and because much of the recent movements from the subregion, such as the boat people from Vietnam and the holocaust refugees from Cambodia, have evoked sympathy from the international community. Contemporary emigration rates from the Asian countries, however -nowhere exceeding 5% of the population - are relatively small compared to flows from the subcontinent during the colonial period and compared to emigration rates from Europe during the last century.

Labor Migration to Japan and the East Asian NICs

Labor shortages in the dynamic growth centers in the region have created another opening for labor migration which is potentially larger than the one that the oil boom created in the Gulf. The growth during the 1980s of migration flows to Japan and the Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) of East Asia -namely, Hong Kong, Taiwan and south Korea - have been impressive and are much larger than what official records reveal. Official records of eight major Asian countries of emigration show that about 150,000 workers left in 1988 bound for one of these countries compared to only about 30,000 in 1980. We suspect that if clandestine migration is taken into account the actual numbers could easily be double these reported figures. In Japan alone, labor shortages are widespread in spite of the considerable relocation of labor-intensive industries to neighboring countries through direct foreign investment and in spite of the automation and robotization of many industrial processes.

The development of this new migration front has raised a number of new issues and problems. One is the lack of legitimate avenues for the entry of unskilled labor; or where legal entry is possible, very unrealistic quotas have been set on the numbers of those who are permitted to come in. This has led, for example, to a large clandestine flow to Japan where thousands of small enterprises are desperate for workers and where wages are as much as 60 times those in China, 16 times those in the Philippines and eight times those in Malaysia. Japanese authorities estimate that there may be as many as 300,000 foreigners working illegally in the country today. They include many thousands of Chinese workers from the mainland as well as people from Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Iran. In Taiwan, the employment of foreigners also took non-legal avenues until the government decided two years ago to adopt a guest worker immigration policy and to regularize the "illegals." Prior to this move, there were an estimated 40,000 illegal workers in the country (Tsai, 1991).

In Hong Kong, more than a million refugees from the mainland entered the colony during the period prior to 1980 when a "touch- base" policy was in effect. Net migration was about 400,000 during the 1950s, about 120,000 during the 1960s and another 500,000 during the 1970s. Following revisions of the immigration policy in 1980 and 1982 during which strict controls were established, the flows slowed to a trickle. This was evidently helped by the tremendous growth of Hong Kong investment in labor-intensive industries across the border which are reported to have already created more than two million jobs. Of the total current immigration flows, about 60,000 people are legal immigrants (27,300 consisting mostly of wives and children and about 30,000 as temporary guest workers, including many domestic helpers from the Philippines) and about 27,400 are illegals from the mainland (Arnold, 1989). These probably do not include the thousands of Chinese from the mainland who use Hong Kong as a transit point for clandestine migration to other countries.

Of the six countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), three are net importers of labor while the other three are net suppliers. The largest importer of labor, Malaysia, is a fast growing economy that has historically relied on the import of foreign workers to meet shortages of unskilled labor, notably on the plantations. Another net importer, Brunei Darussalam, a tiny state with enormous oil revenues, does not have other industries aside from oil but has a need for foreign workers for infrastructure development and to deliver the services of a well-articulated welfare state. The last net ASEAN importer, Singapore, a small city-state with only a population of 2.5 million, has relied on foreign labor for construction and shipbuilding and has used the import of domestic helpers as a means to cope with the demands of her female population to participate in formal wage employment. It has, however, adopted measures, such as the foreign workers levy, to discourage its continued reliance on foreign workers and to pressure industries to shift to higher technologies.

In Singapore today, however, there are notably more than 200,000 foreign workers, including those who commute daily from the state of Johore in Malaysia. Most of the foreign workers come from neighboring ASEAN countries. Recent estimates put the number of Malaysian workers still in Singapore at between 70,000 to 90,000, including those who commute daily. Indonesians probably comprise another 20,000 workers while Filipinos (mostly female domestic helpers) are estimated at about 50,000. Many Thai workers working without permits were repatriated home in early 1989, but many of them have since returned and now probably number about 16,000.

In Malaysia, there is evidently an under-enumeration of many clandestine migrants (Lim Lean Lin, 1988; Asnan bin Pi’i, 1988; Kassim, 1990). Unfortunately, there is little agreement on the size of the illegal migrant work force or even on the size of the yearly flows. Some politicians claim an unlikely figure of a million illegal migrants while others cite a very conservative estimate of 400,000. According to official sources, the total going to Malaysia was only 15,000, which is evidently much smaller than actual flows. Clandestine or illegal flows of migrant labor are from the neighboring ASEAN countries. Lin estimates that there are 120,000 to 140,000 Indonesians in Sabah, another 200,000 on the peninsula and perhaps another 10,000 in Sarawak (Lim Lean Lin, 1989).

Individual autonomous migration characterizes these flows which have been induced by wide income differentials between member states, the pressure on land with a very uneven distribution of the population (a third of the region’s population live on Java), high unemployment among the educated who are entering the labor force and political conflicts which have forced some people to migrate as refugees. Very rough estimates of the actual number of ASEAN country nationals working in a country other than their own within the region point to a figure of about 800,000.

Malaysia fits the classic model of labor migration with labor outflows as well as inflows. A situation has arisen where skilled Malaysians go to work in Singapore and Taiwan where wages are generally higher while their places are taken by other workers coming generally from the agricultural sector. Foreign workers, in turn, enter the country to take the place of the agricultural laborers who have left the plantations as well as the many service sector occupations (for example, street hawkers and domestic helpers) in the cities which are no longer attractive to members of the local population. There are an estimated 30,000 Malaysian workers in Taiwan where wages are more than three times those in Malaysia and 10,000 in Japan where the wage gap is even greater (Straits Times, July 23, 1990).

Migration has played an important role in the economic dynamism of the region as it has allowed some countries to grow at a much faster rate than would have been possible with their limited supplies of labor. Migration has made it possible to quickly meet shortages, not only in labor, but also in critical technical and managerial know-how. Singapore unabashedly espouses a policy of using foreign workers to meet cyclical needs. They are brought in when the labor market feels pressured during an upswing in the economy and sent home during downturns.

Foreign workers also featured in restructuring by serving as a stabilizer during periods of instability in the international markets. By adopting a strict guest worker immigration policy, some countries have been able to adjust the supply of foreign labor according to the needs of macro-economic adjustments. The arrangement ensured a flexible supply of cheap labor, a compliant work force which bore the brunt of adjustments in periods of economic downturn (Islam & Kirkpatrick, 1986).

While differences exist among the East Asian countries in the way in which they have responded to and accommodated migration inflows, none of the countries today are offering foreign workers a more secure place in their societies. Notwithstanding the fact that their shortage of labor is not merely a cyclical phenomenon but a structural problem that is likely to persist over some time, none of the countries are opening the gate for permanent settlement. In fact, some governments go to extreme lengths to ensure that foreign workers do not develop any associations with their citizens that could lead to legal grounds for permanent immigration. Singapore, for instance, grants foreign maids temporary work permits on the condition that they do not marry citizens, and it requires them to undergo "pregnancy tests" every six months. In Hong Kong, the government gives foreign maids only two weeks to leave the colony after the termination of their contracts. In Japan, entertainers are given three-month visas which can only be renewed once. In all of these countries, the conditions of employment are often such that there is no question of migrant’s families joining them. They are excluded from any welfare scheme, such as social security or pension funds, although they are entitled to compensation for work-related sicknesses or injuries.

The Future of East Asian Migration Flows

Contemporary labor migration flows in East Asia are symptomatic of the gradual breaking down of political structures that 30 to 40 years ago post-independence leaders found necessary to support the formation of new nation-states. Creating or even embellishing ethnic identity was then a paramount concern as new states emerged out of what were previously colonial territories either of Western powers or of Japan. Among these political structures are strict immigration controls that were implemented to ensure that control over economic resources remained in the hands of the indigenous majority and to maintain in some cases delicate racial balances on which political stability depended. What has changed since then is the consequence of successful economic development, bolstered by trade and foreign investment which integrated their economies with the rest of the global economy. Indigenous entrepreneurs are now firmly and confidently established; an increasingly affluent population has become more selective about jobs; and women in larger numbers are opting to work outside of the home. As a consequence, pressures are now being brought to bear on established policies on immigration which have heretofore been dominated by political factors.

The economic pressures for opening to immigration are best illustrated in Japan, which has been the most successful among the industrialized countries in not needing the importation of foreign workers to remedy labor shortages. A strict immigration policy helped in the early rationalization of her economic structure that focused on building a comparative advantage in high technology industries while relocating still profitable but labor-intensive industries in other countries. The current foreign labor population in Japan, including longtime resident Koreans and Chinese and unregistered foreign workers, constitutes no more than .3% of the reported labor force of 61 million. This compares with 23% in Switzerland, 12% in France, 9.5% in West Germany, 7.5% in the United Kingdom and 6.7% in the United States. As she enters the post-industrial stage, however, it is doubtful that Japan will be able to keep her doors closed. The population growth rate was as low as .4% a year during the 1985- 1990 period and is shortly expected to turn negative. She is faced with a shrinking national work force that will have to bear the burden of the increased demands of an aging population structure.

While continued economic growth will bring some Asian countries of emigration closer and closer to a turning point where emigration pressures will subside, some other countries are likely to experience more emigration pressures than previously. China’s rapid economic development has revolutionized communications and air travel throughout the country in one decade bringing with them heightened consciousness. Uneven development has already led to increasing migration flows from north to southeastern China. Although no statistics are available, some close observers of China have already noted large clandestine flows of workers from Guangdong Province and other relatively well-off areas, like Shanghai, to overseas destinations via Hong Kong or Macau. In Indonesia, modernization and rising per capita incomes are also likely to be behind the increasing flows of contract labor migration to the Gulf countries and the clandestine movements to Malaysia and Taiwan.

Labor Migration in South Asia

Contemporary times have not seen any migration flows from the subcontinent that would approximate in dimension the movements of people during the colonial period when approximately 30 million people left what was then British India and about 24 million returned. The most significant movements since then were the flows of temporary labor to the Gulf and the migration of about 900,000 South Asians seeking permanent settlement in the United Kingdom and various countries in Western Europe and about 600,000 who sought to live permanently in the United States and Canada during the 20 years that followed independence.

The flows of workers to the Gulf began in the 1930s when Iran built its first oil refineries and the oil companies recruited Indian technicians from Burmah Oil. By the beginning of the 1980s, there were an estimated 1.2 million Pakistanis in the Gulf - the largest Asian group -800,000 Indians, 160,000 Bangladeshis and 130,000 Sri Lankans (Appleyard, 1988). Many came through established networks as Indians have been traders in the region for centuries, and there are pockets of Indian communities in Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait, even before the oil crisis.

Given the problems faced by the South Asian countries in employing their own huge labor forces and the political conflicts that continue to strain relations among the countries, no intraregional migration comparable to that taking place in East Asia is occurring in the subcontinent. There is some exchange of labor among the countries of the subregion, but hard information about flows or stocks are extremely difficult to acquire.

For example, the border between India and Nepal is virtually open. Skilled Indian workers have always been able to work in Nepal’s cities while Nepali Gurkhas have traditionally served in the Indian army. Large metropolitan centers, like Bombay and Karachi, have always absorbed migrant workers from neighboring countries, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The participants are mainly young women who are recruited under various guises to work in households as helpers or to engage in some of the most exploited occupations, such as prostitution.

In terms of absolute numbers, labor migration pressures from this part of the world are strong and are bound to become even stronger in the future, especially from areas experiencing some economic improvement. The speed with which migration networks were developed between these countries and those in the Gulf during the 1970s and 1980s is indicative of how quickly migration flows can increase once opportunities have been created. One of the lasting legacies of that migration system is the establishment of migration networks for South Asians in the Middle East and of efficient structures for recruiting labor in their own countries of origin.

Important Developments Affecting Labor Migration

There are many demographic, economic and political developments inside and outside the region which have been influencing the pace, composition and direction of international migration flows. Of these, the following appears to us as the most relevant to the Asian countries:

i. Demographic trends in the region augur for more, rather than less, emigration pressures. The growth of labor forces for most of the developing countries of the region, which already have severe unemployment problems, will be very rapid during the next 20 years, creating more pressures on land and other resources and inducing greater propensities to emigrate. Bangladesh already has more than 10 million people unemployed, and prospects for creating enough jobs - even to absorb the yearly additions to the work force - are bleak. On the other extreme is Japan, which is faced with a declining and rapidly aging population.

ii. While demographic factors set the preconditions for migration, it is economic growth, political developments and cultural ties that will determine the emigration flows among the countries. The growing interdependence among the economies of the Asia-Pacific basin countries is, for example, likely to emerge as the most important economic determinant of future migration flows in this subregion.

Over the past two decades, shifts in comparative advantage as some countries reached higher stages of development have led to a progressive shifting of the locus of production. Japan relocated industries to south Korea and Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s, and now these countries are relocating their industries to the AS BAN countries. The Asian NICs already have about US$3 billion of direct investment in four of the six ASEAN countries, namely, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. These transfers of capital through direct investments should ease pressures in the labor markets which would otherwise have led to more labor migration, but they also propel exchanges of significant numbers of people directly or indirectly involved in the transfer of technology and the control of operations. The large and growing communities of Japanese, south Korean and Taiwanese nationals in ASEAN capitals and the increasing flows of ASEAN nationals in Japan and the NICs bear witness to this aspect of economic interdependence.

iii. Contrary to expectations, the migration system operating between Asia and the Middle East has been infused with new life, albeit with an uncertain future. In the few years before the Gulf crisis, migration flows to the Gulf had stabilized as a consequence of the slump that followed the drop in oil prices. The receipts of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries dropped from US$172 billion in 1982 to US$37 billion a year from 1986 to 1989. Even Saudi Arabia encountered current account deficits which had important repercussions on infrastructure investments and on the viability of many new industries built up during the boom years. Many of the petrochemical industries built during the early 1980s have been in trouble because of difficulties of exporting to the West. The Gulf War worsened the whole situation by piling up an enormous war bill of US$60 billion; but in spite of all these problems, Asian workers were returning to the Gulf in 1991 in even greater numbers than before. Apparently they are benefiting from the political fallout from the war as non-national Arabs, like the Yemenis and Palestinians, are not being allowed to return.

iv. The environment for international labor migration, if one is to judge it from the recent changes in immigration policies and the laws of major countries of immigration, has become more restrictive, especially for the unskilled and uneducated. In Europe, the Schengen Agreement, which should come into force this year, will have the effect of raising even higher the barriers to the entry of people from the Third World. In the United States, the recent change in the immigration law does provide for an increase in the numbers to be allowed into the country, but the law is clearly aimed at increasing the number of high-level immigrants who can contribute to the arts and sciences or who can bring in capital and managerial know-how. For the Asian countries, the impact will probably be most felt in the even lower possibility of the return of their nationals who are pursuing higher education in the United States or to the exodus of their medical and engineering graduates. In Japan, the immigration law of 1990 is evidently not working to meet the needs of industry for more workers and is likely to be revised very shortly.

v. This increasing restrictiveness of immigration policies is taking place at a time when there is a growing "propensity" to migrate among Asian workers. The growth of global communications bringing information never before seen or heard in the villages has evidently contributed to the desire of people to seek opportunities beyond the confines of their national borders. At the same time, the cost and accessibility of air transport are facilitating migration.

The cost of air travel, in real terms, is estimated to have declined to about 40% of what it was in the early years of civil aviation.

Finally, one of the legacies of the Middle East migration flows is the growth of a recruitment industry that thrives on the continued expansion of migration flows. The consequence is the growth of the numbers of people in an irregular situation who are subject to abusive practices and exploitation. This is particularly acute among those who have little or do not have any education or skills demanded in the labor market and are, therefore, among the poor.

(Ed. note: This is an edited version of the paper that was presented at the workshop "Responding to Migrant Workers’ Needs in Asia," June 1992, Hong Kong.)