Vol. 11 - No. 2




Patterns and Politics of Migration in South Asia

By Sanjay Barbora, Susan Thieme, and Karin Astrid Siegmann

Migration is an important social and historical reality in South Asia. In the past decade, migration from one country to another and internal migration (i.e. migration within a particular country) have assumed different dimensions for people in the region. Contemporary research on migration is placed in a spectrum that ranges from exponents of economic benefits at one end, to those who see migration as a security threat, at the other. This paper combines the work of three researchers and looks at the different political locations from which the South Asian subject is induced to move. It also discusses the economic and political implications that arise from these migration trajectories. Drawing on their research, the authors emphasise the need for understanding how migration is linked to a complex set of processes that reflect power relations in unequal societies.


Today, South Asia is the locus of extensive migrations that link cities and villages in the region to diverse places and that cut across the concerns of governments, policy-makers, migrants themselves and their families. Large migration streams already occurred at the outset of South Asia’s post-colonial history, when millions fled communal violence on both sides of the Indian-Pakistani border. The significance of migration is likely to increase in future as a result of the global economic and climate crises. The patterns of migrations and their meanings vary, with motivations ranging from migrant workers’ aspirations for upward mobility to the desire to escape from socio-economic or political distress. (We do not address marital migration here, although it is probably the most common type of migration in South Asia.)

The present article5 is based on migration research carried out mainly in Nepal and northeast India, complemented by case studies in Pakistan, within the framework of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South programme, and also on secondary literature. It highlights important commonalities and differences in the patterns and politics of mobility in South Asia. We first cover recent trends in labour migration and remittance flows, as well as the ambiguous impact of labour migration on the macro-economy, on migrants, and on the families they leave behind. Second, we examine the political economy of mobility. Besides an outline of institutional frameworks, especially those constructed for channelling labour migration, we provide a historical perspective on the demarcation of borders, which has often induced conflict and led to forced internal and international migration. Finally, we look at conceptual issues and question some common notions in mainstream discourses on migration. We emphasise migrants’ multi-locality, the ambiguous role of social networks in enabling migration, and the political economy of colonial frontiers.

Recent trends in migration flows

Migration is common throughout South Asia and its patterns are diverse. Today, the majority of South Asian migrants are workers who make significant contributions to the economies of both migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries. Regional migration, such as between the neighbouring countries of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, has a long history that remained largely undocumented for a long time (Schrader 1988; Gazdar 2003; Nichols 2008). East Asia and the Persian Gulf region have become other important destinations since the 1970s, for two major reasons. First, the oil-driven construction boom in the Gulf region created a demand for skilled and unskilled labour that the booming countries could not meet with their domestic labour force (Gazdar 2003). Second, the rapid expansion of mobile telecommunication and the Internet since the 1990s have accelerated the speed and volume of information on foreign employment opportunities. In Nepal, the private sector took the initiative to connect thousands of unemployed people – mainly youths – officially to labour markets overseas, whereas in Pakistan it was public institutions that promoted and facilitated the initial waves of contract labour migration to the Gulf region (Gazdar 2003; NIDS 2008). Increasingly restrictive immigration policies in host countries in the Gulf region have led to a rise in undocumented migration (Gazdar 2003; Shah 2006). For many people, both migration and living and working on a temporary contract basis have become a permanent feature of their lives. It has also become common for family members to live apart from each other and be organised in multiple locations throughout South Asia. Consequently, people’s livelihoods have assumed multi-local dimensions (Thieme 2008).

Linkages between international and internal migrations are manifested throughout the region. For example, in the Indian state of Kerala, massive emigration of workers, mostly to the Gulf, has triggered a large inflow of migrant labour from other parts of India. This response to the labour shortage that arose in Kerala was motivated by higher agricultural and non-agricultural wages in Kerala.

A crucial aspect throughout the whole South Asian region is distress-induced migration, mostly to destinations that do not require official paper work and where there are no bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome, or where there is not much of a waiting period and where not many skills and capabilities or much initial investment are required. Migration between Nepal and India is facilitated by the open border between the two countries (Thieme 2006), whereas ethnic networks that transcend the Afghan-Pakistani border have eased the absorption of Afghani refugees in Pakistan (Gazdar 2003). Massive internal migration from the highlands of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the urban centres of Punjab and Sindh has been induced by low agricultural productivity under conditions of harsh climate, poor infrastructure, and few non-agricultural employment opportunities (Gazdar 2003; Steimann 2005).

The role of remittances

Common patterns identified in South Asia’s experience with migration include the appreciation of remittances at various levels. With remittances of US$ 27 billion in 2007, India is ahead of all other countries that also receive huge financial transfers from international migrants (Zachariah and Rajan 2006; World Bank 2008). According to World Bank estimates, remittances have grown exponentially for the past 35 years (World Bank 2006).

Labour migration is also an economic mainstay of Nepal’s economy. However, there is still insufficient documentation on the scale and significance of this process. Kollmair et al (2006) compared the latest national statistics with nine case studies carried out within the NCCR North-South. Whereas the authors’ estimate of 1.15 million migrants corresponds closely with the National Living Standard Survey (CBS 2004) and challenges estimates of up to 2 to 3 million Nepalese migrants working in foreign countries (Seddon et al 2001; estimates by Nepalese immigrant associations in India in Thieme 2006), the amount of remittances indeed seems to be higher than the official volume of US$ 150 million. The estimated total of US$ 604 million in 2003 is close to estimates by Graner and Seddon (2004). The amount of money remitted varies considerably from country to country. Although the majority of migrants (77%) go to India, they send the lowest share of remittances (less than 20%). Remittances from Western and Gulf countries represent 75% of workers’ transfers to Nepal.

Within states, regional economies display different degrees of dependence on overseas workers’ transfers. The highlands of Pakistan’s NWFP, as well as the part of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistani administration, can plausibly be called remittance economies. Of all Pakistani provinces, rural NWFP is most dependent on foreign remittances. About one-tenth of average monthly income consists of remittance flows (Government of Pakistan 2007). Similarly, the state of Kerala in India is heavily dependent on worker remittances from the Gulf countries. Foreign remittances were seven times what Kerala received from the Government of India for the state budget and 1.6 times the state’s annual governmental expenditures in 2004 (Zachariah and Rajan 2006).

Whereas migrant remittances help to fill the national exchequer with foreign exchange, the economic role of migration at the household and individual levels is ambiguous. The role of remittances in poverty reduction has been emphasised across the region (Gazdar 1999; Bhattacharya and Deb 2006; Thieme 2006). There is evidence that migration from Nepal to India contributes to secure livelihoods (Thieme 2006). In rural communities with little cash income, even small transfers of cash may be of great value in reducing the risks of seasonality, harvest failure and food shortage (Ellis 2003). Moreover, aspects other than financial returns, such as sending goods, must also be taken into account. In addition, each person less in the household reduces total food consumption. Having family members in India assures access to medical treatment and schooling in India, and migrants cover these expenditures rather than sending money to Nepal (Thieme 2006). For Pakistan, Suleri and Savage (2006) highlight the fact that households receiving remittances were less vulnerable to the effects of the earthquake catastrophe that hit NWFP as well as Kashmir, on both sides of the Indian-Pakistani border, in 2005. Individuals had used the cash remitted by household members to reinforce their houses. While their neighbours’ houses constructed with mud and stone were reduced to rubble, many of the cement mortar houses of families with migrant members withstood the quake.

On the other hand, regions where land and employment are scarce and poverty is widespread often become major migrant-sending regions. The mountainous districts of Pakistan’s NWFP are examples. In the highland locations of a NCCR North-South study on sustainable livelihoods, a typical household had one or two (male) migrants. In the two villages studied, one out of four adult men was a migrant (Steimann 2005). The mountainous Dir and Swat districts bordering Afghanistan have displayed the highest absolute emigration of all rural districts in Pakistan in the past 25 years (BEOE 2007). At the same time, they are located at the bottom of the district-wise Human Development Index (Hussain 2003). The remittance economy of rural NWFP has created vulnerabilities of its own. Siegmann and Steimann (2005) found that irregular remittances are a source of major financial crisis for households in the region. A flow of cash transfers interrupted, for instance, by the illness or unemployment of a migrant, could disturb the delicate balance of indebtedness and repayment for households that hardly have access to other sources of cash income.

Overall, recent evidence of the poverty-reducing impact of migrant remittances has been scarce in the case of Pakistan. On the contrary, Ballard (2005) shows that in the absence of reasonable infrastructure and manufacturing activity in the international migrant-sending communities of Mirpur district, local banks redistribute surplus capital to the urban elite. They hence fuel a cycle of ‘capital-rich underdevelopment’, which is likely to reinforce the local propensity to migrate. There is evidence that it is not the poorest income group for which foreign remittances represent the largest share of household income (Gazdar 2003; Azam 2005; Government of Pakistan 2007). This raises questions about the poverty-reducing effects of international migration. Similarly, in Nepal it is the better-off people, with more financial resources, education and access to information, who are more likely to go to the Gulf States, the East Asian ‘Tiger States’, or even Europe and the USA. Migrants with a more modest socio-economic background opt for neighbouring India, which is a more affordable journey.

To be concluded...

The article appears as a chapter in the book Global Change and Sustainable Development: A Synthesis of Regional Experiences from Research Partnerships .

Sanjay Barbora currently works as the regional manager of Panos South Asia’s "Media and Conflict" programme; he is based in Assam. Barbora has researched and written on issues related to ethnic conflicts, human rights and land relations.E-mail:

Susan Thieme is currently a lecturer at the University of Zurich. Thieme’s areas of specialisation are social geography, livelihoods and labour migration, with a regional focus on Nepal, India and Kyrgyzstan. E-mail:

Karin Astrid Siegmann currently works as a lecturer in Labour and Gender Economics at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, The Netherlands. Her work focuses on the gender implications of structural readjustment policies in South and Southeast Asia. E-mail:

[Source: Institute of Social Studies, The Netherlands]

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