The Crisis Of Poverty And Migration In The SAARC Region

The crisis of poverty and migration in the SAARC region

The Crisis Of Poverty And Migration In The SAARC Region

A review of ‘Migration in South Asia: Poverty and Vulnerability’ report published in one of the national magazines in India, Frontline, by T.K. RAJALAKSHMI.

A recent report published by the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication discusses the extent of involuntary working-class migration in the SAARC region, as well as the interconnections between poverty and such migration.

Migration in South Asia has been characterised by an “unprecedented exodus”, according to a recent report by the South Asia Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE), titled “Migration in South Asia: Poverty and Vulnerability”. The SAAPE, formed in 2001, works closely with countries of the South Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to bring out “poverty reports” specific to the region. Until date, five such poverty reports have been published. The latest in the series, released in September and edited by Babu P. Remesh, Akhil Ranjan Dutta and Mohan Mani, contains seven chapters in all and eight annexures with individual country reports.

According to the report, the unprecedented exodus witnessed in recent years has been triggered by poverty, rural distress or natural disasters. Involuntary migration, as a whole, did not necessarily result in a better deal for migrants anywhere. In fact, in the majority of cases, migrants faced hostility in the destinations they moved to.

The report, prepared with the editorial participation of higher educational institutions, covers the situation in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It deals with the interconnections and linkages of poverty and migration, and focuses on working-class migration. The migrants discussed in the report are those who do so out of compulsion, driven by sheer survival, rather than those who migrate out of choice and for better career opportunities.

No country in the region seems to be an exception to the migrant exodus crisis, although the migrant numbers that have resulted in the creation of a new precariat (or “precarious proletariat”, a term coined by the economist Thomas Piketty) differ from country to country. The shrinking of rural markets and job opportunities have created a completely new dimension, says the report. In India alone, it is estimated that nearly 2,000 farmers migrate to the cities every day, while 1,600 people from Nepal migrate outwards, mostly to India, in search of employment.

In Bangladesh, apart from the Rohingya refugees, the ravages of nature have resulted in abandoned coastlines and a corresponding increase in urban slums. In Pakistan, the average growth rate of the urban population was found to be three per cent, as more and people flock to the cities. Sri Lanka witnessed a tenfold increase in its migrant worker population, with similarly high outflows to other countries. In the Maldives, the displacement and migration to cities owes more to the rising sea levels, although poverty, too, is a contributory factor here, with more migrants than locals running the tourism industry.

The report underscores both the extent of migration and the interconnection between poverty and migration. According to the report, migrants are favoured everywhere as they offer their services at low wages. Employers prefer them as they are easy to “control” and can be employed flexibly. Women migrants are worse off as they work in least regulated environments and are subject to other forms of exploitation, including trafficking. Paraphrasing John Berger, the report says that the migrant is not on the margin of the modern experience of urbanisation but central to it.

The centrality of the migrant to the urban and industrial experience was all too evident when migrant workers left in hordes in the wake of the Indian government’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown in March citing COVID-19.

Growing Urban Population

The report says that there has been a drastic shift of population to urban centres over the last five decades. There has been an almost fivefold increase in the urban population of both Bangladesh and Nepal from the 1960s onwards, so much so that Bangladesh registered a negative rural population growth, while the urban population growth rate in Nepal was almost three times that of its rural population growth rate. In India, it was a fivefold increase in the urban population over the rural population. Even though 65 per cent of India’s population continues to live in rural areas, involved in agriculture and allied activities, the contribution of agriculture to the GDP was as low as 14.6 per cent (2009-10).

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, presents a more curious picture. There has not been much of a difference in the growth rate of the urban population from 1960 until 2018, and this is explained as an outcome of low differentials of urban and rural incomes. Sri Lanka recently ranked among the last five out of 233 countries in the index of levels of urbanisation. Sri Lanka’s human development indicators are superior compared to the rest of South Asia. Its proportion of urbanisation is half that of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the report says that nearly 48 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka could be urban, depending on the classification of what is urban, peri-urban or rural. The issue is not one of definition but of disparities which characterise South Asia as a whole.

The report argues that while the crisis of migrant workers owes much to the present model of industrial growth-led development, policy measures have not addressed the specific problems that have arisen due to collateral effects of such development. Women, children, the socially disadvantaged and religious minorities are among the more vulnerable groups among migrants. The retreat of the state from pro-poor policies and the push towards neoliberal economic policies have only worsened the situation. Globally, too, migrants are the target of xenophobic attacks and majoritarianism, despite the fact of migration itself being a ubiquitous phenomenon.

In terms of scale, one in every three Indians is a migrant; in Pakistan, one in every six urban dwellers is a migrant. The common features across South Asia include growing urbanisation, industry-centred urbanisation and rural income disparities. The report refers to migration as a “socially painful process”, irrespective of whether the reasons are social, legal or otherwise. Almost everywhere, migrants encounter hostile legal systems and an asymmetry of power.

The migration to the Gulf is one such example. Within South Asia, there is internal migration, intra-regional migration and international migration. India occupies a special position in that it is a sending country, a receiving country as well as a transit country. Over the years, India has received migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, while a good number of Indians have also migrated to these countries (except Bhutan and Afghanistan). India is viewed as a transit country by many Nepali women migrants who reach the Gulf via India, owing to restrictions in doing so from their country of origin.


Migrants face both pre-migration and post-migration challenges. There are difficulties in their settling back in their native regions. Many women migrate either owing to marriage or in order to get married, and eventually end up in the labour market. Most of the work that these women do are low-paid, invisible and part of the informal sector. The practice of women migrating on their own for work is rare, and this is primarily owing to patriarchal norms prevalent in much of South Asia. The independent migration of women is a non-starter. Women migrant workers are either accompanied by their husbands or by an escort. In many cases, a placement agency or an intermediary is seen to be involved with the migration of single women domestic workers from tribal areas or rural areas.

The report also touches on state policy on migrants and refers to the treatment of migrants during the lockdown period in India. It states that the absence or presence of state policy has a significant impact on the state of migrants. It talks about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which placed a disproportionate and sectarian importance on legalising specific categories of migrants from certain countries even as it paid scant attention to the problems of internal migrants and migration. In general, the problems of emigrants rather than internal migrants have been given more attention. For instance, the Indian government undertook special measures to organise flights to bring back Indians stranded abroad, but took inordinately long to organise rail and road transport for internal migrants returning home following the nationwide lockdown.

Likewise, with regard to refugees, governments in the region have depended more on ethnicity, religion and language to guide them rather than humanitarian considerations in the definition and implementation of policies.

Migrants contribute significantly to the prosperity of the host countries. Tourism, which is the backbone of the Maldives, is completely managed by migrants, as are sectors such as construction, business and financial services and social services. But of the 144,000 odd migrant workers there, as many as 63,000 are categorised as illegal.

Babu P. Remesh, one of the three editors of the report, writes that the main reason for migration is rural distress and the lack of employment opportunities in the agricultural sector. Landlessness, land grabbing, the usurpation of common lands, natural disasters and the general non-viability of agriculture are major factors. In Afghanistan, where 80 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture, the levels of poverty are very high. Volatile agricultural prices, as also the lack of timely support from governments, contribute to the perception that agriculture is no longer a viable occupation.

In Maharashtra, small and marginal farmers were found to migrate after the harvest season to work as agricultural labour or in construction sites in urban centres, a phenomenon common to other States as well. According to a survey conducted in 14 villages in Beed district, Maharashtra, nearly 16 per cent of the population had migrated during the dry season, and the proportion ranged from 4 to 90 per cent. According to Remesh, the poorest of the poor prefer short-distance migration. He says that this is more of a survival strategy, and that even international migrations could be explained in this manner. For instance, migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal prefer India as a destination, while Afghan migrants prefer Pakistan.

The migrant industry has spawned the growth of intermediaries and middlemen who charge exorbitant rates for work permits or for facilitating transit. Migrants are subject to high levels of exploitation in the destination countries, such as denial of wages, long working hours, sexual exploitation and forced labour under inhuman conditions. Interestingly, this exploitation has been the subject matter of popular cinema as well. As a rule, migrants are denied labour rights in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. There are as many as eight million workers from India alone in the GCC countries, apart from emigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Of late, job opportunities in the GCC countries are shrinking owing to the continued influx of migrants.

COVID-19 Lockdown

Without exception, countries in South Asia underwent periods of lockdown owing to COVID-19. In each case, internal migrants were badly affected as they not only lost jobs but were completely at the mercy of the rural economy from where they had initially fled. By mid-May, in India alone, close to 100 migrants had died although the government had not kept any official track of the casualties. Another immediate consequence was the drying up of remittances.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, most governments in South Asia worked towards arranging for the return of their migrant workers stranded abroad. In most of the GCC countries, the report says, the migrants were the ones mainly affected by the COVID-19 virus.

The report recommends that strong fiscal measures are required to tackle the root causes of poverty, and the loss of employment and livelihood opportunities, and make migration destination points safe. Suicides by farmers and agricultural labourers, especially in India, Bhutan and Bangladesh, are a common trend observed in the region.

The individual country reports that are part of the main report suggest that governments in the region have done little by way of ensuring safeguards for the vulnerable and growing population of migrants. Regulatory restrictions on female migration, as was the case in Nepal and Sri Lanka, have not worked as they do not address the root causes for migration as such. The report recommends that regional associations such as SAARC need to be revived, for which bilateral relationships need to be restored. The latent hostility between nations in a region coupled with neoliberal policies, chauvinism and majoritarian tendencies militate against the interests of migrant populations.


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