In the recent few decades, Southern Asia has been experiencing unprecedented cross-border migration within the region as well as outside it. More than 15 per cent of all international migrants worldwide originate from countries in Southern Asia such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. With approximately 43.4 million people living outside their country of origin, Southern Asia is the world's topmost subregion of origin of migrants, according to UN statistics. But the region is also an important host of international migrants. Global migration data shows that South Asia hosted an estimated 13.9 million international migrants in 2020, out of which 10.9 million were from within the region itself. With about 18 million people living abroad, India is the world's top country of origin of migrants and also the number one recipient of remittances (83 billion USD in 2020). Pakistan and Bangladesh are also among the top-10 remittance receiving countries in the world, receiving USD 26 billion and USD 22 billion in 2020, respectively. The trajectory of migration patterns in South Asia reflects that movements beyond the region constitute primarily of labour migration while the cross-border exodus within the region comprises of forced migration of refugees.
Labour migration from Southern Asia to other regions
The first massive labour migration from the Indian subcontinent was initiated in the early nineteenth century under British colonial rule, whereby workers were taken to British colonies in South East Asia (like Ceylon, Java, Malaya), South America and the Caribbean (like Suriname and Trinidad) as well as to colonies in Africa (Mauritius) and North America (West Indies). as unskilled labour under indenture. The South Asian migrants (also known as coolies) were largely employed in rubber and sugarcane plantations and exploited to satisfy the economic pursuits of the British colonials. It is estimated that about 1.5 million Indians migrated as indentured workers within the British Empire between 1837 and 1917.
During the initial years after India attained independence from British colonial rule in 1947, the majority of skilled professionals like doctors and engineers preferred to migrate to England and other European countries. But over the years, with the swelling up of the economy of the USA, there was a marked shift in destination of migrants. In the last two decades, there has been a prominent surge in South Asian migration of skilled workers to North America and Europe, while the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and the South East Asian countries are the predominant destinations for unskilled contract workers.
Economic liberalization in the early 1990s entailing freer movement of labour has paved the way for large-scale labour migration. The technological revolution coupled with a large pool of IT experts in the South Asian countries has led to massive movements and the export of skill. Although emigration of skilled workers from the developing South Asian countries has adverse effects on the latter in eroding human capital stock, a phenomenon coined as 'brain drain', it does render beneficial effects as well. The migrants remit part of their income, transfer skills and technology, improve their own living standards and alleviate labour market pressures in their home countries plagued with underemployment or unemployment.
Interner Link: Labour migrants from South Asia relocating to the Gulf countries are mostly unskilled or semi-skilled workers who are either unemployed or earn very low wages in their own countries, so that migration for them constitutes a livelihood strategy. The process started during the early 1970s, when due to spiralling oil prices the oil-rich Gulf countries sought to develop their infrastructure like roads and bridges, creating huge demand for labour in construction and oil sectors. Large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka responded by migrating to these countries. In 2020, about 3.5 million Indians and more than one million Bangladeshis were living in the United Arab Emirates, while migrants from India and Bangladesh in Saudi Arabia amounted to 2.5 million and over one million respectively. The majority of these low-skilled migrants are employed in factories, the construction sector and transport operations, while semi-skilled migrants are mainly engaged as nurses or clerical staff. High income and living standards in the Gulf countries have also engendered growing demand for domestic help, leading to a feminization of migration in these countries. Domestic workers in the Gulf countries are predominantly women from Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Several South-East Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia have also emerged to be important destinations for low- and semi-skilled workers from South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh. In these countries, migrants find work in the textile sector, the service sector as well as in trading in precious stones and high-value technology goods. The remarkable economic performance of these South East Asian economies coupled with a reduced need for foreign labour in the Gulf states due to the introduction of labour productivity increasing technologies has shifted migration flows from Southern Asia towards these countries, slowing down migration to the Gulf countries. However, economic diversification in the Gulf region away from fossil fuel-based industries as well as growth of sectors such as tourism and renewable energies, has resulted in more job opportunities for migrants with softer and more specialized skills.
Most South Asian migrants are extremely vulnerable in their Asian host countries, often compelled to accept low wages and work under sub-standard or hostile conditions, and outside the purview of social security protection or labour rights. Though the International Labour Organization (ILO) has proposed countries in 2013 to set new standards for decent working conditions , the migrant workers face considerable exploitation and abuse by their employers.
Migration trends during the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a dramatic reversal of the migration patterns that had characterized South Asian migration dynamics over decades. The anticipation of lockdowns and job losses prompted mass returns of migrants from North America, Europe and the Gulf region during the first few months of 2020. This has been coined as 'the Great Reverse Migration of South Asia' and may be regarded as the largest mass migration in the sub-continent after the partition in 1947 that triggered forced migration and displacement of more than ten million people. Sectors like construction, tourism, hospitality and garments in South Asian countries were particularly hit. Millions of migrants employed in these sectors lost their jobs or faced wage cuts or forced unpaid leave. In India alone, ten million of the estimated more than 100 million internal migrant workers were forced to leave the big cities they worked in and tried to head home.
In the Gulf countries, the pandemic aggravated the already exploitative and precarious working conditions of migrants. Some migrants who retained their jobs were coerced to work without the possibility of social distancing and other measures to protect their health, while others were forcefully deported. The miseries of women domestic workers compounded due to the pandemic since they were either confined entirely within the premises of their employers or were thrown out of the homes where they worked or lived. Lockdowns and border closures initiated by the South Asian governments were also factors that impinged on the migrants: They stranded in the destination countries, often with no source of income and no support from the governments of those countries.
Migration and refugee movements within South Asia
Historically, there has been significant intra-regional migration in South Asia. In fact, the cultural, religious and linguistic diversity in South Asia is the outcome of spacial interconnection between different peoples migrating within the region. More than 85 per cent of migrants in South Asia have migrated from one country to another in the region itself. Skewed economic development, unequal employment opportunities, easy accessibility due to porous borders and cultural ties have resulted in Nepal–India, Bangladesh–India, Afghanistan–Pakistan, and India–Bhutan becoming important corridors for cross-border labour mobility.
However, migration dynamics have been changing in recent decades, with people fleeing their homelands in fear of hostility or persecution due to political strife as well as ethnic and racial conflicts resulting in a surge of refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers in the region. In 2021, UNHCR counted 3.2 million refugees originating from Southern Asian countries, whereas countries in the region themselves hosted 3.5 million refugees, the majority of them taking refuge in countries neighbouring their countries of origin. Bangladesh has the highest number of stateless persons (mostly Interner Link: Rohingya who fled Myanmar), while Interner Link: Pakistan is host to the fourth largest refugee population in the world (1.5 million), mostly from Interner Link: Afghanistan.
The first mass influx and exodus of refugees witnessed in the Indian subcontinent occured during the partition of British India in India and Pakistan in 1947. It was impelled by disputes over political-communal identity and resulted in an estimated displacement of about 12 to 18 million people on both sides of the newly delineated borders – between West Pakistan and Indian Punjab in the Western part, and between erstwhile East Pakistan (presently Bangladesh) and West Bengal in the Eastern part. The partition was accompanied by bloodshed, massacres, abductions and fierce violence.
In the subsequent years, refugees continued to pour into neighbouring countries intermittently posing policy dilemma:
The Chakma and Hajong refugees fled from Bangladesh to North Eastern India in the late 1950s after being displaced from the Chittagong Hill tract region due to construction of the Kaptai Dam and religious persecution.
Tibetan refugees comprising the Dalai Lama and his followers sought political asylum in India in 1959.
Bangladeshi nationals took refuge in eastern states of India in order to escape the conflict between the Pakistani army and Bangladeshi forces during Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971.
Refugees from Afghanistan moved to Pakistan and Iran during the Soviet invasion in 1979 and during the rise of the Taliban in 1990s.
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees shifted to India during the 1980s to escape discriminatory activities and policies of the Sri Lankan government.
Members of the Lhotsampa sought refuge in Nepal in the late 1980s and early 1990s after a long period of ethnic and political oppression in Bhutan.
The most recent mass exodus in the region has been that of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar to Bangladesh and India in the wake of xenophobic ethnic antagonism escalating in August 2017.
Displacement in Southern Asia is not only triggered by violence, but also by climate change-induced disasters. Many countries in the region (Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and India) are among the countries most affected by climate change. However, most people who are displaced by disasters or gradual environmental change will remain within their countries. In Afghanistan, for example, there were 1.4 million people at the end of 2021 who had been internally displaced by disasters.
Protection policy for refugees
The basis of the international refugee law framework is the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and its 1967 Additional Protocol. However, none of the South Asian countries, except Afghanistan, is signatory to the Convention and the Protocol. There have been repeated attempts to establish a regional refugee protection framework at the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) level, but all such efforts have been mired due to national security concerns, reliance on bilateral rather than multilateral approaches by nation-states to resolve conflicts and anticipation of impingement on sovereignty due to interference of multilateral organisations, all of which undermine human security imperatives. With no uniform legal and administrative framework for the protection of refugees in place, the latter are left with administrative ad-hocism and heterogeneity in protection standards.
In India, for example, refugee management is based on archaic laws that stem from colonial times such as the 'Foreigners Act' and the 'Passport (Entry into India) Act'. The introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2019 by the Indian government that aimed at making "illegal migrants" from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian eligible for citizenship highlights the intention to extend protection to selective communities, and the non-uniformity in the treatment and protection of refugees and asylum seekers in India.
A comprehensive rights-based refugee protection framework appropriate for Southern Asia is yet to be developed.