Regional overview

International migration is a key factor behind the socio-economic development of South and South-West Asia, one of the fastest growing subregions in the world economically. Historically, international migration has acted to alleviate population pressures and unemployment while remittances from overseas migrants have contributed to poverty reduction and helped ensure relative macroeconomic stability even during times of crises. Notably, South and South-West Asia comprises 42 per cent of the population of the Asia-Pacific region and is the largest remittance-receiving subregion in nominal terms, receiving 40 per cent of the officially recorded $206 billion of remittances sent to the region in 2010.

Despite recent impressive growth, several countries in South and South-West Asia are still classified as developing countries and four are least developed countries. Poverty remains widespread throughout the subregion, with 36.2 per cent of the population living on less than $1.25 per day in 2006. Consequently, migrants are drawn to wealthier subregions that offer better opportunities. Political instability and conflict, as well as frequent natural disasters, also continue to trigger migratory movements.

This report analyzes migration issues taking into account socio-economic complexities. Analysis is provided in both the country and thematic chapters. The country chapters present an overview of migration dynamics in 10 countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey while the thematic chapters contain an analysis of regional migration trends and issues from eight standpoints, namely environment and climate change, gender, health, labour migration, policy and international cooperation, protection of the rights of migrant workers, refugees and stateless persons, and remittances.

As is often the case among migrants globally, better job opportunities serve as a major pull factor for migrants in South and South-West Asia. The majority of labour migrants from the subregion work in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Malaysia and private agencies typically play an extensive role in the recruitment process. From the perspective of countries of origin, the main challenges pertaining to labour migration are: increasing bilateral and multilateral cooperation with destination countries to improve working conditions and the treatment of migrants; reducing the cost of migration, minimizing recruitment fraud and abuse and extending labour-law protection to all workers, including domestic workers, who are mostly women; developing and recognizing skills; and reducing the proportion of migrant workers engaged in high-risk and low-wage sectors.
While the majority of the countries of origin in South and South-West Asia have enacted legislation and put in place mechanisms to protect migrant workers, exploitative practices in labour recruitment and employment in low-wage occupations remain. In addition, the importance of inter-state cooperation among countries of origin in the subregion and destination countries has been recognized but thus far only a few binding agreements have been signed.

As a result of increasing rates of labour migration, remittances to South and South-West Asia have also risen over time and their relative importance to the economy of the subregion as a whole has substantially increased in the past decade. In several countries, remittances are the most important source of foreign income. For example, remittances to Nepal and Bangladesh accounted for 22 and 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), respectively, in 2010. Studies have shown that recipients of remittances mainly use the funds to build a house or upgrade an existing house and for essential household expenditures which support human and social development, such as the payment of school fees and health-care costs. These funds contribute to macroeconomic stability. However, they also have adverse effects, such as enabling policymakers to delay the implementation of structural reforms which may increase employment opportunities at home. Also of note, a large number of remittances are sent through informal channels and thus remain unrecorded despite efforts to increase the proportion remitted through official channels.

Any balanced discussion on international migration should include both the positive and negative aspects associated with it. One area of major concern is the protection of migrants. Despite the protection provided to all migrants under international human rights and international labour law, many migrants from South and South-West Asia who either live and work in the subregion or elsewhere, are at risk of human rights violations. Key features of migration dynamics and migration governance in some destination countries exacerbate the vulnerability of migrants, including, among others, labour migration policies that tie employees to one employer and recruitment and hiring processes that are dominated by the private sector in both countries of origin and destination. Although the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW) provides a robust tool that addresses the specific vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers, ratification among countries in the subregion remains low, even among countries of origin of migrants. Ratification and implementation of the ICRMW and other core international human rights instruments would be an important step towards greater protection of the rights of all migrants in South and South-West Asia.

From a gender perspective, women notably have increased their economic role through migration, contributing to the economies of both countries of origin and destination. To maximize this contribution, migration policies need to take into account gender equality and the empowerment of women. Studies show that women migrant workers both at the country of origin and destination are subjected to discriminatory practices, and human and labour rights violations at every stage of the migration cycle. Moreover, their access to legal or social protection or psychosocial services in the countries of destination is often very limited. In some countries of origin, women constitute about half of the overseas migrant workforce. A large majority of this workforce are domestic workers. Demand for such occupation groups has increased in line with global demographic and labour market developments. They account for 4 to 10 per cent of the workforce in developing countries and about 2 per cent of the workforce in developed countries.

The issue of migration and health has been well researched over an extended period of time but very little of this work has focused on disease, especially communicable diseases other than HIV and AIDS. Moreover, the dominance of the ‘healthy migrant’ model whereby migrant populations are considered to be healthier than non-migrant populations because of the selectivity of the migration process has masked the complexity of the relationship between migration and health. The 2008 World Health Assembly (WHA) and the 2010 Global Consultation on Migrant Health have directed the attention of States towards a more holistic consideration of the diversity of migrants’ vulnerability to health problems and the need for developing more migrant-sensitive health systems.

The subregion witnesses movements that are complex and rooted in a combination of different motivations. In addition to economic drivers, a major push factor for migrants are underlying human rights violations or persecution. Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to host one of the largest and most protracted refugee populations in the world. Pakistan hosts more than 1.9 million registered Afghans, and another one million undocumented Afghan migrants are estimated to be living in the country. More than one million Afghan refugees reside in the Islamic Republic of Iran (UNHCR 2011). Many Afghan migrants have lived outside their country of citizenship for three decades. In spite of the high number of refugees living within South and South-West Asia, only three countries in the subregion have ratified the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its protocol. Another area of concern is the high number of stateless persons. Notably, some countries in the subregion have already made efforts to give citizenship to selected groups of people who were previously classified as being stateless.

The association between environmental change and migration has become a major topic of discussion in recent years. This is due to growing recognition of the need for a global response and international cooperation on adaptation strategies to reduce vulnerability and build resilience in developing countries to meet the challenges of environmental change. The Copenhagen Accord, which endorses the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, highlighted the importance of adaptation strategies. These strategies not only aim to mitigate risks of possible climate-induced migration, but also include migration. Although further research and debate is required to support such strategies, building resilience of countries and communities affected by a changing climate, environmental hazards and structural factors of vulnerabilities are broadly acknowledged, and were reaffirmed by the Cancun Agreements, of the sixteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) at the United Nations Climate Conference, held from 29 November until 10 December 2010 in Cancun, Mexico.