Additionally, the subregion must contend with the complexities and dynamics of a migration context involving significant populations of refugees or those in a refugee-like situation, large numbers of irregular migrants and large-scale human trafficking and smuggling. Permanent migration to Europe, Australia and North America has long been a feature in the regional migration context and, despite changing economic conditions in these countries of destination, this pattern continues. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka continue to be primarily countries of origin of migrants in the subregion while every stage of the migration cycle occurs in India, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, making them countries of origin and transit in addition to being countries of destination.

Issues related to the protection of migrant workers often differ by destination and the status of migrants in destination countries, which also call for different policies. The movement of workers to GCC countries remains a key feature of the subregional migration context. An estimated 9.5 million temporary contractual workers from South and South-West Asia live and work in Western Asia (Ratha and Shaw 2007, Ratha and Zhimei 2008, Asia-Pacific RCM Thematic Working Group on International Migration including Human Trafficking 2008).

Since the mid-1970s, migrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have been actively recruited to work overseas in construction, small factories, domestic services and agriculture (Khadria 2005). Most migrant workers from the subregion are low or semi-skilled labourers employed to work in GCC countries or in the manufacturing sector of Malaysia. The financial impact of this labour migration is significant. Remittances from Nepalese workers, for example, which account for 20 per cent of the Nepal gross domestic product (GDP), are the country’s most important source of foreign income, even exceeding export revenue (World Development Indicators 2011).

Another important factor of the subregional migration context is the seasonal intraregional movement of people. Historically, there has been extensive cross-border mobility within the subregion, particularly for migration between India and Nepal, India and Bhutan, and Bhutan and Nepal, where country agreements have allowed citizens to cross borders without passports or visas.