Policy challenges and promoting subregional cooperation

Migration policies in the subregion generally aim to provide legal options for labour migration, usually through MOUs. In recent years, these policies have been set in response to the emerging challenges described below:

Protection of the basic rights of migrant workers. Many migrants work under difficult and dangerous conditions with less than minimum salaries. The challenge is to secure decent wages and ensure the provision of basic protection and access to social and health services. To this end, countries need policies, legislation and mechanisms that provide their citizens with protection and support from abuse in the labour migration process (Go 2007).

Improving protection mechanisms specifically for female migrants. The number of women migrants from some countries in the subregion is rising. Women are often more vulnerable to abuse due to the nature of their jobs, such as domestic work, which tend not to be covered by labour laws in many destination countries. Consequently, countries have to put in place specific protection mechanisms, such as a monitoring system for women migrants during their employment. Nevertheless, additional measures should be taken, particularly with regard to women engaged in domestic work.

Decreasing cost of migration. The recruitment of labour migrants in South and South-West Asia is largely facilitated by private recruitment agencies, which often charge fees excessive to the direct costs associated with the recruitment process, such as visa applications (IOM 2006). In line with the global trend to combat this problem by designing policies to regulate private recruitment agencies, many countries in the subregion have introduced licensing systems and set penalties for unethical conduct to regulate these agencies while others, such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, have even established public recruitment facilities and regulations to control private agencies. However, in addition to the complexities of regulating this part of the migration process, these policies face challenges due to the sheer number of these types of agencies active in the subregion.

Mitigating social costs of migration. Temporary labour migration is the norm in the subregion, and most of those migrating leave family members behind. Separation of families can have negative impacts on family cohesion and the well-being of children, especially in cases in which the mother has migrated. The policy challenge lies in considering the welfare of the whole family in the formulation of migration policies.

Encouraging remittances through official channels. Large proportions of remittances are sent to the subregion through informal channels, with the hawala or hundi systems being the most prominent. Notably, remittances transferred through these informal channels are lost as a source of foreign-income earnings to governments highly dependent on these flows. Furthermore, there are concerns that these informal channels could be used for money laundering.

Reducing ‘brain drain’ and harnessing circular migration. In many South and South-West Asian countries, highly educated, skilled and qualified persons seek opportunities abroad while simultaneously, the subregion is experiencing a shortage of skilled persons in various areas, including health and education. As a consequence, countries often adopt policies to mitigate the negative impact of the out-migration of skilled workers (IOM 2006). Another approach for dealing with the ‘brain drain’ would be to encourage circular migration by giving special incentives to return migrants, which allows countries of origin to harness the skills that migrants acquire while working abroad.

Increasing preparedness in emergencies. The sudden political crisis in Northern Africa in 2011 forced many governments to scramble to evacuate migrant workers from their countries that had been working in the subregion. As of 27 November 2011, a total of 778,981 migrants had fled violence in Libya. Among them were an estimated 35,600 Asians of which a majority of them were from South and South-West Asia. Many of those returning migrants are now unemployed and are concerned about their future. Collaborative mechanisms are essential in formulating more effective responses to emergencies of this nature.

Increasing ratification and implementation of the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Their Families and other international instruments related to international migration. As mentioned above, ratification of the Convention is very low in Asia, including South-West Asia, even though the subregion contains many key countries of origin. Ratification (and implementation) of the Convention would guarantee minimum universal human rights standards for all migrant workers. Despite the reluctance of destination countries to ratify the Convention, migrant workers would still benefit if their county of origin affirmed it. For example, the Government of Sri Lanka increased protection of overseas migrant workers and enhanced the regulation of recruitment agencies after it ratified the Convention.

Strategic international cooperation within the subregion is required to overcome these challenges. Various migration initiatives have provided forums for discussion and a platform to propose suggestions for solutions to these issues. This has led to several positive examples of sharing of good practices and lessons learned within the subregion.

For instance, the Bangkok Statement on Migration and Development spells out 18 recommendations compiled from 31 government representatives from the Asia-Pacific region. These recommendations cover key thematic areas of international migration such as ‘migration and health’, ‘gender and families’, ‘partnership for more regular and protected migration and strategies to address irregular migration’ and ‘linking migration and development’ (Asia-Pacific RCM Thematic Working Group on International Migration including Human Trafficking 2010).

Similarly, the Dhaka Declaration is the culmination of a series of consultations at the expert level among Colombo Process member States. The Declaration includes recommendations related to promotion of rights, the welfare and dignity of migrant workers, to services and capacity building, emergency response, emerging issues and enhanced dialogue and cooperation between Colombo Process Member States, and countries of transit and destination.14

It is up to individual countries to reflect on these recommendations and include them in their own national policy, taking into account sovereign needs and issues. The ongoing success of these policies lies in the ability to take on policy recommendations and increase institutional capacity to implement and administer migration policies, and in the quality of national implementation of migration policies.


14 See www.colomboprocess.org/images/docs/dc2011/dhaka%20declaration.pdf.