Newsletter is available here. You can also download our newsletter via PDF file and catch up to them later on your computer or your devices.
THE RURAL CHALLENGES
The Future of Domestic Migration in Southeast Asia
Rural-urban migration; feminization of migration; temporary migration; mobility restrictions
Domestic migration will continue in most countries in Southeast Asia. It will continue in all spatial directions—from rural to rural, rural to urban, urban to rural, and urban to urban—and in all temporal dimensions—permanently, seasonally, and temporarily. As social and economic opportunities pull people into some locations, the lack thereof will also push people away from others. Cross-border migration will also increase, but domestic migration will continue at much greater magnitudes. Domestic migration will remain a major force that creates impacts on the society, economy and polity, and thus is of increasing importance to policymakers and donors.
Three major trends in domestic migration are to continue, albeit in different degrees in different countries. Generally, there will be more rural-urban migrants, a greater proportion of female migrants, and more temporary migrants. Migration will remain area, gender, and age selective. We may also see more U-turn rural-rural migration, in which migrants move back to their original locations due to changes in practices and locations of crop farming.
It is likely that export-oriented, low-skilled, labor-intensive, manufacturing-based industrial development will remain as the core development strategy in Southeast Asia for quite some time. As a result, people’s movement from villages to cities will not wane and will only grow. In Indonesia and Thailand, more people will be living in cities, while in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the shares of rural population will remain high in the next decade or so. Rural-rural migration will continue as the dominant migration stream in Vietnam, where workers from poorer regions travel to the relatively irrigated and fertile areas to find work on plantations.
Even in these countries, the share of rural-urban migration is expected to increase significantly. As industrial development continues, rural-rural migration will decrease while rural-urban migration will increase, not only in relatively prosperous countries like Thailand but also in poorer countries such as Laos and Cambodia. Increasing rural-urban migration will be disproportionately directed towards megacities and industrial zones, such as Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. Particularly attractive are those industrial areas where foreign direct investment is concentrated.
An increasing proportion of unmarried young women will continue to shape the regional pattern of rural-urban migration. While young adults have continued to be the main age group among these migrants, the female ratio has increased significantly. This is expected even in Malaysia, where migration has always been predominantly by males. Female migrants tend to be younger than male migrants. In Vietnam, the highest rates for male migrants are among 20-24 and 25-29 age groups, while the highest rates for women are for ages 15-19 and 20-24. Women migrate independently for work and not just as accompanying partners. This “autonomous female migration” has increased because of various economic and social factors. Industries and services demand more female workers, and societies are coming to terms with women’s economic independence and mobility.
Young women will move to work predominantly in factories and in services. As middle-class female professionals have little time to take care of household chores, domestic helpers are increasingly in demand. Nevertheless, most young girls would rather work in factories and retail than work as full-time live-in maids. They are opting for personal freedom and social life, something they have yearned for in their place of origin, as they leave their villages behind. This has already happened in Thailand, where it is difficult to find Thai domestic helpers and nannies. These jobs are gladly filled by female migrants from Myanmar. Families who can afford them try to hire English speaking Filipina nannies, so their children can learn English from them as well.
Domestic migration in Southeast Asia is also characterized by seasonal and temporary migrants, who are usually male laborers in the construction sector during off-harvest seasons. In Thailand, temporary moves have been estimated to account for one-third of all migration with durations of one month or more. Similar trends have been noted in Indonesia and Cambodia. This is partly attributed to improvement in transport networks and information and communication technology (ICT). The demographic characteristics of temporary migrants are different from long-term migrants. They are more likely to be male, older, have lower levels of education, married but usually leave their families behind, living in poor conditions and remitting more of their income. Even though domestic migration is generally long-distance, smaller moves are observed to smaller towns. For instance, several thousand temporary migrants come to Vietnam’s Ha Giang Province from nearby rural provinces.
Migration is sometimes induced by a force majeure. Natural disasters leave people no choice but to move away from their villages. Ho Chi Minh City experiences a massive seasonal influx of people when the Mekong River floods. In some cases, such as after the 2004 tsunami, migrant workers are forced to move back to their home villages. There are more unfortunate cases as well: more than 1,200 children in Northeast Thailand lost their parents who had moved to work at coastal towns hit by the tsunami. For an extended period of time, more than 500,000 people were displaced in Aceh in Indonesia because of the 2004 tsunami. With climate change increasingly showing signs of influencing rainfall and temperature patterns in this region, we may expect more forced migration due to natural disasters.
The future picture of domestic migration in this region will follow the current trends. But one emerging trend needs closer attention: a rural-rural return migration due to the proliferation of new crops in unusual places such as the new “rubber belt” in Northeastern Thailand.
In several areas in Southeast Asia, farmers are changing crops from traditional ones such as rice to more lucrative kinds, notably rubber and oil palm. This change in types of crop farming, from growing food to growing crops for fuel and feedstock, will continue. This trend has implications for migration. Previously, male workers from Northeast Thailand migrated to the South to work in rubber plantations. With improvements in farming technologies and new crops that are adaptive to a less-humid climate, rubber can now be grown in the Northeastern part of Thailand as well. An increasing number of rubber plantation workers are returning to their villages. They have brought back with them the skills to grow the rubber trees, to seed and to transform the rubber. As this region will soon become the chief rubber producer in Thailand, more migrants are likely to make the U-turn. A similar U-turn migration also is happening internationally with Indonesian migrants who are moving back home from palm plantations in Malaysia.
Despite the inevitable trends, the policy climate in several countries continues to curtail migration through regulations on population movement and on informal sector activities. For instance, the Ho-Khau system in Vietnam was devised to control urban growth and population movement. People have been categorized under five tiers of registration statuses, from residential registrants to temporary registrants, to those without registration. But this has not stop migrants from coming to the cities. Instead, it has had negative impacts on them, limiting their access to formal employment, secure housing tenure, and other social services. They are also denied some of their social and political rights. Although the system has not been strictly enforced, it still makes migrants vulnerable to manipulation and extortion by the authorities. For instance, temporary migrants are not eligible for the Hunger Eradication and Poverty Reduction program, which includes low interest loans, free healthcare, and exemptions from school fees. Because of this registration requirement, more than a quarter of the babies born in 2000 weren’t registered. In just one year that implies there are 250,000 undocumented children.
Rural-urban migration continues to be the quickest way out of rural poverty, as people expect better livelihoods and well-being elsewhere. They are moving to cities to work in the informal sector, where the wages are expected to be higher and more stable. Many of these migrants may be considered urban poor, but their more stable income from non-agricultural sources puts them among the non-resident middle class in the villages where they are from.
Remittance is the migrants’ strategy to increase their rural wealth and to retain a connection with their villages. Remittance is thus an important factor in alleviating rural poverty. The total volume of internal remittances is enormous. Remittances can account for a substantial proportion of household incomes, especially for the poor, with the proportion being much higher among the landless. Migrants and their families use remittances for all sorts of expenses, from daily needs and medical care, to house building and loan payments, and hiring other people to work on their farms. Remittances help to reduce intra-rural household income inequality. But not all migrant workers are created equal. While many migrants are landless, others own land back where they come from. These land-owning migrants use their urban income to hire workers and invest in producing rice and other crops back in their villages.
But migrants usually engage in occupations that require little skill and provide little chance for upward mobility. In many jobs, they face health and safety hazards from which they are not well protected by laws. Children and the elderly are often left behind in villages, creating considerable social effects. Migration is found to have changed elderly living arrangements from co-residential to living alone, as well as had negative effects on intra-household elderly care in terms of receiving food and being taking to the hospital when necessary. Migration thus has serious implications for a wide range of issues and policies.
The first step before any policy intervention is the change in attitude and perception towards migrants. The government has to recognize the contribution of migrants to the economy. This means it is the responsibility of the state to provide them with adequate living conditions and social services, decent and just wages, and freedom from exploitation. Attempts to stop migration by regulations are counterproductive, and would just unnecessarily add hurdles to their survival and livelihood. Such regulations should be abolished.
Because migrants are heterogeneous in their backgrounds, needs, priorities, and movement patterns, interventions should account for such differences and be tailored to the specific conditions of each group. At the structural level, migration policies should target rural-urban linkages rather than thinking of urban or rural problems as separate issues. Instead of focusing only on mega-cities, development of secondary urban centers should be encouraged. At the micro level, the key issue is how to build and support social and economic support for migrants. Particularly needed is better infrastructure for migrants, such as transport and communication networks, access to health services such as mobile health care and child care for female workers, temporary decent settlements, and better facilities for remittance transfer. Training and skill-development support as well as local employment and investment opportunities should also be provided. Social insurance programs have to be developed that do not exclude migrants who work in the informal sector. This requires a legal and institutional framework that clearly defines the rights of migrants and duties of governments at all levels to ensure the provision of services and protection for migrants.
There are some successful initiatives that support domestic migrants. Plan International has run a campaign to have every child registered at birth. Because of the residency requirements in Vietnam, a large number of children have been unregistered at birth, affecting their birth rights in many different ways. The organization has helped the registration of two million children, who would not have otherwise been registered. The Baan Mankong program in Thailand is a notable example of how housing poverty among long-term migrants can be alleviated by securing land rights while building local capacities, and with moderate financial support from the government.
 The Philippines is very urbanized, as more than half of its population already live in cities.
 Statement by Malaysia’s Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development at the 41st session of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, 8th April 2008.
 See Issue 1 of Trendnovation Southeast “From Forest to Food to Feedstock”.