Through conversations with over 300 internal migrants, GDI strategic partner Migrants Resilience Collaborative published a comparative study exploring key drivers of migration, climate-induced migration, impact of COVID-19, labor laws, and social security measures in six Asian countries.
At the beginning of the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020, countries across the world announced lockdowns of varying severities. Millions of migrant workers were left to fend for themselves, with many forced to make their way home amid the struggle to make ends meet. The pandemic exposed the failure of our systems for migrant workers.
The report “Internal Migration in Asia” is a result of in-person conversations with 300 internal migrants at both source and destination locations across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, and Thailand in the last year. This study was undertaken to understand and highlight the precarious lives of migrants and their increasing vulnerability due to factors like climate change and the pandemic. We see this as the first step towards starting a regional discourse on internal migration and how we can strengthen systems for migrant households in Asia.
740 million individuals migrate internally worldwide. Of this, 282 million internal migrants belong to Asia alone, which is one-third of the global internal migrant population. Internal migration across countries is driven by economic distress caused by failure of traditional livelihood options, and economic shocks caused or aggravated by social exclusion and climate change. The pandemic aggravated this distress at scale across the region. In the Southeast Asian region, 4.7 million were pushed into extreme poverty conditions due to Covid-19. Our analysis indicates that the number of internal migrants is set to grow as returnee international migrants resort to internal migration and the number of first-time migrants increases. We also found that the conditions of women and girl migrants worsened post COVID-19. For example, in India, it was found after the pandemic that women were eleven times more unlikely to return to work post job loss.
Internal migration has not received the attention it deserves from governments, despite the fact that globally it is four times more common than international migration. Laws addressing internal migration at the national or regional level are missing in most of the region. The data on the Labour Rights Index demonstrates the prevalence of poor working conditions across all countries covered in the study. In addition, access to social security schemes remains very low: less than 50% of the poor have access in lower-middle-income countries, while just 18% have access in lower-income countries. Furthermore, since most countries do not design schemes with internal migrants in mind, it becomes harder to meet their unique challenges. Exclusion among seasonal migrants is likely even higher. Their limited access to social security is characteristic of their ‘invisibility’, particularly in cities.
However, there are examples of positive government action from countries part of the study in terms of laws and policies to protect workers that we can build on. Cambodia’s labour laws have a special provision for piece-rate workers where if workers produce fewer pieces than the minimum wage rate, then wages should be adjusted. In 2021, the Indian government created the E-shram portal, a mechanism to register unorganized workers – with special reference to migrants; it is the first such database which aims to extend social security benefits to registered workers and has already registered over 27 crore workers till June 2022. Thailand has been able to increase access to healthcare for almost its entire population. The Bangladesh government launched various food security and employment generation schemes in the Monga-affected regions to help populations in distress. The governments of Indonesia and Thailand rolled out wage subsidy programmes to help low-income workers during COVID. All these examples point towards the possibilities and mechanisms in protecting the informal sector workforce in distress.
As the world deals with the challenges of inequality, climate change, and the after-effects of the pandemic, safe and fair migration must be given its due importance by formulating policies that specifically address the needs of internal migrants. It is essential to understand that migration will continue for the years to come as people seek better livelihood opportunities than what is available at source locations. Therefore, the focus has to be on providing workers with better opportunities, enabling fair working conditions, safe passage, and other basic support when they migrate. We hope that this report enables an open conversation on ensuring the dignity of internal migrants in our respective countries and paves the way for meaningful collaborations between civil society organisations, governments, private sector, and communities in the region.