E.g., 12/01/2023
E.g., 12/01/2023
Circular Migration: Keeping Development Rolling?

Circular Migration: Keeping Development Rolling?

Global international migration has undergone a transformation in the last decade and one of the main elements in this has been the substantial increase in non-permanent, circular migration between nations. Such mobility, of course, has a long history. In the contemporary world, however, international circular migration is occurring on an unprecedentedly large scale, involving a greater cross-section of groups and taking a wider variety of forms than ever before. This change has produced a number of challenges to both policymakers and researchers.

Beyond the Permanent Settlement Paradigm

From a research perspective, we have to confront the situation that the bulk of our international migration data collection, much of our empirical knowledge and theory is anchored in a permanent settlement migration paradigm. We need to rethink our data collection systems regarding migration flows that often have failed to capture non-permanent migrations, or limit the amount of detail sought regarding them, compared with avowedly permanent moves. Most conventional collections of information regarding stocks of migrants such as population censuses either exclude temporary residents altogether, or if they collect information from them, it is not processed or tabulated.

Perhaps more importantly, our main research efforts have focused on permanent settlers. The welcome development of longitudinal surveys in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia focus entirely on permanent settlers. These surveys are to be major elements, not only in immigration research, but also in informing policy development in the major immigration nations. Similarly, research in destination nations on migrant integration, impacts on labor and housing markets, effects on the economy, social and cultural effects etc. almost all focus on permanent settlers. Little is known about these issues as they relate to temporary residents.

Yet the numbers of temporary residents are significant and their effects also undoubtedly are important. In Australia, for example, in 2001 there were 88,900 incoming permanent settlers but a total of 340,200 foreigners were granted temporary residence permits of up to four years. On June 30, 2001 there was a resident population in Australia of 19,413,200 but also an estimated 554,200 people in Australia on a temporary basis, of whom 289,300 had the right to work. Little is known about who these people are and what their economic, social, demographic, and cultural effects are on Australia. New research asking different questions of different people is required. The findings of much of the existing research based on permanent settlement are not relevant.

Immigration Intentions: Permanent or Temporary

A second issue relates to the need to reassess the prevailing mindset regarding temporary migrants in destination countries. This is summarized in the oft-repeated phrase that "there is nothing so permanent as a temporary migrant." This arose largely out of the experience of postwar Europe when several countries opted to cope with labor shortages by importing temporary guestworkers, but these groups developed substantial permanent communities. To what extent in the contemporary situation is temporary migration a prelude to permanent settlement? There is some evidence that this may be less the case than in the past for the following reasons:

  • Modern forms of transport and communication have greatly reduced the friction of distance between origin and destination countries. This has meant that migrants are able to maintain closer and more intimate linkages with their home area than ever before. Cheapening the cost of phone calls, the introduction of email and fax, and the cheapening and speeding up of international travel have not only made it possible for migrants to interact in real time with their home country on a regular basis, but also to visit home more frequently in emergencies and for breaks. The pressure to bring entire families to the destination is not as great.
  • Migrants in the contemporary situation can obtain the best of both worlds in that they can earn in high income, high cost destinations and spend in low-income, low-cost origins. Furthermore, they can maintain valued traditions, family ties etc. in the origin country by keeping their family there, remaining citizens of that country, and making frequent visits.

It is not necessarily the case that migrant workers always desire to settle in destination countries but that highly restrictive policies and barriers to entry push them into settlement. It could be argued that temporary migrants are less likely to move into destination countries with a long-term aim of settling in that country than was the case previously. Hence it may be that destination countries should be less concerned about virtually all temporary migration turning into permanent settlement than was the case previously. However, we lack the detailed knowledge of temporary migrants to be definite about this.

Facilitating Circular Migration

One issue arising here is that if destination countries develop policies and programs which both facilitate and encourage migrant workers to interact with their home country, this may lessen the pressure for those migrant workers to bring their family to, and settle in, the destination. Reduction of the difficulty and transaction costs associated with sending remittances, easing the availability of re-entry visas for migrant workers etc. are all things that may facilitate circular rather than permanent migration.

In the Peninsular Malaysian context, it is interesting to compare the situation on the northern and southern borders. In the north there is a longstanding pattern of circular migration of Thais across the border to work in Malaysia facilitated by a local regime, whereby such movement is not inhibited by officials. There is little permanent settlement of Thais in northern Malaysia. On the other hand, there are increasing restrictions on Indonesians seeking to work in Malaysia, so once they get in there is a greater tendency to seek to settle permanently. While the distance between home and work is not very great, their migration is necessarily undocumented, so visiting home is expensive and there is a danger of being detected. Hence return visits are infrequent and migrants may have opted to bring their families to Malaysia. A policy that facilitates home visits, the sending of remittances, maintenance of telephone contact etc. will certainly reduce the pressure for permanent settlement. It needs to be recognized that the modern global communication and transport regimes facilitate people working in one country for a substantial period and remaining permanent citizens of their home country in a way that was not possible a decade ago, let alone in the 1950s and 1960s, when much of the fear of "permanent" temporary migrant workers was generated.

This does not mean, of course, that temporary migration cannot be the prelude to permanent settlement in a destination. Indeed, for some migrants, temporary entry may still be the consciously planned initial stage of an intended relocation. There is some evidence that some student migration may in fact fit into that category, especially now that some nations may be giving preference to foreign graduates of their own institutions in settler selection. What better way to ensure that migrants are able to be readily accepted into local labor markets?

This may also be the case with temporary entrants under the temporary business categories now common in Euro-American countries. In such countries, the temporary migration system can be used as an element in the selection of permanent settlers. People who have been in the country for several years and have shown they can be absorbed into the labor market and integrate in other ways may prove good candidates for permanent settlement. Initial entrance as a temporary migrant can often be easier than obtaining permanent residence, so such entrance may be a conscious first step to permanent migration.

One process which has encouraged circular international labor migration in the Indonesian context has been labor market segmentation. In destination areas, such as Malaysia, whole sectors of the economy have been eschewed by local workers because of the low status, low wages, poor conditions and "dirty," menial nature of the work as average income and education levels have improved. Hence plantation labor, forestry, construction, and domestic labor have become the preserve of international contract labor – much of it from Indonesia. Their low labor costs enable the plantation and forestry industries to remain export-competitive. Sectors of the Malaysian economy have become dependent on foreign labor, much of it undocumented. These sectors have adapted to the circularity of the movement, with many workers allowed to arrange their own replacements from their home areas when they decide to return home to Indonesia permanently or make a visit in a form of "relay" migration.

Defining a National Population

In Australia there is increased circularity not just in immigration. There has been an acceleration of emigration of Australian residents, with official estimates of the national diaspora being 900,000 (from a national population of 19.7 million). Survey research indicates that more than half of these Australians have definite intentions to return to Australia and only 15 percent have definite intentions not to return. It raises the question of how one defines a national population. Conventionally, national populations have been defined by censuses as people enumerated within national boundaries on census night and any household member who happens to be away temporarily on that night.

Increasingly, in a globalizing world a greater proportion of a nation's citizens will be living on a long-term or more-or-less permanent basis in another country and hence will not be included in censuses. Yet, often they retain their citizenship (dual or single), consider themselves expatriates, still maintain important linkages with their home nation, and may intend to return to it. They often are selectively high-earning and highly skilled.

There are substantial challenges here for census takers and demographers. How should one define national populations when significant proportions of citizens are based overseas at any one time? Are there ways in which national diasporas can be useful to the home nation? Should there be policies and programs to encourage the return of expatriates? Are expatriates with skills more prone to return at particular stages of the life cycle, such as in the early stages of family formation?

'Brain Drain' Concerns

The globalization of labor markets has opened up much more opportunity for brain drain migration to impact on Less Developed Countries. High level skills are in great demand and More Developed Countries have reduced the barriers to immigration of these groups on both a permanent and temporary basis while strengthening the barriers against the semi-skilled and unskilled. However, our knowledge of the impacts of this migration on origin countries is limited. Certainly, there would seem to be benefits to countries experiencing "brain circulation" with a constant stream of newcomers bringing new ideas, approaches, and networks with them. What of the impacts on countries that are experiencing a substantial net outflow of talent? Again, we lack a solid empirical base and it is easy to point to a brain drain leading to reduction of the possibility of economic and social development at home.

While these negative impacts undoubtedly occur, there are some cases where such moves can have a beneficial result for the origin country, such as:

  • Where there is insufficient capacity in the origin economy to productively absorb and use the migrants' skills.
  • Where the inflow of remittances outweighs what the migrant would have contributed.
  • Where there is significant return migration of the migrants with enhanced skills and capacities.
  • Where the migrants forge productive economic linkages with the home country such as directing investment, providing beachheads for production from the home country etc.

The World Bank has called for More Developed Countries that recruit skilled migrants from Less Developed Countries to pay a levy to the latter to compensate for the investment in human capital made by the origin nations. There certainly needs to be a more sophisticated analysis made of the efforts of the "brain drain" phenomenon.

Scale and Effect of Remittances

There has been a substantial shift in the interpretation of the scale and effects of remittances which, until relatively recently, had been dismissed as relatively trivial in amount spent purely on consumption, and having little positive developmental effect. This interpretation is changing, but we still know relatively little about this important phenomenon. It is now recognized that although perhaps more than half of the remittances go unrecorded they constitute one of the world's most substantial financial flows. In several countries of Asia, they are larger than the earnings from any single community export and are recognized to have important impacts on family, community, regional, and even national economies. There is still little known about the impacts of remittances, but in Indonesia it is apparent that effects on local economies have been underestimated because the second and third-round effects of consumption spending are not accounted for.

Moreover, research is indicating that the development-based spending of remittances has been understated in the past. Often, too, migrants are drawn from the poorest, most marginal areas in origin countries and remittances are magnified in their effects because they are concentrated in those areas. Problems remain, however, because of a lack of reliable and fair channels for remittances in some countries.

The institution of an organization to monitor international flows of money following September 11, 2001 in order to choke off channels to terrorist groups may have had detrimental effects on some remittance flows. Remittances must be better measured and recognized as a substantial redistribution of wealth from origin to destination countries, and as such, more integrated into development strategies.

Role of Women

There has been a substantial increase in the involvement of women in international circular labor migration. This is evident in the increasing numbers of women moving as international students and being recruited into high- level, high-skill managerial, executive, and professional jobs. In Indonesia, however, the greatest involvement of women is in the lower end of the labor market. There is a greater degree of labor market segmentation among women than is the case for men in these types of jobs. Thus, women are concentrated in jobs which are seen as areas where they have greater aptitude like domestic labor, factory work involving dextrous use of fingers, the entertainment and international sex industries etc. Not only does this involve highly questionable gender stereotyping, it is the case that many of these segments of the labor market are areas that are least influenced by labor regulations and where the opportunities for, and the record of, exploitation is large.

Despite this, both supply and demand factors seem to be working toward a considerable expansion of this type of movement. On the supply side in Indonesia, for example, the number of young women seeking to go abroad to work as domestics is increasing exponentially. This is despite the fact that there are daily media stories of exploitation, and the fact that for many ethnic groups, there are traditional sanctions on young women travelling independently without close male relatives.

Changing levels of education, breaking down traditional extended family systems and patriarchal power structures are undoubtedly influential, but there is a strong cumulative causation element in operation. Once a flow of women from a community begins, it becomes normal for young women to seek to go away to work. This was especially the case after the 1997 onset of the Asian financial crisis, when many lost their urban-based jobs and working abroad was seen as a way to maintain the family's well-being.

On the demand side, the development in the Middle East, but also in the high-growth Asian economies, has created a huge demand for domestics at a time when local women are not at all interested in going into this type of work. Moreover, there have been institutions developed to recruit, train, send, and place these workers, and they will seek to perpetuate the movement. Attempts to ban this type of movement in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia in response to abuse of their domestic workers has simply driven the trade more into the undocumented migration area (where it is already significant) so that the women simply become more vulnerable to exploitation. The outlook, then, is that this type of movement will not only continue, but also expand.

Policy and program intervention should not go into the introduction of bans, but more into the development of a range of innovative interventions which operate through a range of agencies, formal and informal, and which provide protection for the women involved. Moreover, more effort needs to go into providing accurate information to potential women migrant workers, so that their decision on whether or not to move is made in the light of full information about the costs and benefits. Furthermore, they need to receive effective training that not only familiarizes them with the tasks, appliances, and conditions of their work, but also empowers them with workable strategies to use when confronted with problems. Finally, systems need to be put in place that allow the women to seek and obtain help in the destination state if they are faced with a problem.

Undocumented Flows

Another issue relating to circulation is linked to the prominent question of undocumented migration. Such movement has proliferated in response to barriers erected to immigration. Indonesian undocumented immigration has been substantial for decades but in recent times there has been a stepping up of policing of the movement at high cost to both the Malaysian government and the migrants intercepted. The undocumented migrants face considerable human costs associated with attempts to evade detection, including periodic mass drownings in overcrowded boats run by people smugglers. Despite the stepping up of policing efforts to control such movement, it would seem that such flows will continue to increase for the following reasons:

  • The gradient of demographic and economic inequalities between countries shows no signs of diminishing and will continue to drive population mobility.
  • The immigration industry is developing exponentially and will continue to facilitate and encourage mobility.
  • Migration networks continue to spread, which will mean more of the world's population will have social capital in potential destination nations in the form of family and friends who will assist their migration to, and adjustment in, the destination.

Organized crime is increasingly involved in this movement, especially in the most pernicious people- smuggling/trafficking rackets and efforts to combat it are increasingly needed. However, it is important to realize that many of the people involved in the undocumented migration industry are very small-scale entrepreneurs. There is a real problem in this area, because policing efforts often end up "blaming the victim" and not impinging on the upper-level criminal elements who are involved in the most exploitative dimension of undocumented movement.

Emerging Health Issues

The current issue of the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has drawn attention to the linkages between circular international migration and health. These associations can come through the movers coming to a new environment where they do not have the area natives' resistance to local diseases. Similarly, some migrant workers are exposed to the risk of illness through having to live in marginal situations. However, most attention has been directed to circulators as carriers of disease from their origins to new destinations. While this is an issue, it has frequently led to migrant workers being scapegoated as the "cause" of disease at the destination.

For example, Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia have been vilified in the media as the main spreaders of several diseases including HIV, but medical checks have indicated a low incidence of the disease among them. Migrant workers may be placed in situations where they are vulnerable to contracting the HIV infection. Often they are young, move without partners, are isolated and lonely, have cash, and are free from traditional sanctions, which may lead them into using the commercial sex industry or taking drugs. In either case, they are at elevated risk of contracting HIV and taking it with them back to their home area and on to other work destinations. Moreover, in many cases prostitutes are also international circulators who also are at elevated risk of contracting the disease and spreading it.

We need to be very careful, however, in interpretation here, since migrants per se are not any more prone to disease than non-migrants – they simply often are placed in vulnerable situations. There is a danger that incorrect stereotypes, stigmatization, and scapegoating may be strengthened. On the other hand, the role of mobility in the spread of diseases such as HIV needs to be fully acknowledged so that relevant information and preventative programs can be developed and targeted.

International Circulation of Labor

In conclusion, several conditions in the contemporary world are highly conducive to the international circulation of labor, both skilled and unskilled. The development of transportation has meant that the money and time costs of travel have been dramatically reduced, which will not only facilitate the international "journey to work," but also enable migrant workers to readily return to their home nation in an emergency and for frequent visits. The intimacy of contact with the family based in the home nation are enhanced by the cheapening of international telephoning, emailing, and faxing. All this is at a time when demographic and economic differences between nations are widening, especially between the so-called "labor surplus" and 'labor shortage' nations.

Many labor markets have been transformed from being national to international, and labor market segmentation has produced situations in some countries where native workers have totally shunned some types of jobs and they have become the preserve of foreign workers (many of them circulators). Hence there have been strengthening gradients between potential origin and destination countries. Moreover, migration along these gradients has been greatly facilitated by the development of a large and all-pervading immigration industry and by the bifurcation and strengthening of social networks linking origin countries with communities of expatriates in destination countries.

This has resulted in a steady flow of information back to potential movers in origin areas, which has reduced the perception of risk among potential movers, as has the knowledge that these communities at the destination will assist them in entering the labor market and in adjustment to the destination. The resulting flows have resulted in a much more substantial redistribution of wealth from More Developed to Less Developed contexts than either development assistance or foreign direct investment. These developments are undoubtedly tied up with the increasing international flows of capital, goods, ideas, information etc. that have accompanied the process of globalization.

Unlike the other international flows where barriers to them have been substantially reduced, those to movement of people have been increased, except for movement of a monied elite of international professionals, executives, and managers. These barriers are partly a function of the nation-state maintaining its integrity, partly a well-founded concern about security, but are also based on some fears about the results of immigration that have to be questioned in the light of relevant contemporary research knowledge.

Certainly, however, the massive shifts that have occurred in global international migration in recent years have not seen an equivalent shift in our data collection systems, theoretical knowledge, and research effort into these newly important areas. It is not until such a shift occurs that the research community will be able to supply policymakers and planners with the knowledge necessary for the development of better policies with respect to international migration in both origin and destination countries.