Features | Society

International Migration Concerns

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a shift in the definition of security.

By Peter Curson for

More people are on the move than ever. But, asks Peter Curson, are Asia-Pacific governments aware of the security implications of large-scale migration?

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a shift in the definition of security. The traditional Westphalian model, which placed emphasis on protecting the territorial integrity of the state, has now largely given way to a broader definition that includes the threat of infectious disease, food security, financial crises and climate change.

More people are on the move than ever, making migration in all its forms – skilled and unskilled labour movements, refugee movements, human trafficking, spouse migration, rural-to-urban movements – a defining feature of the international and national security landscape. Reduced travel costs and vast discrepancies in income levels and population processes have combined to create powerful reasons for people to move from rural villages to burgeoning towns or to cross international borders in search of work.

At the same time, if Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fears are realised, climate change could contribute to the creation of an additional 25 million displaced people by 2010.

Throughout the Asia-Pacific, some 10-15 million people have been displaced by war and violence, with a similar number displaced by natural disasters and development schemes. Fleeing refugees and internally displaced persons have at times threatened to overwhelm the infrastructure of the receiving state. The Bangladeshi exodus into the neighbouring Indian state of Assam is a case in point, where migration has significantly altered the local ethnic balance and led to communal violence.

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External border security is critical in combating illegal population movements, but this remains beyond the resources or priorities of many countries. In addition, in East Asia, the movement of people from rural areas to towns and cities can be expected to gain momentum over the next few decades.

By 2030, the region is expected to experience a 50 per cent increase in urban population – and in some areas such as Cambodia, the increase will be nearer 80 per cent. China, where the number of rural-urban migrants now exceeds 150 million, may even be experiencing history’s greatest exodus from rural locations.

This large scale rural-to-urban migration has potential security implications. Most of those who move are young adults, and many experts now argue that a disproportionate number of young, poor, unemployed and discontented adults in urban areas can predispose a country to unrest and violence.

Historically, the US has viewed youth in the developing world as a potentially explosive force that represents a major security threat, particularly when allied to Islamic fundamentalism.

Today, it is estimated that there are more than 600 million people living in slums and squatter settlements in Asia, and the number can be expected to double within 20 years. Slum dwellers constitute about 37 per cent of the population in China, 55 per cent in India and 84 per cent in Bangladesh. Slums are rapidly becoming the dominant form of urban land use, and poor sanitation, lack of water and waste disposal make them highly vulnerable to the spread of disease.

The spread of smuggling

There are already some 13 to 20 million people vulnerable to HIV infection in Indonesia, with the potential for South-East Asia to experience an epidemic on the same scale as parts of southern Africa.

The breaking of social bonds associated with movement from villages to towns, added to ethnic and religious distinctiveness, often leads to increased feelings of marginalisation and vulnerability. As well as having an impact on crime levels, a failure to find work may in some cases cause the marginalised to become radicalised as they turn to extreme religious organisations to replace lost social bonds.

People trafficking and smuggling across borders remain well-established and lucrative (more than $15 billion a year) businesses throughout the Asia-Pacific. It is only relatively recently that governments have attempted to stem such flows. Up to 600,000 men, women and children are trafficked across Asia-Pacific borders every year, most of them women and children moved for sexual exploitation and/or forced labour.

The number of people trafficked into Australia is unknown, but may exceed 1000 a year, most of whom are recruited for the local sex industry. People smuggling, whereby a fee is paid for the illegal crossing of international borders, adds another dimension. Australia has played an important part in attempting to stem such illegal flows, but much more needs to be done by regional governments.

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However, migration does have its plusses. It can lead to substantial inflows of capital and the eventual return of people with new skills. It may also provide a source of cheap labour, allowing labour-intensive industries to proliferate. Malaysia, for example, relies heavily on 2.3 million foreign workers as the labour force for a wide variety of export industries.

In addition to rural-to-urban migration, international skilled and unskilled migration is also set to increase. While countries like Australia and the USA continue to attract international migrants, the Gulf States and ‘economic tigers’ of South-East Asia and India are now also proving to be attractive destinations. Women are also now more likely to move, with at least 1.5 million Asian women currently working abroad.

Yet many governments and societies remain ambivalent about the growing numbers of foreign workers, and there is a tendency to distinguish between ‘desirable’ skilled workers and the ‘others’ who perform manual low-paid work and then leave. This often leads to tension, discrimination and resentment – as does foreign-born spouse migration. In Taiwan, for example, there are more than 380,000 such women, the majority from South-East Asia and China, and most tend to be regarded as ‘outsiders’ and widely discriminated against.

Remittances, money sent home by migrant workers, have come to represent a vital form of cash inflow to developing countries. In 2007 alone, remittances contributed more than US$36.5 billion to India’s economy and nearly as much to China’s. In the Philippines, approximately 10 per cent of the population lives or works overseas, and the country is the third-largest remittance recipient in the world. In 2006, remittances to the Philippines exceeded US$12 billion, which is six times the level of direct foreign investment.

Remittances have become a critical resource in the economic security of millions of Asia-Pacific households and important to the macro-economy of many countries. Even so, such payments do not always reach those most in need and many go to middle-income recipients. Remittances may be sent through the formal Western banking system or through informal systems known as hawalas in the Moslem world, or fei ch’ien (‘flying money’) in Chinese.

With hawalas, money is transferred via international brokers who maintain running accounts with each other. Requiring minimal documentation, they are much quicker and less expensive than formal Western methods. However, this lack of financial oversight make them particularly vulnerable to misuse, with allegations that the system is a financial tool of terrorism.

It is therefore important for national governments to closely monitor informal remittance channels and consider channelling remittances into public or private sector projects to ensure a wider distribution of benefits.

Equally, the level of remittance dependency of many societies leaves
them extremely vulnerable to changes in world and regional economic conditions, such as the current global financial crisis.

The public health implications of cross-border and internal migration have received relatively little attention. Faced with such an unprecedented scale of population movement, regional and national borders have lost their significance as barriers to disease, and infections move with ease with migrant flows. In addition, where borders are porous or subject to special arrangements, migration may bring risks that directly threaten health security.

In Australia’s far north, for example, the free movement of coastal New Guineans to Queensland for medical treatment has the potential to spread diseases like TB, dengue fever and HIV/AIDS. Elsewhere in Asia, the diffusion of HIV/AIDS has undoubtedly been encouraged by human migration, and the recent SARS pandemic indicates the significance of human mobility in spreading an infection worldwide.

Clearly, regional governments need to be more forward-looking, proactive and innovative in considering the security implications of the large-scale movement of people. Failure to do so could have disastrous consequences.


. Social stability is impacted when the influx of migrants threatens to overwhelm the basic infrastructure of the destination area.

. Migration can substantially alter the demographic balance of both origin and destination locations.

. Cultural integration can be affected when migrants are visibly and culturally distinctive and as such are easily subject to discrimination and exploitation.

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. Migration can directly impact on the internal security of a state, particularly in the case of large-scale illegal population movements, major refugee flows and illicit trafficking in people and drugs.

. Migration can engender substantial remittance flows, which in some cases may be directed to political and terrorist organisations.