Economic diversification is an imperative issue in Timor-Leste, yet consideration of labor migration – and its interactions with development – has remained on the periphery. Timor-Leste is the world’s second most oil-dependent country, with oil providing 90 percent of government revenue. With some projections forecasting the exhaustion of these revenues by 2025, diversification is vital for fiscal stability. While tourism, agriculture and fisheries have been highlighted as non-oil focus areas, one phenomenon has remained noticeably absent from development plans and discourse: migration.
Since independence in 2002, economic factors have replaced conflict as the main motive for international emigration from Timor-Leste. Bilateral agreements with Australia and South Korea offer formal labor migration pathways, and Timorese communities are also found in Indonesia, Philippines, Portugal and most significantly, the United Kingdom (UK). An estimated 16,000 to 19,000 live and work in the UK. As most utilize a loophole allowing Timorese born pre-independence to apply for Portuguese citizenship, these migrants are considered Portuguese citizens by the sending and receiving states and this budding pattern of migration has garnered little attention.
Yet this trend is worth taking seriously. The value of inward remittances makes labor Timor-Leste’s largest export after oil, having overtaken coffee. An estimated $43 million was remitted to Timor-Leste in 2017, with 63 percent of this coming from the UK. As this data does not include cash remittances or transfers using the recently popular platform Moneygram, the figure is likely higher. Remittances contribute to living costs, education, housing and small businesses of migrants’ families in Timor-Leste.
The importance of migration as a livelihood option for Timorese will likely only grow. Increasing development is usually accompanied by increasing migration, despite anecdotal rhetoric to the contrary. Social and economic development amplifies people’s aspirations and capabilities to migrate. This is evident in both the burgeoning emigration evolving alongside Timor-Leste’s nascent development since independence, and the migration patterns of neighbors in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. With 60 percent of Timorese under 25 years old and scant employment opportunities for graduates streaming into the job market, emigration is particularly favorable for young people. In a 2007 study over eighty-five percent of respondents stated they did not know when their overseas remitters would return, suggesting Timorese emigration could become permanent.
So is migration good or bad for development? Migration optimists view the remittance boom, brain gain and diaspora engagement as examples of positive “bottom-up” or “self-help” development, where migrants are agents of change and innovation. In contrast, migration pessimists cite brain and brawn drain, arguing that remittances fuel conspicuous consumption of imported goods, rather than productive enterprise. This view posits that migration aggravates underdevelopment, encourages dependency and deepens global inequality.
In reality the impacts of migration on development are varied, multidimensional and highly contextual. It is vital for a country new to the migration-development nexus such as Timor-Leste to see beyond such dichotomous debates. Although individuals, families and even communities can benefit considerably, migration is no panacea to overcoming structural development constraints.
Courting a nation’s diaspora cannot solve misguided macroeconomic policies, corruption or socioeconomic inequalities. Politicians, policymakers and development practitioners in Timor-Leste must be wary of pinning hope on labor export. The conditions promoting emigration, such as low income and productivity, political instability and an underdeveloped private sector, are exactly those that discourage migrants from investing back home. The challenge for Timor-Leste lies in recognizing that while migration can potentially contribute to development, the specific economic, political and social circumstances in sending and receiving states determine to what extent this is maximized.
With a recent announcement by the International Organization of Migration that Timor-Leste is developing its first migration profile, it seems migration is finally on the radar. As the Brexit date looms this month the future of migration to the UK specifically is uncertain. Timorese communities have already been established in the Republic of Ireland, and may appear elsewhere in the European Union should this pathway be restricted. Either way, labor emigration is of growing significance to Timor-Leste’s development and for now the queues outside Dili’s Portuguese embassy – fondly known as the “passport shop” – remain long.
Claire Millar is an Australian social policy and community development practitioner, specializing in migration and cultural diversity. In 2017 she conducted research with the University of Amsterdam on Timorese migration to England and its relationship with Timor-Leste’s development.