Migration a’ transnational perspective in Southeast Asia

• By George Shan

Since the first humans left the plains of Southeast Asia, the history of mankind has been defined by the process of migration. Nation states have at different times in the past and to a large degree tried to stop the movement of people around the world and this can also be seen as a relatively new phenomenon.  It is important to understand that the process of migration is not in itself the issue; however, the processes that have manifested because of migration have been under scrutiny.

Southeast Asia has been shaped by significant population movements since ancient times. The region spans across 11 countries, including Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Viet Nam, with an estimated population of 669 million people as of mid-year 2020. Consequently, making it a crucial sub-region for labor migration.

Migrant workers have long formed the backbone of many Southeast Asian economies. The region’s societies exhibit high levels of mobility, both within and across borders, with individuals seeking better opportunities and livelihoods. Migration patterns typically flow from rural to urban areas, while internationally, workers often move from countries considered “poor” to those perceived as offering more economic promise. Moreover, Southeast Asia vibrant and bustling metropolises heavily rely on two distinct categories of labor migrants, international labor migrants and those migrating from rural to urban areas. These migrants typically demonstrate a willingness to undertake jobs often classified as 3-D (difficult, dangerous, and demeaning jobs). Moreover, they frequently face unstable working conditions, low pay, and restricted access to social protection. Responding to the geographical demands for specific goods and services, moving across borders to meet these needs. These migrant workers are in Industries such as construction, manufacturing and agriculture rely heavily on migrant labor to meet their demands.

Therefore, this vast migrant workforce plays a crucial role in key sectors that drive development and growth across Southeast Asia. Having lived in Thailand for five months myself, it is quite clear that this region also faces one of the highest rates of internal displacement globally. Many migrants from places such as Myanmar, Lao and Malaysia are migrating to countries such as Thailand or Singapore for a better standard of living which is motivated by economic reasons, poverty or seeking better access to education and health.  This global phenomenon, termed replacement migration occurs when migrants from middle-income nations move to higher-income nations, and the companies they leave behind recruit migrants from poorer countries to address the growing labor shortages. 

It is evident that this trend highlights the changing dynamics of global labor markets and the increasing interconnectedness of economies in the modern world. So, these migrant workers are not merely cogs in the global production machine but essential for the functioning of these networks. So, southeast Asia is no exception to this global trend. 

So, it is important to understand that this concept of globalization and who part takes in globalization is very complex. However, to ensure a more resilient and inclusive future, adopting a transnational perspective takes reign. I believe that the Namibian nation also needs to embrace a new perspective on development to build   a more sustainable and equitable model of regional integration that benefits both migrant workers and the economies they contribute to. Notwithstanding, that development of inclusive migration governance systems that consider the transnational nature of workers lives and work. Being part of the ‘The Southern African Development Development Community’ (SADC) has been a right direction to achieving this regional integration, however, there is more room to be regionally integral. Therefore, development studies need to adopt a more transnational approach recognizing the cross-border flows of people, goods, and capital. This will allow for the creation of more effective development policies that address future regional challenges and opportunities.