Southeast Asia is a migrants’ hub in need of reforms and rights recognition

Oct 5, 2009

Bangkok — Countries in Southeast Asia should expand legal channels for migrants and strengthen protection of their rights in order to maximize the potential gains from human mobility, according to the 2009 Human Development Report launched in Bangkok and around the world today.
The Report, Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development, shows that in Southeast Asia, a major hub for migration, the rights of both regular and irregular migrants are often not respected. Many of those moving to improve their lives are treated as outsiders, with equal access to basic services, such as health care and education, denied. Despite the many gains associated with migration, the costs of moving—in cash outlays and in terms of the stress, uncertainty and sometimes hazards associated with the journey—can be high. To counter this, the Report puts forward a number of policy reforms that could generate greater gains and opportunities from migration.

Unequal opportunities
The Report underlines that the migration experience is highly specific. But unequal opportunities are a major driver of movement, it argues. Someone born in Thailand can expect to live seven more years, to have almost three times as many years of education, and to spend and save eight times as much as someone born in Myanmar. In turn, Thai migrants in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, Province of China, are paid at least four times as much as they would earn as low-skilled workers at home. These differences in opportunity create immense pressures for human movement. Intra-Asian migration—some 36 million people—accounts for nearly 20 percent of all nternational migration.

Allowing for greater human mobility—both within and between countries—has the potential to increase people’s freedom and improve the lives of millions around the world, the Report says. However, movement is strongly constrained by barriers, particularly by policies at home and in destination areas.
The costs and barriers associated with movement within a country can be high. Sometimes this can be traced to administrative restrictions, as in the ho khau system in Viet Nam, which requires residency permits based on household registration. This often results in unregistered workers being unable to access social services. Such formal restrictions to movement—as well as more informal barriers—are also costly, time consuming and cumbersome to maintain.

Costs are unnecessarily high
Many migrants in Asia make use of intermediaries to find and move to jobs overseas. The cost of such intermediary services varies widely, but is often expensive. For example, Indonesian workers pay about six months' salary to move to Malaysia and Singapore. The cost of moving from Viet Nam to Japan can be as high as six and a half years of a potential migrant’s annual income at home. Asian migrants moving to the Gulf often pay 25–35 percent of what they expect to earn over two or three years in recruitment and other fees.
Both internal and international migration involves extensive official documentation. These transaction costs are often high which in turn can inhibit mobility or lead to irregular movement. Under agreements between Thailand and Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic recruitment fees are equivalent to 4–5 months’ salary, processing time averages about four months and 15 percent of wages are withheld pending the migrant's return home. In contrast, smugglers reportedly charge the equivalent of only one month’s salary.

Good treatment and policy directions
Migrants, especially those with illegal status, are often denied fair treatment and access to services, such as health care and education. They sometimes encounter non-payment of wages or even sexual exploitation. Part of the Report’s policy recommendations call for observance of basic human rights and creating programmes that integrate migrants at the community level, including access to health care and education. The Report also stresses the role of civil society in combating xenophobia and ensuring fair treatment.
There are positive examples for the region of policies moving in the right direction. Thailand, for example, provides antiretroviral treatment to migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar, with support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Thailand also provides migrants with access to health insurance, and efforts are under way to reach irregular migrants. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration was created to regulate all aspects of recruitment, working closely with other agencies to help ensure protection of Filipino workers abroad.

Overcoming barriers recommends policies to expand legal channels for people to migrate temporarily or permanently. Reforms and practices must ensure basic rights and access to basic services for migrants.

“Opening doors for more low-skilled migrants comes with responsibility to protect the rights of those migrants,” says the Report’s lead author, Jeni Klugman. “This includes ensuring equal pay for equal work; decent working conditions and protection of health and safety; and easing restrictions so they can move more freely and can find safer and more secure places to work.”

Human Development Index
Also released today as part of the 2009 Human Development Report was the latest Human Development Index (HDI), a summary indicator of people’s well-being, combining measures of life expectancy, literacy, school enrolment and GDP per capita. It shows that despite progress in many areas over the last 25 years, the disparities in people’s well-being in rich and poor countries continue to be unacceptably wide. This year’s HDI has been calculated for 182 countries and territories and Viet Nam ranks 116.
To access the Human Development Report and the complete press kit please visit:

About this report: The Human Development Report continues to frame debates on some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. It is an independent report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Jeni Klugman is the lead author of the 2009 report. The Report is translated into more than a dozen languages and launched in more than 100 countries annually.
Contact informationPernille Goodall, One UN Communications team
Tel: 0438224 383, ext: 123  

Nguyen Viet Lan, One UN Communications team
Tel: 043822 4383, ext: 121

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