South-East Asia: the world’s most migratory place

The countries in south-east Asia, often referred to as the 10 block ASEAN group, have seen more people move for work between each other than anywhere else on earth in the last 20 years.


This was the finding from the World Bank’s ‘Migrating to Opportunity’ report released in Singapore this week.

Although ASEAN’s migrant populations are numerically smaller than other parts of the world, their rate of inter-country movement has been much higher than any other global region in the last 20 years – and the only one substantially positive.

The report only documents official migration and it noted that the sizeable illegal migrant communities would make the total numbers even greater.

Massive economic growth in south-east Asia is a key reason, but so is the big inter-regional diversity that exists eg. Singapore is 25% richer than the poorest country; Thailand has an average population age twice that of Laos – creating strong pull factors. These two counties plus Malaysia are the largest “receiving” countries, taking 90% of the inwards migrant flows.


However, inappropriate policies among countries are cutting into the potentially greater benefits of lobour mobility. Astonishingly 83% of the migrants have less than secondary education, wages are typically very low and cases of worker exploitation are well documented in many countries.

The report recommends five areas for countries to act on to improve the benefits of labour mobility. These include improving the governance of country migration systems, adopting Singapore and other leaders’ smart data tools for improved decision making, and better balancing migrant worker protection with economic development policies.


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