Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011
People - Demographic trends
International migration
Data sources: United Nations Population Division. World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision. Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2008 Revision.

Migration from, to and within Asia and the Pacific is a complex and dynamic phenomenon that is governed not only by economic factors, but political as well. Streams of temporary labour migrants flow between countries, changes in national borders can instantly transform residents into international migrants, refugees flee political turmoil, and more efficient and affordable transportation systems makes migration across the globe increasingly feasible.

In 2010, Asian and Pacific countries collectively hosted a foreign population of 53 million persons. This figure is similar to the 1990 figure, two decades ago. Worldwide international migration has been steadily increasing over the last two decades, thus the Asia-Pacific share of the global foreign population has proportionally decreased over time – from roughly 34% of the world’s foreign population in 1990 to 25% in 2010. Considering that 61% of the world’s population live in the Asia-Pacific region, these figures are relatively low.

In Asia and the Pacific, 1 in 3 of the foreign population live in North and Central Asia. At almost 18 million people, this is the largest foreign population among the Asia-Pacific subregions. Paradoxically, only 5% of the total population in the region lives in that subregion. The subregion hosting the second largest foreign population is South and South-West Asia, with almost 16 million. Together, the two subregions host nearly two thirds of the foreign population in Asia and the Pacific.

Although migratory movement is high within these two subregions, a large proportion of the foreign population may show up in migration statistics simply because of the redrawing of national boundaries over the past century. When country borders change, persons who had been residents of one country before the change automatically become forigners under a different national administration without having moved.

In South and South-West Asia, the separation between India and Pakistan and between Pakistan and Bangladesh are the most dramatic examples of this phenomenon. North and Central Asia experienced a similar situation in conjunction with the breakup of the Soviet Union. For example, many of the foreign population in such countries as Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan are ethnic Russians or Ukrainians who had moved to other Soviet republics within the borders of the former Soviet Union. Following the independence of the Central Asian republics, many became classified as foreign without crossing international borders. Likewise, after independence and the reestablishment of the republics, many ethnic minorities moved from their country of birth to their countries of origin, such as ethnic Russians who returned to the Russian Federation and ethnic Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, adding to the foreign population.

The countries in the region hosting the largest foreign population are the Russian Federation (12.3 million), India (5.4 million), Australia (4.7 million) and Pakistan (4.2 million). Although the majority of migrants in the Russian Federation are actually returnees of Russian ethnicity, the Russian Federation is also an important destination for labour migrants, mainly from Central Asia. Given economic as well as demographic imbalances in the North and Central Asian subregion, migration from Central Asia to the Russian Federation is likely to continue to rise in the foreseeable future.

The share of the foreign population is often seen as an indicator of the openness of a country or region to migration. In small countries or territories of the region, the share of the foreign population compared to the overall population tends to be higher than in large countries. The countries or territories with the largest shares of foreign population to total population are all small, open economies, often with a political status that allies them to another, larger country. The five with the largest share are: Northern Mariana Islands; Macao, China; Nauru; Guam; and American Samoa. For example, many residents of Macao, China, were born in mainland China. Similarly, many residents in American Samoa were born in the United States of America. Macao, China; Hong Kong, China; and Singapore are all important destinations for labour migrants in the Asia-Pacific region and have particularly open immigration policies towards skilled immigrants; this is reflected in the large foreign population proportion in 2010, 55%, 39% and 39%, respectively.

Changes in measuring international migration

Measuring migration is a difficult statistical exercise. Moreover, there is no standard definition of what constitutes an international migrant.

One way to measure migration is to estimate the foreign population as the number of foreign-born persons or foreign citizens (a foreign citizen is a person living in a country that is different from their country of citizenship) in a given country at one point in time – an estimate of the migrant stock. Data on foreign-born persons or foreign citizens are usually taken from censuses or administrative records (especially in countries with a good vital registration system). This indicator has the merit of simplicity, but it does not capture actual migratory movements. In Asia and the Pacific, temporary labour migration has become the most prevalent form of international migration from and within the region.

Data related to the migrant stock do not tell all that should be known. Existing data often indicate only the number of foreign or foreign-born persons in a country, not where they come from. The legal status of migrants may not always be identified: permanent residents, refugees, temporary workers, students and others are all lumped together as migrants. Little sex- or age-disaggregated data on migrants are available.

Another way to consider migration is through flow statistics – how many migrants have left the country or entered the country during a certain period of time. While migrant stocks reflect long-term developments, migrant flows represent migratory activity in a certain year and can also capture short-term movements. Detailed data on stocks as well on flows are essential inputs in designing relevant national policies. Statistics on migrant flows are usually taken from administrative records and lack comparability because of differences in registration methods and categorization by different countries.

Another difficulty in collecting migration statistics is the “irregular” status of many migrants. Some migrants may have entered a country without proper documentation. Others may have entered a country legitimately, but may not have the proper documentation to work or reside in the country they entered. In some cases, a migrant’s work permit may have expired. Such migrants with partial or no documentation might go uncounted because they do not show in administrative records; although they could be counted in censuses as all household members are theoretically captured regardless of legal status. However, irregular migrants may be reluctant to respond to census questions, especially those regarding their status because of fear of repercussions.

Although this Statistical Yearbook uses the most authoritative, internationally comparable data sources, the data on migrant stocks in the region must be interpreted with caution and contextual understanding.

Figure I.8 – Foreign population, selected Asian and Pacific countries and areas, 1990 and 2010

Figure I.8 – Foreign population, selected Asian and Pacific countries and areas, 1990 and 2010

The share of foreign population in most countries of the region has changed little in terms of percentage points in the past two decades, with some notable exceptions. The shares of foreign population in Singapore and Brunei Darussalam increased significantly between 1990 and 2011 – in Singapore from 24% to 39% and in Brunei Darussalam from 29% to 37%. In absolute terms, the foreign population more than doubled in both cases. In Kyrgyzstan, the share of foreign population dropped from 14% in 1990 to 4.2% in 2010 and in Armenia from 19% to 10%. In small countries, a change of several thousand migrants can significantly change the overall share, as has been the case in some Pacific islands. Another significant change happened in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the foreign population decreased from 7.8% in 1990 to 2.9% in 2010, a decrease of approximately 2 million migrants, primarily due to repatriation of refugees from Afghanistan.

Another important indicator of migratory movements is the net migration rate – the number of international immigrants minus the number of emigrants over a period, divided by the average population of the receiving country over that period. Countries with a positive net migration rate are net countries of immigration, while those with a negative net migration rate are countries of emigration. Net migration rates in the Asia-Pacific region show clearly that low income countries are generally countries with emigration, while high income countries are countries of immigration. Countries or territories with the largest average annual net migration rate (per 1,000 population) between 2005 and 2010 were Singapore (31), Macao, China (20), and Australia (11). Countries with the lowest net migration (emigration countries) rates were Samoa (-17), Tonga (-16) and the Federated States of Micronesia (-16). Notably all are Pacific island developing economies.

Figure I.9 – Net migration rates, highest and lowest of Asian and Pacific countries and areas, annual average 2005-2010

Figure I.9 – Net migration rates, highest and lowest of Asian and Pacific countries and areas, annual average 2005-2010

The complexity and dynamism of migration is illustrated in several countries that are net countries of emigration, while they also have a large foreign population. For example, India, Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran host large numbers of migrants but experienced net emigration between 2005 and 2010. Net emigration does not imply that immigration is low, only that emigration is higher than immigration. Note that the foreign population may reflect migratory history while net migration rates reflect current trends in migration.

The shape of current labour migration flows

Temporary labour migration has become a prominent feature of many societies in the region. Migrant workers’ remittances have become important sources of income for Governments as well as households. Intergovernmental memorandums of understanding enable movement between countries for a limited contract period of temporary labour migrants who are usually not allowed to take their families with them. Contracts can be extended; or some migrants return to their country of origin and migrate out again. Temporary labour migrants do not typically aim at permanent resettlement, which distinguishes temporary labour migration from much of the historical migration, for example, to Australia, Europe, New Zealand or North America.

In Asia and the Pacific, some examples of significant flows of temporary labour migrant workers include:

  • North and Central Asian migrants go to other North and Central Asian countries (for example from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan);
  • Indian peninsular migrants go to the Middle East and to South-East Asia, mainly Singapore and Malaysia;
  • The migration pattern of South-East Asian migrants from Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines and Viet Nam are diverse. Migrants from Myanmar go mainly to Thailand (the majority through irregular channels because regular channels are difficult and costly); migrants from Indonesia go mainly to Malaysia, the Middle East, the Republic of Korea and Singapore; Filipino migrants go to the Middle East, Malaysia and Japan; and migrants from Viet Nam mainly go to Japan, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea.

The Republic of Korea has recently emerged as a new destination, attracting migrants from South and South-West Asia and South-East Asia.

Women make up a considerable share of temporary labour migrants, especially from Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines and Sri Lanka. In some years and from some countries, outflows of female migrants exceed those of males. The number of women from Nepal migrating to work abroad is increasing. Most female migrants work as domestic workers or in care service industries.

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