There is a need for greater cooperation with countries of destination receptive to diaspora initiatives in view of the increasing emphasis on the migration-development nexus: Dr. Piyasiri Wickramaseka

There should be due recognition, regular engagement with, and provision of support as needed to the diaspora communities by home countries, says Dr. Piyasiri Wickramasekara, Vice-President of Global Migration Policy Associates, Geneva, in an interview with Dr. Sadananda Sahoo, Editor, Roots and Routes.


SS: In a globalised world, International migration is affecting almost every country now. Do you think it is a positive sign?

PW: International migration can affect countries as origin, transit and destination, and some countries like India and Pakistan represent all three. The number of nation states have increased four times in the past century or so to about 200, which means more borders to cross. While it is true that migration is affecting many countries, mobility of people and labour is still limited compared to mobility of capital and trade flows. I have described international migration as the ‘missing link’ of globalization elsewhere.[1] The share of international migrants in the world has been around three per cent of the global population in the past six decades or so. There is a vast array of migration controls and restrictions across countries which limit international mobility.

Greater mobility across borders is to be welcomed for better employment and educational opportunities, higher global prosperity and cross cultural interchange. Families at home could benefit from more remittances and diaspora links.  Yet greater mobility can also lead to growing xenophobia and hostility towards migrants as being experienced in Europe, especially the UK, today. Forced migration through poverty, persecution, armed conflict or natural disasters can pose problems and cause tension between origin and destination countries. What we should strive for is a situation where migration occurs by free choice, and not by need, as argued by the Global Commission on International Migration. This of course, cannot be expected in the foreseeable future.

SS:How do you locate South Asia in the International migration map?

PW: South Asia hosted 12.4 million or 5.3 of the global migrant stock of 231.5 million  (immigrants) in 2013 according to the United Nations. It is also a major source region of low skilled and skilled migration flows to other parts of the world, and the World Bank has estimated the emigrant stock from South Asia at 27 million in 2010. For example, Indian skilled workers are found in many advanced countries. The main migration corridor for  temporary migrant workers from South Asia is the Gulf Cooperation Council countries including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. South Asian workers also migrate to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR and the Republic of Korea mainly as temporary workers. South Asia received 111 billion out of a total of 404 billion of global remittances to developing countries in 2013, and India with $ 70 billion in 2013 is the largest recipient of remittances in the world. At the same time, South Asia is host to millions of migrants from other South Asian countries. South Asia hosted 2.2 million refugees in 2013 with Pakistan hosting 1.7 million, mostly from Afghanistan. But no South Asian country has yet acknowledged itself as an immigration country. There is no visible regional labour market in South Asia  as in ASEAN (Association of South East Asian nations) where Malysia, Singapore and Thailand are major destination countries for ASEAN migrants. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is yet to place migration on its agenda unlike the ASEAN.

SS: Your scholarly work in the areas of International migration and labour issues is well known and you have also widely travelled. Can you tell about some of the best practices that any country adopted towards the migrant communities and why so?

PW: As a matter of fact, there are more ‘bad’ practices than ‘good’ practices in this area (I prefer to avoid the term ‘best’ practices since we cannot pretend to be aware of the universe of existing practices to select the best). There are different types of migration: permanent migration, temporary migration, forced migration, skilled and low skilled migration, and regular and irregular migration, among others. Good practices on labour migration are to be found in international instruments relating to migration, and the ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration contains a long list of good practices across countries arranged by principles and guidelines in international instruments, which is being regularly updated in the ILO database on good practices.[2] In regard to permanent migration, long-standing settler countries such as Australia, Canada  and New Zealand have evolved multicultural policies and good integration practices for migrants. They have also managed to build public consensus on the need for migrants and recognized their contribution to the economy and society.  These countries have laid down transparent and clear criteria for admission of migrants and their families. Ratification of international migrant worker Conventions and respect for their provisions through national legislation and enforcement is a good practice, but major destination countries have fallen behind in this respect. In the Asian region, the Philippines provides the best example of an origin country which has ratified all three international migrant worker Conventions (ILO Migration for employment Convention, 1949 (No.97), ILO Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143) and the 1990 International (UN) Convention on the Protection for the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families) as well as  the ILO  Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189). The European Union’s free mobility of people and labour for all EU citizens is a very good practice of what can be achieved through deep economic integration. EU citizens are entitled to equal treatment and non-discrimination when they move across borders.

It is less common to find good practices for admission and treatment of temporary migrant workers as seen from rampant abuse and exploitation of such workers in the Middle East. A clear admission of the need for low skilled migrant workers by the introduction of a legal migration programme for them is another good practice followed by the Taiwan province of China in the early 1990s and the Republic of Korea since 2004 when they introduced the Employment Permit System to bring in low skilled workers.  For some temporary migrants, Australia, Sweden and USA, among others, have defined pathways for permanent residency and citizenship unlike in the Gulf countries, where there are virtually no prospects for naturalisation for migrant workers and families despite  long stays.

Bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding to govern labour migration flows and protect migrant workers are another good practice in all regions of the world, and a number of South Asian governments have signed such agreements with the GCC countries, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea. They however, lack transparency and their implementation has fallen far short of expectations except perhaps in the case of the Republic of Korea.

In dealing with high incidence of irregular migration, amnesties and regularisation exercises present a very good practice as seen in the Spanish regularisation exercise of 2005, and in Southern European countries such as Italy. The USA carried a major regularisation exercise in 1986, but has not repeated it since then resulting in an irregular population exceeding 12 million today. Malaysia and Thailand in Asia have also introduced regularisation programmes, but their implementation has impinged on migrant rights in some cases.

SS: Over the time South Asians are found in almost every part of the globe we call them as “diaspora”.  Do you think the diasporic link is a welcome sign for the home countries?

PW: Diaspora communities develop through emigration of nationals to other countries over time. The estimates of the diasporas of South Asian countries vary widely with 21 million estimated for India followed by seven million in Pakistan. Overseas Indians and overseas Chinese form two of the largest diaspora groups in the world. Diasporas link home countries with countries of settlement. As the High Level Committee of the India diaspora stated: “The Indian Diaspora spans the globe and stretches across all the oceans and continents…… They live in different countries, speak different languages and are engaged in different vocations. What gives them their common identity are their Indian origin, their consciousness of their cultural heritage and their deep attachment to India”.

It is a welcome development in that home countries see an extension of their influence and cultures in other parts of the world. Overseas Indians are a well-recognised group in many developed countries such as Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA, and have influenced home country development through transfer of remittances, technology, investments, and influencing economic reforms. The downside of out-migration over time is the exodus of skilled persons which can constitute a brain drain, especially for small economies. But India and China have shown that diaspora communities can promote gainful brain circulation. The mere presence of a diaspora community however, does not guarantee that it is beneficial to the home country. The second and third generations may not have the same bonds and relations with home countries. There should be due recognition, regular engagement with, and provision of support as needed to the diaspora communities by home countries. At the same time, development in some countries can be negatively affected by actions of hostile diaspora community action that fuels and sustains  insurgencies and conflict as experienced by Eritrea, Kosovoa, Somalia and Sri Lanka. 


SS: There are hostilities toward the immigrants in many countries, including within South Asia. What should be done to overcome this?

PW: Indeed this is an unfortunate trend. The September 2011 events in the USA have also reinforced a worldwide tendency to view migrants, especially those in irregular status, as a security threat to host countries. Since no country in South Asia has acknowledged itself as an immigration country, most immigrants may find themselves in irregular or informal status. Free mobility is practised only between India and Nepal under their 1950 Friendship Treaty. Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees for several decades, and now there is growing resentment at their presence.

It is very important to educate the public on the contributions of immigrants to host society. Building public consensus on the need for migrants and their role in promoting growth, and cultural and social diversity should be highlighted by governments, the media and civil society. Host country governments should recognise that immigrants deserve the same treatment they expect for their emigrant nationals abroad. Thus they need adopt appropriate measures to avoid  xenophobic and racist tendencies in the form of strong legislation, and zero tolerance of such practices accompanied by effective enforcement. All immigrants should enjoy basic human rights as guaranteed by universal human rights instruments widely ratified by most countries. Equal treatment and non-discrimination are the cardinal principles promoted in international human rights instruments. Politicians and the media should play a responsible role without fuelling anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments among the public. The issue of Bangladesh migrants in India is one such example of a highly sensitive issue, with Indian politicians and the media often quoting exaggerated estimates of those in irregular status. Regional and bilateral cooperation and dialogue are essential to sort out such issues. Civil society organizations and human rights bodies should also play their role in advocating respect for human rights of immigrants.

SS: Which are the areas that need to be taken by national governments back home for facilitating the diasporic link for development back home?  

PW: The first step is getting to know the diaspora. Building a database of diaspora populations in different countries and their profiles is very important. At present few countries have access to this information. It is equally important to give due recognition to the diaspora communities and their diversity. Diaspora groups can be quite diverse in terms of skill and occupational profiles, ethnicity, migration status, and duration of stay abroad. A common tendency on the part of governments has been to bet on the intellectual or elite diaspora groups leaving out the less fortunate diaspora, low income and often low skilled.  It is also important to avoid a ‘golden goose’ approach in dealing with the diaspora and treating them merely as a resource to be exploited for the benefit of home countries. Diaspora engagement is a two way process where home countries also should reach out and support diasporas as needed. A conducive policy environment at home is very important in the form of stable political systems, a growing economy, respect for democratic rights, transparency and access to information. This is more important than providing costly incentives and concessions to an already favoured diaspora community. Embassies and consulates should play a pro-active role in interacting, supporting and engaging with the diaspora. There is also a need for greater cooperation with countries of destination which are now more receptive to diaspora initiatives in view of the increasing emphasis on the migration-development nexus. The second and third generations also need to be encouraged to develop links with the home countries.  

On the institutional side, a number of countries in Asia and Africa have established dedicated ministries and high level councils to promote diaspora relations. The Indian Government has launched several initiatives to mainstream diasporas including diaspora youth programmes, annual high level diaspora forums, establishment of the Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre, and setting up a Prime Minsters’ Global Advisory Council of People of Indian Origin. At the state level, a good practice is the Department of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) to safeguard the interests of Non-Resident Keralites (the Kerala diaspora) set up by the Government of Kerala in 1996. The Philippines established the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) in 1980 to promote and uphold the interests of Filipino emigrants and permanent residents abroad. Pakistan has developed a National Policy for Overseas Pakistanis for maximizing the welfare and empowerment of Pakistani diaspora working in different countries in the world

SS: Can you please tell about the role of Sri Lankan diaspora in home country’s development? We hear that Sri Lankan diaspora’s engagement is more related to religious philanthropy than other social sector engagement.

PW: There is very limited information on the Sri Lankan diaspora and their contributions. The Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare Sri Lanka attempted to establish  an online database for registration of the diaspora, but I gather that the response has been poor. The Ministry acknowledges that while overseas Sri Lankans are one of the most worthy assets of Sri Lanka, the government is yet to take positive initiatives to harness their  potential for mutual benefit.  There has been no attempt to develop a coherent policy or establish institutional mechanisms to engage with the diaspora as yet.

There is a sizeable diaspora in Western countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA because of permanent migration of skilled persons over several decades, and also because of high levels of emigration of persons of Tamil ethnicity during years of conflict as refugees to neighbouring India and other destinations and also for seeking better economic opportunities to many Western countries. This has given rise to a divisive diaspora which has negatively contributed to sustain the insurgency and conflict situation in Sri Lanka. Following the end of the conflict by the Sri Lankan government, the President made an appeal for unity and diaspora support for the reconstruction of the North and the East, but the response from the Tamil diaspora abroad has been very limited, who still seem to be following a separatist agenda.

I do not have much information on religious philanthropy of the Sri Lankan diaspora, which may be mostly on an ad hoc basis. The best demonstration of the diaspora potential was during the 2004 Tsunami disaster when diverse groups of the diaspora across the world mobilised large amounts of funds and goods for the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction of   affected areas. However, this diaspora engagement was short-lived, and we are yet to see the emergence of strong Sri Lanka diaspora organizations in major countries of destiantion

SS: Thank you


Dr. Piyasiri Wickramasekara is Vice-President of Global Migration Policy Associates, Geneva - an international NGO of migration experts; he is an internationally recognized expert in development, migration and employment issues. He obtained his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Cambridge (UK). He joined the International Labour Organization in 1985, and was Senior Migration Specialist in the International Migration Branch of the ILO from 2001 to 2010. Previously he was Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Sri Lanka, 1968-1984. His expertise covers: Asian labour migration, governance of migration, migration and development, circular migration, rights of migrant workers, irregular migration, and migration statistics. He steered the development of the National Labour Migration Policy in Sri Lanka in 2007-08 which has been a model for other countries including some in Africa. He was part of the team that developed the ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration (2006) and was joint-author of the 2010 ILO flagship product, International labour migration: A rights-based approach. Recent publications include "Circular Migration: A triple win or a dead end?" and "Labour migration in South Asia: A review of issues, policies and practices."



Interview Date:   Tuesday, Jul 08, 2014
Person Name:   Dr. Piyasiri Wickramasekara

© 2012-20 GRFDT, All Rights Reserved.Maintained by GRFDT.Designed by Abhinav Jain