Labor migration is often seen as a challenge for the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, their people and societies. But it can also be seen as an opportunity: Remittance flows in the region represent a huge, largely untapped development potential. Development of this potential requires more complete information and knowledge on migrants, their aims, and desires, and on ways to use and invest the financial and social remittances. And support is needed for migrants and the families they leave behind.
Migration is not a new phenomenon in the region. People have always been on the move to improve their lives and the lives of their families, to learn new skills, to gain new experiences, to find better jobs, and to flee insecurity, disaster and famine. But the increased awareness of opportunities elsewhere, better communication technologies and falling transportation costs have made mountain people more mobile and enabled them to migrate at unprecedented rates.
Why do rural people migrate? Research carried out by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and its partners showed that social networks—migrant friends and relatives—are one of the most important influences. Others include low agricultural productivity, a lack of interest in working in agriculture, a lack of basic facilities in villages, and the prospect of better opportunities in cities. Many people who are disillusioned with rural life and agricultural work migrate to pursue educational opportunities.
For many mountain families, remittances are the major or only source of income. Although the remittances by individual migrants are low in volume, they still make a significant contribution to household income in many areas, especially for poor households. They provide a safety net for the large number of dependents left behind.
But financial remittances are only part of the story, only one of the ways that migration contributes to socioeconomic development. Migrants also bring back or transmit home new knowledge, ideas, skills, perceptions, and technologies from their experience away. In this way they act as powerful agents for social and economic transformation. Research in Pakistan, for example, showed that households that included migrants had a different attitude towards education; their rates of enrolment for girls increased by more than 50 percent, their dropout rates declined by more than 50 percent, and the number of years of schooling increased by one and a half years for girls and by one year for boys. Health standards have also been seen to rise significantly among migrants’ households. Infrastructure in the villages is needed to put these influences to positive use.
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Migration has particular impacts for women. For the most part it is the men who leave their villages, and the women and children who stay behind. In the absence of men, women become responsible for most economic activities as well as for their households. This increases their workload, but it can also enhance their role in the community, improve their social status, and improve the outlook for their children.
However, migration entails high social and financial costs, and as long as people will continue to migrate, support is needed to minimize the drawbacks for them. To finance their initial costs, most migrants take credit from money lenders who charge exorbitant rates of interest, because formal financial services are rarely available in the Himalayan mountains. Sending remittances can also be expensive and inconvenient. Microfinance products such as savings, investment, and insurance packages should be targeted to rural mountain areas. Investment and entrepreneurship opportunities, infrastructure, and access to markets can all help make the most of financial and knowledge-related remittances. To this end, some of the attention and funding that is now going to the already crowded urban centers needs to be diverted to the rural areas. Both the public and private sectors can bring about benefits in this sphere, and can draw benefits themselves.
MORE THAN LEAVING THE COUNTRY
When most people think of migration in the Himalayan context, they think of migration across borders—for example, to India or to the countries of the Persian Gulf. But the relatively greater attention focused on international migration has been deflecting attention from the even bigger magnitude of internal migration, and what it means for the villages and for the already clogged urban areas. Attention needs to be given to the working and living conditions of these migrants. Encouragement is also needed for the development of provincial centers, to stem the flow of people to the cities.
There is no doubt that in the coming decades, migration will persist in the region and in other mountain areas of the world, driven by globalization, food insecurity, climate change, and escalating income disparities. Rather than addressing it as a problem, we need policies to address the negative aspects and to ensure that migrants and the families left behind are supported to make the best of their opportunities.
Hoermann is Economist and Team Leader, and Kollmair, formerly Programme Manager, in Sustainable Livelihoods and Poverty Reduction at ICIMOD