Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


June 1998, Volume 5, Number 6

Conference: Crisis and Migration

A May 1998 conference organized by the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila noted that the southeast Asian financial crisis was triggered by the 1996 export slowdown, which led to skepticism about continued economic growth. The influx of foreign capital slowed, current account deficits soared, and currencies had to be devalued, which in turn led asset-price bubbles to burst. As the value of hotels and factories fell, construction ground to a halt and workers were laid off. Countries and companies that assumed sustained economic growth were ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of the crisis. For example, many Asian countries have little or no unemployment insurance for laid-off workers.

What are the consequences of the crisis for migration? Are there large-scale deportations? Are unemployed natives replacing migrants? Is illegal immigration increasing? The conference report noted that: (1) only three major labor-importers --Korea, Malaysia and Thailand--and one major labor exporter--Indonesia--were hard hit by the crisis; (2) despite thin safety nets, natives are not rushing to replace migrants, as in Thai fishing and Malaysian plantations, where new foreign workers can still be hired; (3) some recent rural-urban migrants in, for example, Thailand may return to their rural homes, but they are not likely to resume farming; (4) illegal immigration may be increasing as reduced demand confronts increased supply, but there are few firm indications of more illegal migration in Spring 1998.

Only Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan have policies and mechanisms in place to import unskilled foreign workers; Japan and Korea import such workers as foreign trainees, and Thailand tolerated the presence of unauthorized workers. Spring 1998 estimates of the number of legal foreign workers are: Korea 200,000 to 300,000; Japan and Malaysia, 1.1 million each; Thailand, 316,000; Singapore, 506,000; and Taiwan, 211,000; estimates of the number of unauthorized foreigners are: Malaysia, 560,000; Thailand, 943,000; Korea, 123,000; Japan, 277,000.

Strategies for returning migrants to make jobs available for unemployed natives range from "free-exit" policies to stepped-up enforcement. Many Asian countries fine or jail illegal workers. Under free-exit policies, illegal workers can leave without penalty. Korea permitted illegal workers to leave without penalty between December 1997 and March 1998, and 46,600 did so.

There are plans to return hundreds of thousands of migrants, forcibly if necessary, from Malaysia and Thailand in 1998, but as the critical date gets closer (August 15, 1998 in Malaysia), more and more employers are requesting "exceptions." Across southeast Asia, relatively few foreign maids have been sent home, but employers of maids and other foreign workers have attempted to reduce their wages, reasoning that devaluation increased the value of earnings in the home-country currency.

The three major sending nations face very different prospects. Indonesia faces the prospect of massive returns from Malaysia, with little prospect of employment in Indonesia and few prospects for redeploying Indonesians to, for example, the Gulf states. Bangladesh, on the other hand, sends 80 percent of its 200,000 annual worker outflow to the Middle East. The Philippines has the most diverse portfolio of destinations: perhaps one million of the three to four million Filipinos abroad are in Malaysia, Thailand and Korea, and half of them are long-term residents of Sabah.


Three phrases mark most recommendations about southeast Asia: job-creating growth, more democracy and transparency, and regional cooperation. Many participants noted that regional organizations have so far avoided dealing with migration, including the Asian and Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

There may be more bilateral cooperation to facilitate returns and to prevent illegal immigration, as between Malaysia and Indonesia, but the report cautioned that such bilateral agreements should include clauses that respect human rights. The report called for legalization of long-term resident illegal workers. Finally, the report noted that the inability of countries to open and close the foreign worker tap at will is proving the truth of the maxim that there is nothing more permanent than temporary foreign workers.

Conference contact: Graziano Battistella: />