Clare G Richardson-Barlow

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Managing Migration Flows in the Refugee Crisis: A Global Perspective

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This post is part 2 of a 3 part series of articles originally written for the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professional’s Summit in Brussels, Belgium. It has been reprinted on the professional website of the author with permission from the German Marshall Fund. The original post can be found here, along with other interesting articles on foreign policy issues and the Young Professional’s Summit. Part 1 can be found here.

Participants at Day Two of the German Marshall Fund’s Young Professionals’ Summit saw a number of fascinating, lively discussions firsthand. I was particularly struck by the first discussion of the day, covering the current refugee crisis in Europe and its impact on the European Union itself. In the following analysis I will consider the day’s discussion and contrast the transatlantic community’s current refugee crisis with the history of mass migration in the Far East.

Globally, it appears we are at a turning point in the refugee crisis and Europe’s response to that crisis. There is a widespread belief among policy makers that there is a limit to Europe’s absorption of migrants.

Despite the warning signs, the crisis has startled Europe; on the one hand some policy experts believe that the mass migration of people to Europe has only become a crisis because Europe has made it a crisis. The total number of refugees is, by many accounts, a fraction of a percentage of the total population in many European countries. This is, instead of an absorption issue, a structural issue. There is currently a structural mismatch of policies aimed at addressing the social, political, and logistical support of increased migration into a region, long having relatively porous borders.

The refugee crisis in Europe has been front news in part due to the extreme risks refugees are willing to go to in order to leave their home country.

Migration crises are not new, nor are they passing. Europe has a notion that the refugee crisis is temporary, however, globally, there is actually a trend towards the movement of people. Rising rates of economic development, political crises, and technology advancements have aided in the increased movement of people in the 21st century. As one speaker put it, Europe is now a continent of immigration, not emigration.

It strikes me, as an Asia policy expert, lessons and solutions are to be learned from Asia. Asia, too, has been experiencing an increased flow of migrants across borders. Migration in Asia has included internal migration as well as regional immigration, and lessons can be learned from the success and failure of both.

The Internal Hukou Migration Registration System of China

Internal migration in China has a shaky past, marred most dramatically by the Hukou System. Thirty years ago, internal migration in China was heavily restricted by the government’s policy surrounding the Hukou system. The Hukou housing registration system (aka Hukou system) attempts to lock people both to their region (rural/urban in a certain province) and to their sector of production (agricultural/non-agricultural) by linking their place of residence to their entitlement of welfare and social amenities.

Acting as a domestic passport system, the Hukou system inadvertently created two classes of internal migrants — “Hukou migrants” and “non-Hukou migrants,” also known as “floating residents.” Hukou migrants were migrants with local residency rights, allowed to work and live in particular areas outside of their home, while non-Hukou migrants were migrants without local residency rights.

According to China Daily reports, Shanghai (above) is the most popular city in China for the “floating migrant” population. (Photo Credit: Carlos ZGZ)

The challenges the Hukou system has posed to internal migration and economic wellbeing have gradually resulted in the government recognizing such phenomenon is not only inevitable — the increasing amount of migration has become a crucial human resource necessary for the rapid growth of economy in China’s cities. Hence, in response, the Hukou system has been cautiously yet gradually liberalized.

The major reason for the liberalization of the Hukou system has been increased mobility among rural residents since the 1980’s. This increased mobility has led to difficulty in maintaining effective forms of registration. Because the system was designed for an immobile population, increased mobility has directly challenged old ways, most notably, a temporary resident registration system.

Since 1997 major changes to the Hukou system were enacted by the central government, all of which have further liberated the citizens of China and their ability to provide labor in all corners of the country. Certain groups were allowed streamlined procedures and relaxed restrictions; the government abolished the system that set a limit on the number of migrants to small cities; the once experimental “talent-based” selection migration permit, that was once for specific provinces, was extended to the whole country; and the government experimented with abolishing the distinction between rural and urban, being practiced in some areas until more data could be used for further reform.[2] All of these changes meant more citizens were able to migrate more freely, providing both the government and the people with better opportunities for development and innovation.

China’s floating population work in a variety of industries in major cities throughout the country, including restaurants like this one in Nanjing, China.

While the changes and gradual easing of the Hukou system over the last 10 years have been positive in many ways, they have also created unforeseen problems. Today the effectiveness of the Hukou system is questionable, as it has become harder for the government and relative agencies to monitor workers outside of state-run jobs. This means that while the Hukou system is steadily improving in terms of reducing the disparities it once created between urban and rural populations, its overall success in achieving its designated goals — such as curbing illegal migration within China and classify citizens’ socioeconomic contribution — are slowly becoming less evident. Today the system remains relatively intact. Consequently, the criticisms from within China and outside are bringing about an increased concern for revision.

As far as comparisons to Europe go, there is much to be learned in terms of what not to do for internal migrant and labor identification.

Variations of this identification system have been improved upon in places like New York, but innovation is a continuing process, and required for responsible and effective labor migration monitoring.

Labor Immigration and Emigration in the Asia-Pacific

The Asia-Pacific has also experienced significant emigration and immigration as a result of global conflicts from the mid-1900’s to today. The list of migration crises in modern Asia goes on and on: Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam war in 1975, Chinese migrants in the late 1980’s, North Korean migrants, Central Asian migrants following the collapse of the Soviet Union; Chinese Tibetan refugees, Bhutanese refugees in India, Burmese in Thailand and Bangladesh, Muslims from Thailand and the Philippines, both internally displaced and internationally placed Sri Lankan refugees, and Indonesian migrants in the 1990’s round out this list, which is likely missing many others.

Intra-Asian labor migration has grown dramatically since the 1990’s, particularly migration into newly industrialized economies (NIE). While the portion of migrant workers in some Asian countries, like South Korea, is relatively small compared to European counterparts, other countries like Singapore rely heavily on migrant labor. The Philippines in Southeast Asia is a rare example of a country that has actually encouraged emigration, as a result of the value of remittances, roughly equal to 10% of GDP.

There are a number of policy lessons from the many Asian examples provided. One is that long-term migration policy planning is necessary, but lacking in many countries (see short term Chinese policies discussed earlier). The Asian example has also shown us that the dominant, hard-line Asia-Pacific government policies, often focused around ideas of cultural and ethnic homogeneity, will not stop illegal migration. In fact, illegal migration will continue as long as economies experience growth and decline, further exacerbated by conflict. Push factors that are leading refugees into dangerous, uncertain situations in order to leave their home countries are so pressing that people will find a way.

But the policy solutions, adaptations, and adjustments are undeniable and perhaps the answer to joint global leadership in migration and immigration issues, regardless of the region.

Europe is not Asia, this is true. But the policy solutions, adaptations, and adjustments are undeniable and perhaps the answer to joint global leadership in migration and immigration issues, regardless of the region.


[1] Tuñón, Max, “Internal Migrant Labor in China: Features and Responses,” ILO Office (Beijing, 2006), 18.

[2] Wang Fei-Ling, “Reformed Migration Control and New Targeted People: China’s Hukou System in the 2000s,” The China Quarterly (2004), 119–131.

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