Regional migration: A feasible option for livelihood diversification for the Mekong’s poor?

Migration is not a recent phenomenon. For centuries, people have moved across borders for economic and political reasons. Globally, there were 191 million people living outside their country of birth, or 3% of the world’s population (UN, 2005). This number has also increased further with the contribution of transport and communications to facilitating mobility. The remittances sent back home from this rising category of workers abroad have an immense impact on the living standards of people in their country of origin. It is estimated that international remittances reached approximately US$72 billion globally, which exceeds total development aid flows to the developing world (Ratha, 2003). Over the course of the last few decades, the development debate has increasingly focused on the role of migration remittance and its impact on poverty reduction. The result of a World Bank study (2005) suggests that a 10% increase in the share of remittances in a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) will lead to a 1.2% decline in the share of the population living on less than US$1 a day and a 2.0% decline in the extent of poverty.

Migration is a significant issue in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), which consists of Cambodia, China (Yunnan and Guangxi), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. International labour migration from GMS countries is steadily increasing, both within GMS countries and to other countries. The estimated number of migrants from GMS countries (except China) was over 6 million in 2004 (IOM 2008). Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar are considered to be among the world poorest countries, classified as least-developed countries by the United Nations. They are also situated in one of the most economically-dynamic regions in Asia. As these countries move from centrally-planned economies to permit greater flows of goods and investment across borders, there has been new regional economic space created, which encompasses shared natural resources.

Human mobility follows greater economic integration. Despite the volume and increasing size of international remittances, little attention has been paid to study the poverty impact of migrationremittance transfers on the community and country of origin. The majority of studies so far have concentrated on living and working conditions and labour rights in the recipient country.

The main purpose of this study is to contribute to the development debate and inform policy related to the challenges and opportunities for sustainable livelihoods and resources in the GMS. In particular, it investigates the impact of migration at the level of the community-of-origin of migrants, exploring migration as an option for livelihood enhancement and resilience building. The specific objectives of the project are to identify and better understand the following aspects of the evolving migration debate in the GMS:

  • Role/impacts of international migration (both positive and negative) on livelihood diversification among rural communities and households.
  • Impacts on country-of-origin of the migrants: economic, social and environmental impacts at the household and community level. These impacts include but are not limited to impacts on social and natural capital and uses, e.g., natural resources, common property resources, resulting from remittances.
  • Function of relevant institutions (formal and informal) as possible entry points for pro-poor policy measures and interventions.

This study contributes to quantifying and qualifying the impacts of migration–remittances on the livelihoods of community and household-of-origin of migrants from the GMS. It also identifies policy support measures and interventions to enable migration to contribute to poverty reduction to the greatest extent possible. The study includes: 1) a literature review of migration in the GMS and a summary of the current knowledge and identification of research directions, especially related to resilience, sustainable livelihoods, and rural development; 2) field study and a policy review conducted in three countries of the GMS by three study teams in eight provinces in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, with household surveys by questionnaires covering over 600 families; and, lastly, 3) video footage of case studies in Myanmar highlighting the plight of migrants from Myanmar as an illustration to policy makers and other decision makers of the nature and urgency of concerns linked with migration. This regional report, thus, draws from three country reports and a literature review.

Key findings

This study confirms the finding of previous research that international migration and the remittances it facilitates have a range of benefits to family of migrants and their community-of-origin in GMS countries. These include monetary, but also non-monetary benefits, such as those related with the transfer of skills and new knowledge. The remittances sent home by migrants help their families to enhance their livelihoods (e.g., for food, clothing, shelter, health care and medicine). In some cases, remittances help repay accumulated debt that was incurred prior to migration. The contribution of remittances is often critical to meet basic needs given the limited employment opportunity in the country of origin outside subsistence farming. In addition, remittances enable investment by the migrant’s family in better farm tools and seeds. Migrants who return home also bring with them new knowledge and skills that can contribute to generating jobs and better use of resources in the community-of-origin in farming and non-farming activities.


At the community level, remittance flows to communities-of-origin, in many instances, revitalize social welfare activities leading to increased capacity to make and improve public goods. This includes constructing and maintaining village roads and bridges, repairing temples, and building village meeting halls and public spaces. 

Though it is difficult to determine the extent to which internal migration and remittances contribute to national poverty reduction or the poverty rate, it is clear that migration and the resulting remittances from migrants help to reduce the severity of poverty in recipient families and communities. Remittances act to absorb financial shocks, help recipients to cope with adversity, provide some means of accrual for capital and investment in human resources. This is important as farm enterprises are becoming less important as the sole supporter of rural livelihood. Moreover, there is scant nonfarm work available in the country-of-origin of migrants. There is a large body of literature concerning the volume of remittance flows to the national economy as well as the macro-economic contribution towards GDP. However, this research emphasizes the importance of enabling remittances to flow directly to remote rural communities and families. In terms of distribution, remittances have the potential to be more effective for poverty reduction than development aid.

Based on the qualitative and quantitative findings of this research it is evident that migration has a range of positive effects. There also are negative effects that can be addressed with supportive measures. It is further evident that the negative impacts are created mostly by existing policies and complicated procedures both in recipient countries and countries-of-origin. These policies and procedures make migration a high cost endeavor in terms of increasing the financial and social risks of migration. Many countries do not have sufficiently proactive policies to ensure that migration is gainful and safe. Therefore, supportive policies need to be put in place to facilitate migration and to ensure effective use of remittances and the new knowledge gained by those migrants who return to their country-of-origin.

The findings of this research lead us to argue that rural livelihoods are not static. The  dynamism of migration is supported by several studies illustrating that rural areas in the GMS, as in other parts of the world, are undergoing deep transformations as a result of increasing integration into the regional and global economy. There is ample empirical research that highlights the nature and extent of the current rural transition. In this context, rural livelihoods are changing as households have devised combined livelihood strategies that go beyond farming. In many parts of the world, rural livelihoods have diverged to the extent that farming has become one activity among many, often a minor one. This is partly due to the emergence of rural-based alternative opportunities and occupations. Diversification can strengthen livelihoods through helping households to increase incomes, and improve skills and natural resource management, as well as cope with adversity and reduce risk (Ellis and Allison 2004). Diversification, thus, is playing a significant role in poverty alleviation. Migration is chosen by many rural households as one important mean to diversify opportunities and build local resilience that acts to enhance livelihoods. We, therefore, argue that rural development requires new thinking in combination with revitalized strategies and supporting policies to incorporate international migration remittances and trans-border livelihoods.