The primary form of human mobility occurring within ASEAN is low skilled labour migration. This is restricted by duration and quota. The reasoning behind undertaking this temporary migration is to increase earnings for a better future. However, there are numerous factors at play in making a decision to move, or rather, choosing to move. Be it borrowed or earned resources, potential migrants need sufficient financial backing to make a move. The very poor will not be able to cross borders due to unaffordability. The not-so-poor will need to gauge the costs and benefits involved. Subsequently, they would need to determine if the pursuit of greener pastures is indeed worth the sacrifice of being with family and the only resources available to them. This is a gamble. There is no assurance. There is no guaranteed safety net. Much depends on the regulatory systems present in sending and receiving countries and the level of coordination between them. A potential low-skilled migrant crosses his border because he knows that he will be able to earn a much higher income. He chooses to live apart from his family because he wants to provide for them and give them a better life. He would want to work in a system where he is treated fairly and his welfare is safeguarded. These are basic expectations of documented low skilled migrants.
The reasoning is quite different for low-skilled undocumented migrants. Though they may not be privy to the extent of possible exploitation, they are aware from the very beginning, that at the least, they are not going through the ‘proper’ channel. Usually, this group cannot afford to migrate but they are desperate to earn a living and support their families. They know that they would not be as ‘protected’ as the documented migrants and this is part of their opportunity cost. Interestingly, there is another group that chooses the cheaper and faster way because of the desire to avoid exorbitant mobility costs. In the attempt to save money, they end up paying much more financially, emotionally and mentally during the course of their undocumented stay in the receiving country.
High skilled migrants in ASEAN make a choice to move because there is a variety of job options in the receiving state, the demand for their specialised skill is high, their potential income corresponds to their skill level or exceeds it, they have more opportunities for career progression, they are assured of a far better lifestyle, and in some cases, they are able to bring their families along. Often, they seek permanent residence in the host country when the option is made available to them. Many have become permanent residents and even citizens of the host country. It cannot be ignored that in some receiving states, even high skilled migration that is facilitated by ASEAN’s Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) is a cumbersome and discouraging process. However, high skilled migrants are in a relatively better situation. This applies to some mid-skilled migrants as well.
Academic mobility is another form of migration that is gaining popularity within Southeast Asia. ASEAN has been enhancing the regionalisation of higher education through its Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation-Regional Institution of Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO-RIHED). For instance, universities in Singapore have a significant number of students from other ASEAN countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines). Singapore has been encouraging deserving students in the region and beyond via scholarships, internships and fellowships. It can be considered a regional hub for higher education. Students choose to further their education in Singapore because of the high ranking and global recognition of its tertiary institutions. They know that with a qualification from a Singaporean university, they would have acquired increased mobility and wider access to opportunities across the globe. They are also aware of the high possibility of securing employment in Singapore, especially in the MNCs operating in the country. This makes the small city-state a preferred destination for ASEAN students.
It would be more beneficial to the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) if it could find a way to justify and strengthen the motivation of low skilled migrant labour. ASEAN comes together for many regional initiatives and policies. Perhaps it is time to give this left-out group more reason to move within the region.