Streaming to Every Corner of the Globe : Asians Are Migrating in Greater Numbers in Search of a Better Life

Associated Press

Asians whose parents rarely ventured beyond their village fields are streaming to nearly every corner of the globe in search of better lives.

They go as migrants-for-hire, sometimes illegally, or to sink permanent roots and a full change of life in other countries.

The largest migrant movement has been to the oil fields of the Middle East, but many head for the United States, perhaps the most desirable destination for permanent resettlement.

But Asians are going elsewhere as well.

From Norway to Saudi Arabia

Burmese sailors ply Norway's fiords. Nannies from the Philippines care for the children of Saudi Arabian sheiks. Vietnamese sign up for long stints as workers in East European factories.

Millions of Asians--migrants, emigrants and refugees--have left their homelands over the last decade in a flow that has spawned success stories, complex social problems and billions of dollars in cash.

More recently Europe and Japan have been attracting increasing numbers of legal and illegal workers.

The United Nations International Labor Office (ILO) estimates that about 5.2 million Asians found employment in the Middle East from 1981 to 1985, for wages that can be 10 times higher than those back home for comparable jobs.

2% of U.S. Population

In the United States, Asians accounted for 47.9% of immigrants naturalized as citizens from 1981 to 1986--substantially higher than Europeans and North Americans entering the country. Currently, 5 million Asians make up 2% of the total U.S. population--a jump from half a percent in 1960.

Seeking a better deal abroad is nothing new for Asians:

- Impoverished Chinese helped build the U.S. railroads in the last century.

- Japanese set up a thriving community in Brazil before World War II.

- Generations of Asian Indians sailed for South Africa and the West Indies.

But an Associated Press survey indicates that Asians--both the barely skilled and the professional elite--are leaving in greater numbers from more countries and also heading for a wider range of foreign locations than ever before.

Manolo I. Abella, ILO's regional adviser on migrant workers, also points out the recent migration for employment is organized on a mass scale by commercial agents and sometimes by governments seeking badly needed hard currency through the export of their labor. In the past, personal and kinship links spurred migrations for employment.

Increasing Mobility

Experts view the outflows as linked to an overall pattern of increasing mobility in Asia. Rural people who traditionally lived from cradle to grave in their villages pour into burgeoning cities in search of jobs.

In some countries internal population movements are organized. Indonesia plans to relocate as many as 3.8 million people from overcrowded Java to other islands of its archipelago by 1989. Vietnam says it has moved more than 3 million people to "new economic zones" in a program to shift the population from congested cities and rice plains to remoter areas.

Uprooted once, Asians are finding it becomes much easier to take the next step and go abroad.

The departing ranks have also been swollen by refugees. Since the mid-1970s about 1.5 million, a large percentage of them Indochinese, have found permanent homes in the United States, France, Australia, Canada and elsewhere. And about 6 million refugees, many eager to enter the pipeline to the West, remain in Asian camps. They include Afghans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan Tamils and Filipinos.

Attracted by Jobs

According to the ILO, more than 1 million Asians departed in 1986 under work contracts, with about 85% bound for the Arab states on the Persian Gulf and others to North Africa and Europe, as well as labor-absorbing countries closer to home, such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Persian Gulf migrants have come largely from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea. But China has also joined the labor exporters and currently has about 50,000 workers abroad.

The migrants, who often sign up for stints of one or two years, have included semiskilled laborers, electricians, administrators, waitresses and, from China, about 600 cooks.

A hospital patient in the Persian Gulf, for example, might find that he has a South Korean doctor, Thai nurses and Indian technicians.

The flow to the Middle East has slowed from a peak in the early 1980s due in large part to a drop in oil prices, but its impact at both ends of the pipeline remains significant.

A Matter of Demographics

"The movement isn't going to end because of the price of oil," said Abella of the ILO. "It's demographics. In the West you have aging, shrinking populations and in Asia there is a huge surplus of youth."

The largest numbers of Europe-bound emigrants are attracted to France and England, given those countries' old colonial ties to Asia. But temporary workers--domestics, hotel workers, nurses--are finding their way to Italy, Spain, England, Austria and Scandinavia.

Asians are also looking southward to Australia where Asian-born residents have grown from 0.3% of the population in 1947 to 2.6%--or about 420,000--last year. Official projections show their numbers rising to 7% by the year 2025.

Leading emigrants naturalized in the United States in the 1970-86 period were 190,000 Filipinos, 140,000 Koreans, 195,000 Chinese, 90,000 Vietnamese and 70,000 Indians. A substantial number in the United States and elsewhere also reside as illegals, staying on after the expiration of their permits as students, tourists or contract workers.

Bringing Back New Skills

Many Asians have already become successful in business and scholarship in their new countries. Migrants returning home often bring back new skills, a broadened outlook and infusions of money for impoverished families and weak economies. At the same time, the emigrations siphon off those who might otherwise remain unemployed or underemployed in their own countries.

Some villages in poverty-stricken northeast Thailand, for example, now have new concrete houses, modern sanitation and television antennas, due solely to men working abroad. An Asian heavy-equipment operator in the Persian Gulf can make the equivalent of $400 a month, which is more than the average annual per capita income in the region.

By conservative estimates, migrant workers have been sending home more than $2 billion each year to Pakistan in this decade, while last year the troubled Philippines received a badly needed injection of $680 million.

Vietnam's woeful economy gets a boost from the 60,000 workers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who earn far higher wages than at home and from which the Vietnamese government in Hanoi takes a 10% cut.

But mobility also exacts a price.

'Brain Drain' a Concern

Researchers have focused on the "brain drain"--doctors, scientists and other professionals who are needed in their own countries but opt for far higher salaries and better conditions abroad. At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are refugees and others with few options who find themselves unable to cope in an alien culture.

Asian migrants are susceptible to what in India is called the "Gulf syndrome"--long absences of male family members leading to a breakup of families, promiscuity and child delinquency as well as declines in farm output. More broadly, the comings and goings hasten the erosion of order and morality in traditional Asian societies.

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