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International Labour Migration

Labourers - The Palm, Dubai

In addition to the huge numbers of refugees or economic migrants using criminal (or informal) networks, there are also large numbers of people who migrate as labourers or temporary workers on an official basis, but who ultimately return to their home countries.

For example, in recent years China has sent large numbers of workers abroad, particularly to Africa, to work on construction projects, like railways and in mining. Howard French writes that, “evidence suggests that at least a million private Chinese citizens have arrived on African soil since 2001, many entirely of their own initiative, not by way of any state plan.”[1] The Chinese have seen Africa as a land of opportunity, giving them a freedom of action lacking in China itself, and they work as farmers, entrepreneurs, traders, illegal gold miners, criminals, and even prostitutes. Chinese workers have also moved into Pakistan, Burma and other parts of South East Asia in order to build pipelines, roads and railways, with them come Chinese traders and others.

On a smaller scale, North Koreans have moved into Siberia to undertake labouring work, especially in timber cutting.[2] They have also been sent to the Middle East, China and Malaysia, and in 2015 it was claimed that there are 100,000 North Korean labourers working abroad in order to earn hard-currency for their government.[3]

There are also huge armies of temporary workers from Asian countries like the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who work as labourers, domestic staff and office workers in the Middle East. There is also a large movement of workers within the Middle East, as Egyptians and Jordanians work in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states.

In April 2013, it was estimated that there were 9 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia[4]. The Philippines Government estimated that in September 2015 2.4 million Filipinos worked abroad.[5] Although such workers may live and work in the Middle East for many years, they are normally prohibited from obtaining citizenship, and ultimately return to their home countries.

Migration is a complex subject and may be official, illegal, permanent or temporary. Individuals may work abroad because their existing employer requires them to work in another country, they may be part of a government organization, like the North Koreans, or they may be refugees escaping from conflict and unrest.

(c) Andrew Palmer, 2017, not to be republished without permission.

[1] (French 2014)

[2] Simon Ostrovsky – “N Koreans toiling in Russia’s timber camps”, BBC 26 August 2009

[3] Tom Phillips – “100,000 North Koreans sent abroad as ‘slaves’, The Daily Telegraph, 20th February 2015

[4] “New plan to nab illegals revealed”, Arab News, 16 April 2013,, accessed 26 June 2017

[5], accessed 26 June 2017

About Andrew Palmer (275 Articles)
Book by Andrew Palmer explores today's fundamental & systemic problems of the world. Proposes a framework for understanding the forces that are driving change.

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