kerala workers - Kuwait fire
File photo shows relatives mourning the death of workers from Kerala, who were killed in a Kuwait fire accident. Such crises reflect chronic indifference towards addressing migrant rights, safety and working conditions in destination countries. Image: PTI

Kerala report | 'No lessons learned from 50 years of emigration'

Trends highlighted by Kerala Migration Survey 2023 hold major implications for state's demographic composition and economy, requiring policy interventions

When the fourth edition of the Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) was unveiled at the Loka Kerala Sabha in Thiruvananthapuram on June 14, many of the 24 Malayali migrant workers who perished in the Kuwait fire tragedy were being laid to rest by their families.

These non-resident Keralites represented the population featured in the survey, which highlights both the immense potential and the significant risks associated with Kerala’s overseas workforce. A population that has formed a key component of the state’s economy for more than half a century.

No lessons learned

“These crises are a result of a chronic indifference towards addressing migrant rights, safety and working conditions in destination countries," Dr S Irudayarajan, Chair of the International Institute of Migration and Development (IIMD), wrote in an article just before the document's release. The IIMD carried out the KMS study.

"The repetition of the incidents also suggests that we have not learned the lessons we should have: Migrant issues are only in momentary focus and are topics of debate as long as there is an alarming situation," Irudayarajan said.

“But considering the strength of the Indian diaspora around the world, especially the migration corridor India shares with West Asia, we need well-thought-out, effective policies to ensure the safety and well-being of migrants from India,” he added.

Whopping numbers

According to KMS 2023, the number of emigrants from Kerala is estimated to be 2.2 million, closely aligning with the 2.1 million recorded in KMS 2018.

This stability in international migration over the last five years is interesting, given the overall declining trend observed over the past decade in the previous rounds of KMS.

Although there is a slight increase of 32,388 emigrants in 2023, nine out of the 14 districts in Kerala observed a considerable decline in the number of emigrants when compared to 2018, indicating a saturation of international migration.

Student migration

“Despite expectations of a further decline in this round of KMS, a significant rise in student emigration has substantially contributed to maintaining the emigration levels in 2023. From 129,763 student emigrants in 2018, the number has doubled to about 250,000 in 2023,” reads the survey.

“This notable increase in student emigration underscores a significant shift in the demographics of emigrants from Kerala, wherein there has been an increase in the number of emigrants leaving at a very young age, as early as 17 years.

"The KMS 2023 has revealed that students constitute 11.3 per cent of total emigrants from Kerala, indicating that a growing number of younger individuals are choosing to emigrate, particularly for educational opportunities abroad,” it said.

Destination countries

The destination countries have also seen changes over the years, with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members remaining the strongest corridor.

There had been a shift from Saudi Arabia as the most preferred destination to the UAE, according to the data from the last few rounds of KMS. The UAE retains the same position in 2023 as well.

However, there has been a decline in the number of emigrants choosing GCC countries from 89.2 per cent in 2018 to 80.5 per cent in 2023. Simultaneously, there is a rise in the number of emigrants preferring non-GCC destination countries, from 10.8 per cent in 2018 to 19.5 per cent in 2023.

The rising student migration and preference for non-GCC countries could be responsible for this shift.

Malappuram and Idukki

Tirur taluk in Malappuram district continues to lead in the number of emigrants. It has maintained its lead from the previous years, with slightly more than 100,000 emigrants in 2023.

On the other hand, Devikulam taluk in Idukki district has recorded the lowest number of emigrants.

The northern region of Kerala remains a focal point for migration, encompassing the majority of emigrants.

With regards to the religious distribution of the emigrants from Kerala, Muslims lead at 41.9 per cent, followed by Hindus at 35.2 per cent and Christians at 22.3 per cent.

Female migration

The proportion of female emigrants has increased from 15.8 per cent in 2018 to 19.1 per cent in 2023. Female migration has further seen a shift from GCC countries to Europe and other Western nations, accounting for 40.5 per cent. However, for males, this figure stands at 14.6 per cent.

In terms of education, 71.5 per cent of female migrants were found to have completed degree-level education as opposed to only 34.7 per cent of male emigrants.

Male migrants continue to dominate emigration from Kerala, with the gap between male and female migrants being the narrowest in Kottayam and widest in Malappuram.

Surge in remittances

According to KMS 2023, the total remittances to Kerala saw a significant surge after the COVID pandemic. Total remittances reached Rs 216,893 crores in 2023 from Rs 85,092 crores in 2018, marking a 154.9 per cent increase.

The total remittances of Rs 216,893 crores imply a remittance of Rs 61,118 per capita for a population of 3.549 crores.

While remittances to Kerala have been increasing over the years, the number of households receiving these remittances has declined from 16 per cent of households in 2018 to 12 per cent in 2023.

NRI deposits

Kerala holds a steady 21 per cent share of India’s NRI deposits, a figure that has remained consistent since 2019. Needless to say, these inward remittances play a significant part in strengthening the economy of the state. Remittances constitute 1.7 times the revenue receipt of the state.

Muslim households continued to receive the highest share of remittances, accounting for 40.1 per cent, followed by Hindu households at 39.1 per cent, and Christian households at 20.8 per cent.

Implications for Kerala

“The migration trends highlighted by KMS 2023 have significant implications for Kerala’s demographic composition and economy, requiring myriad policy interventions," said Irudayarajan.

"One notable trend is the dramatic increase in student migration, with the number of student emigrants nearly doubling in the past five years. There is an urgent need to enhance the state’s educational infrastructure and provide resources that ensure safe migration pathways for future student emigrants.”

“Despite migrants constituting almost one-third of Kerala’s population, we have not been fully successful in unleashing their true potential. With a diaspora of 5 million Malayalees, the time is ripe to think about a Migration Development Bank, following the example set by the Asian Development Bank,” he added.

Pre-COVID level

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijanan, while releasing KMS 2023, said: “The lack of clear data on migrants has been a barrier to effective policy-making for this group. In this context, the Kerala Migration Survey was conducted.
"Now, we see that migration from Kerala has returned to 2018 levels, indicating that even during adversities like the COVID pandemic, migration of Malayalees has persisted.”
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