South-South Migration: Why it’s bigger than we think, and why we should care

In 2013, Time Magazine published a piece called “Migration Trends of the Future.” At first glance, the title suggests that perhaps the article will reveal big changes in future patterns of human movement. Upon further reading, the article predicts very little, just that in future years, people will continue to enter America as a means of “pursuing dreams or escaping nightmares,” and that perhaps we will see variations in the nationalities and skills of those immigrants. These points sound like not much is changing. In reality, the global future of migration is changing rapidly- but perhaps just not here. To examine the future of migration, one must look outside the U.S., to the increasingly dominant migration flows that Time does not consider- migration between developing countries, also known as “South-South Migration” (or SSM).

Our lack of awareness about SSM is not unreasonable; in North America and Europe we tend to focus our attention on South-North Migration, or SNM. SNM can be described as migration between less developed or developing countries (often referred to as the “Global South”) to developed countries (the “Global North”). The study of South-North Migration (SNM) is relevant to U.S. interests because the U.S. is on the receiving end of SNM flows. The same is true for European governments, whose focus is most often on immigration into and between EU countries. We are generally concerned with the form of migration that we directly encounter: immigration. Surrounded by Western-centric narratives that “international migration occurs mainly from poor developing countries to rich countries in the North,” brought to us by media, we are led to believe this myth. Consideration of the reality of SSM’s magnitude allows us to “put into perspective the fears of Northern countries about migration inflows from the South,” setting straight the way we conceptualize the global economy. In reality, the flow of migrants from South to North is just one piece of the complex web of migration.

My interest in SSM began because of an interest in South Asia, and particularly in Nepal, where migration to other parts of Asia and the Middle East is most prevalent. But beyond Nepal, I’ve become convinced that in order to understand what migration looks like in a globalized world, SSM is key.  Ignoring SSM is ignoring nearly half of the big picture of global migration. Although statistics vary, out of the total stock of international migrants, those going from South to South tend to outnumber those going from North to South and North to North and to be fairly equal to South to North flows.  Other data suggests that SSM has actually “surpassed” SNM in magnitude. Regardless of the exact numbers, SSM is huge (UNDESA estimated SSM to involve 73 million people in 2012), extremely diverse, and linked with SNM within the global economy. Because narratives of South-North Migration surround us, we might not have reference points for what SSM looks like. Take, for example, the more than 200,000 Chinese labor migrants who have migrated to South Africa since the 1990’s, entering illegally and taking part in small-scale trade or farming. Or the huge flow of Bangladeshis to India, which the UN declared to be “the single largest bilateral stock of international migrants” in the developing world. Other popular destinations for SSM include Thailand, Malaysia, China, and several Latin American, African and Central Asian countries.

While migration between developing countries is far from a new phenomenon, SSM has only emerged in the past decade as topic of research within migration scholarship. Learning about SSM helps us to better understand global migration patterns and to see how immigration policy in the North affects the developing world. Increasing diversification of the SSM labor pool is evidence of one way in which SNM and SSM are connected: as Northern countries institute more selective and restrictive immigration policies, migrants who may have previously gone to developed countries choose developing countries as destinations instead (Meyer 2008). Higher selectivity in SNM makes SSM less selective and can divert labor migration flows into the South. New Northern policies that restrict mobility, when mimicked in wealthier Southern countries, can further increase existing inequality between skilled and unskilled migrants. SSM receiving countries face challenges in managing migration that cannot be solved by simply applying policies used by Northern countries managing SNM.

Although these flows are linked, study of both reveals distinct trends. The following are some general differences between SSM and SNM. Such generalizations are used to discuss the ways in which the challenges SSM presents are unique, and do not apply to all experiences of SSM or SNM migrants. Rather, these demographic and mobility patterns explain some of the overall trends in SSM.

SSM is less selective and more temporary. SSM labor most often takes the form of short-term contracts. While policy discussion in SNM destination countries often revolves around the potential for immigrants to attain citizenship, residency, or reunion with family members, in SSM, workers are not likely to gain such privileges and are more likely to return home to sending countries after contracts are finished. Similarly, while discussions in developed countries might concern immigrant integration into society, reintegration of returnee migrants back into the home country tends to be of more relevance in SSM. On a daily basis, South-South migrants tend to have unstable employment and high turnover because their labor is cheaper and less specialized.

South-South migrants are generally poorer and lower skilled. While many migrants from developing countries to the Global North are also low-wage workers, far fewer SSM migrants tend to be of high-skilled or professional class, resulting in the description of SSM as “migration of the poor.”  (Because of higher demand and wage offerings for professionals in developed countries, professionals likely engage in SNM.) South-South migrants are more likely to engage in migration as an “extreme survival strategy” than their counterparts moving to developed countries. These low-wage workers generate a higher total volume of remittances than high-skilled or professionals, but have limited individual earning capacity (Verite 2005; Piper 2006b) and encounter high costs of remitting money back home. Therefore, individual remittance flows for SSM are proportionally much lower than those of SNM and tend to be sent through informal channels. Of remittances received by developing countries, middle-income countries receive the majority while low-income countries receive very little; in 2007 UNDP reported that about 1% of estimated global remittances went to countries with low Human Development Index scores. In SSM, the lowest income countries benefit the least financially- they receive fewest remittances and also lose substantial amounts of human capital without receiving the influx of workers that middle-income developing countries do.

SSM occurs over shorter distances. SSM tends to occur over shorter geographical distances– often within countries or across immediate borders.  Perhaps due to weaker border enforcement capacities, regional integration projects, and complicated histories of nation-building, the South tends to have “relatively less restrictive contexts for the free mobility of people, compared to the North.” Workers from lower income nations “tend to move to neighboring countries that have only small income differences from their own country” because of accessibility, low selectivity, and lower levels of risk. One example of this is the open border between Nepal and India, through which thousands of Nepalis migrate each year for work. Because of the open border agreement, Nepalis and Indians can move freely over the border, and it is difficult to estimate how many Nepali migrants live and work in India at any time. Shorter distances can make SSM less risky, as one might spend less money and effort on travel, further diversifying the flow of migrants and increasing the accessibility of migration.

SSM is more irregular and undocumented. The relatively free mobility of the Global South also means that SSM tends to be less documented, and is often described as “irregular” migration. This descriptor is misleading, as “irregular” migration often takes place through well-worn informal channels such as smugglers, illegal entry points, or through visa overstay. Irregular migration flows makes migrants more difficult to track, quantify, and protect. Lack of documentation means that estimations of SSM flows are likely far lower than the reality. High levels of irregular migration pose challenges to both sending and receiving governments, as irregular migration leaves migrants vulnerable to trafficking, fraud, exploitation, and abuse. While shorter distance migration may be less risky, irregular migration produced by barriers to mobility is extremely high-risk and can result in “enormous negative consequences.”

Although these distinctions set SSM apart from SNM, the two are inextricably linked- particularly by middle-income developing countries, which often serve as both receiving countries for SSM and senders in SNM. A lack of research on and subsequent understanding of SSM can have negative implications for developing countries and regions. In particular, while SSM may potentially play a role in poverty alleviation and redistribution of economic inequality, not enough is understood about macro trends in SSM remittances. However, understanding of SSM and its links between the Global South and Global North can provide a more complete picture for both policy discussions and for our own perspective of the realities of global migration.

Works Cited

Bakewell, O. (2009). “South-South Migration and Human Development. Reflections on African Experiences.” Human Development Research Paper, UNDP, April 2009.

Barone, Michael. “Migration Trends of the Future.” Time Magazine Online. Time Magazine, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 Feb 2014.

Campillo-Carrete, B. (2013). “South-South Migration: A review of the literature.” ISS Working Paper Series/General Series, 570(570), 1-98.

De Haas, H. (2010). “Remittances, Migration and Development: Policy Options and Policy Illusions,” in Hujo, K. and N. Piper (Eds.) South-South Migration Implications for Social Policy and Development. Social Policy in a Development Context Series. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ellis, F. (2003). “A Livelihoods Approach to Migration and Poverty Reduction.” Paper Commissioned by the Department for International Development (DFID)

Hujo, K. and N. Piper (2007). “South–South migration: Challenges for development and social policy.” Development 50(4): 1-7.

Menjívar, C. and B. Coutin, C. (2013). “Challenges of Recognition, Participation, and Representation for the Legally Liminal: A Comment”, in Truong, T.D., Gasper, D., Handmaker, J., Bergh, S.I. (Eds.): Migration, Gender and Social Justice – Perspectives on Human Insecurity. Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace, Vol. 9, Heidelberg – New York – Dordrecht – London: Springer: 351- 364.

Meyer, J.B. (2010). “Human Resource Flows from and between Developing Countries: Implications for Social and Public Policies,” in Hujo, K. and N. Piper (Eds.) South- South Migration Implications for Social Policy and Development. Palgrave Macmillan.

Paone, Mariangela. “Missing the big migratory future.” El Pais in English. El Pais, 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 Feb 2014.

Piper, Nicola (2006b) “The Management of Migration : An issue of controlling or protecting? Normative and institutional developments and their relevance to Asia.” Working Paper, No. 69, Singapore: ARI.

Ramamurthy, Barghavi (2003). “International Labour Migrants: Unsung Heroes of Globalization.” Programme Paper, No. 8, Stockholm: SIDA.

Ratha, D. and Shaw, W. (2007) “South-South Migration and Remittances.” WB Working Paper 102. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank: 1-55.

Sinha, Kounteya. “Bangla Migration to India Largest in Developing World.” The Times Of India Online. The Times of India, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.

UNDP (2009). Human Development Report 2009. “Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development.” New York: UNDP.

Verite (2005). “Protecting Overseas Workers: Research findings and strategic perspectives on labor protections for foreign contract workers in Asia and the Middle East.” Amherst, Massachusetts: Amherst College.

Wickramasekara, P. (2002). “International Labour Migration: The Missing Link in Globalization.” Selected Works, May 2011.


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  2. […] migration: why it’s bigger than we think and why we should care. [Blog post]. Retrieved from… 2. Trohanis, Zoe Elena; Zangerling, BontjeMarie; Sanchez-Reaza, Javier. (2015, May 1). […]


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