Urbanisation and Internal Migration in Southeast Asia: Challenges and Opportunities

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2022, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to innovation and investment, digital economy, and regional mobility.

In Southeast Asia, countries are facing many challenges and two of these are urbanisation and migration. Like anywhere else in the world, these issues have secured attention from many stakeholders in the region, particularly as the population in Southeast Asia is expected to increase by 650 million by 2020, with more than half living in urban areas. There are many factors that lead to rural-urban migration and one of the main reasons is no other than economics. Limited job opportunities in their residences drive many people to move to major cities and people take these risks not only for jobs but also for the future of their children and family, particularly as quality education can only be assessed well in many parts of the world and still a privilege.

Unlike past urbanisation models of the world’s major cities such as London, Paris, or New York, what we can see from Asia is that its cities do not take much longer time to grow just within a few short decades. However, Asian cities still find challenges such as financial capacity, institutional frameworks, administrative structures to solve rapid urbanisation and its effects on socio-economic conditions. If we look from the view of urbanisation, it is apparent that internal migration from rural areas is significant. Shanghai,in 2005, had a population of 7.78 million and 4.38 million were migrants who had lived in the city for more than 6 months. Besides, one-third of all babies delivered were born to migrants. From this example, we can understand the role of migration in Shanghai’s demographic distribution. Not only in China but also in all major cities, the duality between the resident population and the migrant worker population that largely comprises circular migrants can be identified.

To Asian cities, circular migration brings many advantages. By circular migration, those from underprivileged backgrounds can increase their incomes and spread risk of income failure by facilitating working in both rural and urban areas and in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. How benefits of income can be maximised is that these people who earn in the cities where wages and cost are expensive can instead spend in rural areas where both are more affordable. It also makes a path to redistribute wealth from urban centres to rural regions where investments primarily are not made. Besides, the incomes obtained serve as financial resources to create jobs and development in these regions. It can even decrease the load on urban areas to provide social benefits and infrastructures for their residents too.

But the social costs of separation from family can be painful and substantial to the people especially when people must travel in longer distances. And also, migrant workers might have difficulties adjusting to urban lifestyles and in some countries, there can even be some cultural and social gaps even if people move internally. Besides, due to the huge development gap between urban and rural areas, some migrants may not have access to urban services and can feel marginalised. The worst thing is that rural regions may lose their talents and human resources due to internal brain drain.

One thing we must note is that not everyone may have the desire to settle permanently and there may even still be some who prefer circular migration. And both have brought the conditions to improve poverty reduction and development. For those who choose to settle in cities permanently, their living standards can improve and as they might have access to social benefits such as education, they can create a better future for their generation. Circular migration can also provide many opportunities for rural development because through spending their incomes in their origins, regions can develop more, and the poverty gap can be reduced. Besides, knowledge and technology transfer between rural and urban regions can create foundations to narrow down the development gap and contribute to higher standard of living in rural areas.

Migration has both advantages and disadvantages, and it also has considerable impacts on urbanisation. And, there are still many challenges that cities in Southeast Asia need to find the solutions to. Besides, urbanisation is not something Southeast Asia can avoid and needs to be solved by using various critical approaches. In Southeast Asia, there is room to conduct more research on urban issues and there should be more academic collaboration for nurturing the next generation of urban academics. Besides, cities in the region need to enhance collaboration to find the solutions for current challenges not only for urbanisation but also for migration. Cities should consider more inclusive and sustainable infrastructures for everyone and set up new plans to accommodate the rising urban population. Human resources are the key resource of Southeast Asia, since with collaboration, challenges can be turned to opportunities for a more prosperous, equal, and greener region.

This article was written by Zar Ni Thein Htay, edited by the Diplomacy Team, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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