Migration patterns of International Migrants from India

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Context: Migration patterns of international migrants from India have been changing over the past few years, so have the preference of countries and factors leading to the migration. In this article, we will go through the history of international migration from India and the present scenario. 

Mains: GS II- Indian Diaspora. 


  • Since the earliest times, humanity has been on the move. While many individuals migrate out of choice, many others migrate out of necessity.
    1. Some people move in search of work or economic opportunities, to join family, or to study,
    2. Others move to escape conflict, persecution, terrorism, or human rights violations.
    3. Some others move in response to the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters, or other environmental factors.
  • Today, more people than ever live in a country other than the one in which they were born.
  • In 2019, the number of migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million, 51 million more than in 2010.
  • International migrants comprise 3.5% of the global population.
  • Compared to 2.8% in 2000 and 2.3% in 1980, the proportion of international migrants in the world population has also risen.
  • The number of globally forcibly displaced people topped 70 million for the first time in UNHCR's almost 70 year history at the end of 2018.
    • This number includes:
      1. almost 26 million refugees,
      2. 3.5 million asylum seekers, and
      3. over 41 million internally displaced persons.

Migration in India: 

India has one of the world's most diverse and complex migration histories.

  • Since the 19th century, ethnic Indians have established communities on every continent as well as on islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific and Indian oceans.
  • Developments brought in the social, economic and political set up and advancement in the technological sector during the last decades of the 20th century led to changing dynamics in the trends of migration from India.
  • The expansion of means of communication and transportation also provided impetus to the movement of people in India not only to the international streams but also within the country.
  • The composition of flows has evolved over time from mainly indentured labour in far-flung colonies to postwar labour for British industry to high-skilled professionals in North America and low-skilled workers in the Middle East.
  • In addition, ethnic Indians in countries like Kenya and Suriname have migrated to other countries, a movement called secondary migration.


Historical Patterns of International Migration from India:

  • The tradition of out-migration of Indians could be traced back to 268-231 B.C. when emperor Ashoka sent messengers across the world to spread the message of peace given by Lord Buddha.
  • In ancient times, Indian traders established bases around the Indian and the Pacific oceans, especially in East Africa and Western and Southeast Asia.
  • However, those flows were not the basis for Indian migration in the 19th century or the global dispersion seen today. Rather, flows of the last 175 years began with the era of British colonial rule.
Destination Countries Origin States Reasons for migration

Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, Natal (South Africa), Suriname, and Fiji.

(between the 1830s- 1920s) 

Workers for plantations in Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, and Mauritius: present-day states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Guyana and East Africa:  Punjab and Gujarat.

workers in French colonies, such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, La Reunion, the majority of indentured labourers in Natal (South Africa): Tamils (Given the proximity of Tamil Nadu to French possessions in India)

Following the abolition of slavery, first by the British in 1833 and subsequently, by other colonial powers such as France, the Netherlands, and Portugal, the colonies urgently needed manpower, particularly on sugar and rubber plantations.

 On the labour-supply side of the equation, poverty among the South Asian peasantry accounted for the principal reason to leave the subcontinent.

Sri Lanka, Malaya, Burma South India, mostly Tamil Nadu

The managers of tea, coffee, and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka, Malaya (part of present-day Malaysia), and Burma authorized Indian headmen, known as kangani or maistry, to recruit entire families and ship them to plantations.

 In Malaya, kangani migration took place in addition to the indentured labour system and mostly replaced it from 1900 onwards.

The United Kingdom, the US and Canada (1900s) Punjab, Southern States, West Bengal

This emigration started during colonial rule in India. However, the number of emigrants was insignificant, both in relation to emigration from India and to total immigration to those countries.

The US: most were Punjabi Sikhs who worked in agriculture in California. 

Canada: Mostly Punjabi Sikh, for the purpose of Business, Agriculture.

Britain: small-scale migration consisted largely of educated Parsees and Bengalis for education and employment. 

In the first decades after independence, unskilled, skilled, and professional workers (mostly male Punjabi Sikhs) migrated from India to the United Kingdom.

This is commonly attributed to Britain's postwar demand for low-skilled labour, postcolonial ties, and the United Kingdom's commonwealth immigration policy, which allowed any citizen of a Commonwealth country to live, work, vote, and hold public office in the United Kingdom.


Gulf Countries (Oman, Saudi Arabia and UAE) (1970s-present) Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh. 

Significant migration from India to the Persian Gulf began in the 1970s, following the oil boom. Since then, an increasing number of semi- and unskilled workers from South India have worked in the Gulf countries on temporary migration schemes in the oil industry and in services and construction.

South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore (the mid-1980s) South-Indian States

In the light of uneven industrial progress these countries achieved during the mid-1980s, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore faced an acute shortage of labour as the local labour was not willing to do lower status jobs and therefore, these countries relied on foreign labour force mainly from South Asia. 


Present Patterns of International Migration from India:

  • India is the top source of international migrants, with one-in-twenty migrants worldwide born in India.
  • India continues to be the largest country of origin of international migrants with a diaspora of 17.5 million in 2018 across the world and hey form 6.4% of all international immigrants – the largest share among all nations.
  • India has received the highest remittance of $78.61 billion. '
  • The United Arab Emirates, the US and Saudi Arabia were the top destinations of the Indian diaspora.
  • Although most migrants travelled to the US, there is a popular trend of migrating from poorer to richer nations such as to France, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  • Among select countries to which people of Indian origin migrated to since 1990, West Asian countries have remained the preferred destinations.
  • While ethnic Indians are a minority in most countries, they constitute around 40% of the population in Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. They make up 70% of the inhabitants of Mauritius.
  • Due to the lack of female literacy and freedom, the share of female migrants has been less. 
    • But this has been changing in recent decades. Females are migrating to developing and developed countries for education, employment marriage etc. 
  • The share of Indians moving to North America and Australia has grown over time due to the availability of high-skilled and English speaking workforce in India.
  • Preferred Countries:  
    • North America (the US and Canada): For education, Employment, Family, Business White Collor Jobs). These migrants are mostly from south Indian states (US), Punjab, Gujarat (US, Canada)
    • Gulf Countries: Labour force working in oil companies and industries (Blue Collor Jobs). 
    • European Countries (Britain, Germany etc): For education, Employment. Migrants are mostly from northern Indian states. 
  • Factors Leading to Migration in India: 
    1. Economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, low living standards. 
    2. Demographic factors: when a country has a growing youth population, their aspirations and job requirements change.
      • This changes their preferences of countries too. 
    3. Political factors: Conflicts, civil wars etc.
    4. Religious factors: Religious persecution. 

Additional Information

Data on Global Migration:

  • In 2019, the number of international migrants worldwide – people residing in a country other than their country of birth – reached 272 million (from 258 million in 2017).
  • Female migrants constituted 48% of this international migrant stock.
  • There are an estimated 38 million migrant children,
  • Three out of four international migrants are of working age, meaning between 20 and 64 years old.
  • 164 million are migrant workers.
  •   international migrants worldwide reside in (Approximately):
    1. 31%- Asia,
    2. 30%- Europe,
    3. 26%- Americas,
    4. 10%- Africa and
    5. 3%- Oceania


The International Organization for Migration (IOM): 

  • Established in 1951, IOM is the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration.
  • Headquarters‎: ‎Geneva, Switzerland.
  • IOM works:
    1. to ensure the orderly and humane management of migration,
    2. to promote international cooperation on migration issues,
    3. to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems and
    4. to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced people.
  • In 2016, IOM entered into an agreement with the United Nations (A/70/976), becoming one of its specialized agencies.

Defining the Indian Diaspora:

  • The term “Indian diaspora” refers to all persons of Indian descent living outside India, as long as they preserve some major Indian ethnocultural characteristics.
  • Only nationals of Pakistan and Bangladesh are excluded from this term since those countries were part of the larger British India before 1947 and thus constitute a special case.
  • A common distinction with regard to ethnic Indians outside India often referred to as overseas Indians, is made between non-resident Indians (NRIs), who hold Indian citizenship, and persons of Indian origin (PIOs), who do not.
  • Until a decision by the Indian Supreme Court in 1966, the issuance of passports was considered a discretionary instrument of the Indian government to conduct its foreign relations.

The Supreme Court established the “right to travel” as a fundamental right under the Indian constitution, following which the Indian parliament enacted the Passports Act of 1967.
However, the act contains several provisions to refuse the issuance of a passport if the government thinks this would not be in “public interest.”


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