Research on International Migration from India Needs a Fresh Start

S Irudaya Rajan ( teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. H Arokkiaraj ( is a post-doctoral fellow at Leibniz ScienceCampus, Germany
28 January 2020

Indians constitute the highest number of international migrants worldwide after the Chinese. Globally, India ranks at the top for the amount of annual foreign remittances it receives. Despite its significance, research on migration in India has substantial gaps, which underlines the need for further exploration. 

Almost three decades have passed since the announcement of the International Migrants Day on 18 December by the United Nations to recognise the efforts, contributions, and rights of migrants worldwide (United Nations 2001). After China, India is the biggest source country for international migrants. International migration from India has been a long-standing phenomenon. As per the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) data, Indians currently reside in 199 countries (Ministry of External Affairs 2018). The World Bank estimates put India on the top globally in terms of the foreign remittances it receives. In 2018, India received foreign remittances to the tune of $79 billion (World Bank 2019). However, there are gaps in the field of international migration studies in the Indian context that this article attempts to highlight. Disseminating this information is crucial to encourage future research in the field.   

Expanding the Ambit of Migration Studies

Although international migration has become a visible phenomenon in every state, only a few states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Punjab have developed state-level databases. The recent data published by the MEA have observed that the trend of international migration has now shifted to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from the southern states. But, still, there are no data available at the state level. This is a major gap in understanding the trend of contemporary migration from India to Gulf countries. On the other hand, state-level databases have only centred on the profile of emigrants and those migrants who returned. There are no data available on cross-border human trafficking; illegal migration; forced migration; migration of families, and migration for studies, work, and environmental reasons. The current literature focuses largely on voluntary and legal international migration that results in substantial knowledge gaps. 

Until now, economists and demographers have dominated international migration studies in India. There is a need to make it multidisciplinary with the incorporation of sociological, psychological, and geographical perspectives, which are inextricably linked with migration. For example, sociological perspective helps us understand the challenges that migrants face during the integration phase in the destination countries. A psychological perspective, on the other hand, can provide an insight into the pain and trauma of the trafficked victims. Therefore, a multidisciplinary approach should be the way forward to understand migration holistically.  

Similarly, there is a need to lay emphasis on theorising migration studies. Lately, scholars such as Russell King have contributed significantly to the theorisation of the migration of students internationally. This exercise of theorising the research findings must be fostered among academics and scholars of migration in India. 

Changing Destinations

Migration studies research in India is yet to explore the new destination trends witnessed among Indians. For example, Indians in South East Asian countries are under-researched. Of late, a considerable number of Indians have moved to South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan for work.  While the number of Indians migrating for work is small, an increasing number of Indian students is landing up in Japan. There has also been an increase in the number of Indians looking towards China for work and education. On the other hand, there has been a considerable increase in the number of Indian students pursuing medicine in Central Asian, post-Soviet, and East European countries. However, research on these new, emerging destinations is scarce compared to other favoured destinations for Indians, such as the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, and Australia. 

Further, the number of Indians seeking citizenship in the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and also in Belgium has increased compared to those in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia (Kumar 2018). The research so far on Indians abroad has been largely confined to Anglophone countries. It is the need of the hour for scholars of migration studies in India to capture emerging trends of international migration.  

Illegal Migration

Although there is rich literature on Indians in Gulf countries, the India–Gulf human trafficking corridor is less explored. As reported by the US Department of State (2019),  India has not only been a source, but also a destination and transit country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking (Department of State 2019). Due to the ban on migration of female domestic workers from Nepal to the Gulf, traffickers use India as a transit country. The National Crime Records Bureau, which gathers and analyses crime data in the country, does not provide any information about how India is used as a transit country to traffic women.

Below are the data (Table 1) of emigration clearance granted by the Indian government to female domestic workers (FDWs) to work in the Gulf. Since 2016, the number of FDWs who migrate to the Gulf from India has been declining, except in the case of Kuwait. In the period between 2015 and 2018, the number of complaints of exploitation lodged by the Indian female workers in the Gulf with the Indian Embassy in Kuwait is 3,628 (Embassy of India, Kuwait 2019). The data on emigration clearance and complaints by Indian female workers from Kuwait could be the signs of human trafficking in the particular migratory corridor.  

Sadly, job opportunities for FDWs are monopolised by unauthorised recruiting agents in India. The number of complaints registered against such fraudulent agencies has been on the rise (Table 2). The situation is such that prospective migrants must depend on such agencies to access overseas employment opportunities. Knowing the vulnerability of the FDWs, unauthorised agents traffic and sell them to sponsors in destination countries. As a result, the FDWs end up as slaves and undergo physical and mental suffering under their sponsors. Without valid travel documents, these FDWs are trapped. For instance, 311 Indian nationals were deported from Mexico in 2019, as they had entered the Latin American country without any travel documents (Ministry of External Affairs 2019a). In the light of such pressing issues, it is crucial that we expand our research to understand human trafficking and illegal migration from India to destination countries.  

Table 1: Number of Emigration Clearances of Female Domestic Workers

Country 2015 2016 2017 2018


(As on 31 October)

Saudi Arabia 151 145 75 1 0
Oman 253 179 158 94 85
Kuwait 81 3 0 38 774
United Arab Emirates 664 644 529 310 178
Bahrain 58 59 51 38 30
Qatar 2 1 0 0 2

Source: Ministry of External Affairs (2019b)


Table 2: Complaints Received against Fraudulent Agents

Year Number of Complaints
2016 231
2017 446
2018 350
2019 (up to 31 October) 610

Source: Ministry of External Affairs (2019)

Additionally, Indians in the Gulf face several challenges associated with their occupations. For instance, there have been several instances of Indian fishermen in Saudi Arabia or in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) captured by the Iranian Coast Guard on the allegation that they have illegally entered Iranian waters. Even the case of Indian drivers in Gulf is similar and their plight often goes unnoticed. There is barely any research on the situation of Indian doctors and engineers in the Gulf. 

As regards the research on the migration of women to the Gulf, literature is largely focused on domestic workers and nurses despite the fact that they also take up other jobs. They also work as teachers in schools and colleges, workers in beauty parlours, and as domestic workers for local Indian families, among others.

In other words, the literature on the India–Gulf corridor is predominantly focused on unskilled and semi-skilled workers despite the migration of a considerable number of skilled workers, professionals, and small to big entrepreneurs. Although there has been a lot of research to understand the gender dynamics of international migration from India, there are still a number of areas that needs exploration. For instance, there is a great deal written about wives, children, and families who are left behind by the men who migrate, but there is a no research available on when women migrate, and children, husbands, and families are left behind.   

Distressed Migrants

Although there is a promise of better remuneration attached to the large-scale migration of Indian workers to the Gulf, the sad reality is that the dreams of a considerable number of the workers are shattered. 
According to the data tabled by the MEA in Lok Sabha in July 2019, most of the complaints of exploitation recorded by Indians abroad are from Indian embassies located in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE (Table 3). Of these complaints, half are from Indian embassies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.   



Table 3: Number of Complaints by Indian Workers

Country 2016 2017 2018 2019 (as on 30 June)
Saudi Arabia 8,912 8,447 8,272 2,244
Kuwait 4,187 4,481 3,287 2,377
Qatar 2,747 3,328 3,244 1,459
UAE 2,368 3,756 2,153 1,477
Oman 2,245 4,144 3,594 1,764
Bahrain 693 792 734 450

Source: Ministry of External Affairs (2019d)

Additionally, there has been an increase in the number of deaths of Indians in the Gulf as Table 5 points out. But, the absence of separate national- and state-level data on deceased “Indian workers” and “non-workers” is unfortunate. Under the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (merged with the MEA after 2014), Indian missions in Gulf countries, between 2004 and 2012, maintained separate data on Indian employees and workers distinct from other Indians who die. However, since 2014, the terms “Indian workers who died abroad” and “deaths of Indians abroad” are loosely used. There is no distinction in terms of data of deceased Indians abroad to ascertain if the person is a student, a worker, a tourist, etc. 
There is also a need for research to understand how the death of a migrant worker affects the family members who are left behind. Such families, more often than not, experience huge financial strain, and other family members pitch in to compensate for the loss of income with the death of an earning member. But, research in these areas is completely absent. 

Due to the increasing number of applications for repatriation from Indians in the Gulf over the years (Table 5), it is necessary for researchers to understand the plight of distressed migrant workers. Currently, there is no research into the situation of these distressed migrant workers. 



Table 4: Number of Deaths of Indians in Gulf Countries 

Country 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 (Up to October)
Saudi Arabia 2,427 2,694 2,766 2,664 2,551 1,920
UAE 1,429 1,540 1,657 1,637 1,759 1,451
Kuwait 559 611 576 591 659 584
Oman 519 520 547 495 526 402
Qatar 279 198 281 282 285 286
Bahrain 175 223 186 237 234 180
Total 5,388 5,786 6,013 5,906 6,014 4,823

Source: Ministry of External Affairs (2019e)


Table 5: Number of Applications for Repatriation from Gulf Countries 

Year Number of Applications for Repatriation 
2016 12,731
2017 11,049
2018 12,898

Source: Ministry of External Affairs, 2019d 

The article aims to serve as a starting point for research in the unexplored areas in the context of international migration from India. The need for richness in the study of migration has been highlighted in this article based on multiple dimensions, such as developing more state-level data sets, understanding new characteristics of migration, and choices of new destinations, with the inclusion of additional categories of migration and interdisciplinary approaches. To begin with, every state in India could emulate the Kerala Migration Survey to understand the issues afflicting migrants and their families left behind. The centre can also plan a pan–India migration survey to develop a robust database and devise solutions accordingly for all those affected by international migration.   

S Irudaya Rajan ( teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. H Arokkiaraj ( is a post-doctoral fellow at Leibniz ScienceCampus, Germany
28 January 2020