Emerging Patterns of Youth Migration – the Curious Case of Kerala and What Needs to be Done

student visa

People migrate from one place to the other for different reasons though migrants generally seek better economic opportunities. People also migrate to join their kith and kin in other places, to escape conflicts or persecution, or to respond to adverse impacts on their current living environment. Some people migrate just for a change or for the fun of getting a new experience. Some people migrate genuinely for higher studies, or some in the pre-text of higher studies and many of these students will not go back to places where they came from. In all these cases, we see a disenchantment with their present and an ardent hope to build a new life which is a very natural and normal emotional need.

The tendency to migrate was (and is) always there in human genes, or for that matter in all the mammals of the earth. In pre-historic times, humans were constantly moving or migrating as nomads. Even today we see descendants of such nomads who constantly move around with their cattle herds. Agriculture was also initially in the ‘shifting cultivation’ mode. Eventually, humans settled around their farmlands. The need to provide and regulate water supply created kings and kingdoms, laws, soldiers, and nations. Thus, nations are the result of human greed and their urge to control, dominate, conquer, and own.

History is the story of conquests and appropriating resources of other nations to accumulate wealth and power. The colonial era is just the consequence of such an urge to accumulate wealth. Colonialism precipitated an unequal world in the last century. People from the former colonies whose wealth had been stolen during the colonial era started moving to places where their wealth has gone. Search for new natural resources such as oil and fight for domination in the newly created markets created unstable nations across the world. People from these unstable nations started migrating in search of stability and prosperity.

It will be interesting to understand such migration patterns by taking a migration-prone region from a former colony, say Kerala state in India. Kerala’s development trajectory is inextricably linked to migration for the last many decades. The state does not have significant industries or large-scale agriculture or even a huge service sector. However, the state enjoys a lifestyle and health status compared to rich countries thanks to its migrant population. As per experts, 2.1 million emigrants from Kerala are estimated to live outside the state in 2018. 36.3% of the State Domestic Product is contributed by emigrants.

The earlier migrants from the state were unskilled laborers who migrated to the Middle Eastern countries and built cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Though the charm of Gulf countries has recently come down drastically due to competition from cheaper labor coming from the other south Asian countries, the Gulf region still continues to be the favorite destination as 89.1% of migrants from the state live in the 6 GCC countries.

Youth migrating from these states today are now looking for new countries in the West. As the Western world does not want uneducated and unskilled youth to migrate to their countries, youth in Kerala are now using the education route to move in. In that process, the host countries are also being benefitted through the expenses they make in these countries as fees and living expenses.

Many small towns in Kerala now have education consultancies that arrange admissions, accommodation, and even part-time work while studying in foreign universities in countries like Canada and the UK. Banks in Kerala compete to give study loans to people who plan to go abroad as the re-payment rates of this segment are almost 100%. There are numerous newly set up academies that teach foreign languages to students who go abroad.

Students migrate not only to conventional education hubs like the UK, USA, Canada, and New Zealand but also to unexpected destinations in Mexico, Iceland, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, Barbados in the Caribbean Islands, Slovenia, and Slovakia. As the fees in Balkan countries and the former Soviet Union countries are very low, a good number of student migrants take that route too.

As there is no effective registration mechanism for migrating students, the state government sometimes wakes up to the reality of such massive student migrations unaware. Recently during the COVID outbreak in Wuhan, the government discovered 244 students from Kerala studying there. Similarly, during the Ukraine – Russia war, the government discovered 322 students studying in Ukraine. While analyzing the course destinations marked in the applications for the ID cards, Norka – a Kerala-based support organization has found that Kerala students are studying in a country called Curacao in Lesser Antilles Island country in the southern Caribbean Sea and the Dutch Caribbean region, about 65 km north of the Venezuelan coast.

An average youth in a middle-class family in the state dream of migrating from Kerala. A recent study among 491 students in Kerala by Sulaiman KM and Bhagat R B (published as ‘Youth and Migration Aspiration in Kerala’, 2022) found that “two out of three youths aspire to migrate abroad in future for a job and related activities”. The study concluded that “in the case of Kerala, in the coming 10 to 20 years, migration will continue as a potential life choice for achieving life goals for youth in Kerala.”

If migration is such a natural process, why do people want to regulate migration? There are two types of people who want to restrict migration. They are those who are in power in host countries as well as those who are in power in countries from where people migrate. Host country rulers are afraid of the likely stress on their resources but are often happy to receive wealthy and skilled migrants as these will add value to their economy. Those who are in power in immigrating countries are also afraid of losing their political power as they will be losing young, healthy, and enterprising populations.

Leaders in politics and religion in Kerala are waking up to this new migration pattern of students from the state. Some people suggested improving the academic standards of colleges/universities in the state which is not the case. In fact, Kerala has some of the best colleges in India as per rankings by agencies such as UGC-NIRF, India Today, etc. The education ecosystem in terms of pedagogy, regularity of classes and examinations, learning outcomes, etc. in the state are much better than in most states in India. Youth migration from the state cannot be controlled by improving the academic standards of universities in the state.

Christian catholic church is another group that is concerned about the increasing student migration. The latest report titled ‘Migrating Christians worry Church hierarchy in Indian state’ appeared in the Union of Catholic Asia News (UCAN) observes, “more than three-quarters of the young people in the Church aged between 20-32 have migrated out of Kerala, the base of this Eastern rite Church. If the trend continues, the future of the Church is bleak as it would have fewer people and more aged and unemployed people as its members.”
As the state has wages comparable to Gulf countries for manual labor, currently there is a steady ‘migration’ of domestic migrants from other states (west Bengal, Assam, Bihar, and Odisha) into Kerala. Their number is estimated to be 3 million plus today. This has already changed the demographic situation of the state. Many Kerala houses have old parents living here with their children studying or living abroad. As most of these migrating/studying children are not going to come back, Kerala will see unprecedented changes not only in terms of demography, but also in culture, politics, and society as a whole.

Migrations and settlements have always changed global and local power equations. The growing number of CEOs of global conglomerates who control the global economy and the upcoming political leaders in many of the Western countries are indicative of irreversible changes in migration. Demographic balance and political equations will continue to change in both host and migrating countries. What needs to be done by governments is to facilitate migration and be prepared for demographic and political changes.

Kandathil Sebastian is a social scientist and researcher based in Delhi


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