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"Birds of Passage": Migration of South Indian Laborers to Southeast Asia

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This paper deals with the migration of south Indian manual and unskilled workers to Southeast Asian countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It presents an analysis of the pattern of mobility of the laboring classes who crossed the seas and seeks to develop a migration paradigm that encompasses the various dimensions of the different types of intra-Asian migrations. The author argues that south Indian laborers who migrated to Burma and Malaya experienced both free and unfree migration situations during the colonial period. Different types and streams of migration coexisted and depending upon the changing strategies of employers, government, and laborers themselves the migrants were free and unfree at the same time. Hence, it is suggested that an a priori distinction between free and unfree labor migration is difficult to substantiate, at least in the case of south Indian labor migrations. In this study migration is conceptualized as an integrated and continuous process. For the lower castes and communities out-migration meant an opportunity to better their material conditions and to overcome social and caste oppression. In other words, migration to foreign countries certainly provided them avenues for social mobility that was denied in their native land.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/146727102760166617

Publication date: March 1, 2002

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