Circular migration is a repetitive form of migration wherein people move to another place (the destination country) and back (country of origin) according to the availability of employment. This effectively means that instead of migrating permanently or temporarily (moving for a period of time to complete any contract-based labour) to another location, people move to different locations for a brief period of time when work is available. It is a phenomenon mostly among low-income groups who migrate to avail of seasonally available jobs in another country, city, place etc.
Circular migration became quite popular in the 60s and 70s with the advent of globalisation and development. Increased access to modern forms of transport and communication, social networks and the growth of multinational corporations have aided the advent of circular migration. However, only recently has the phenomenon been given its due as the seasonal movement of migrants was not properly documented or was boxed along with short-term or temporary migration. Yet, how exactly is circular migration different from other forms of migration?
According to Philippe Fargues, migration can defined as circular if it meets the following criteria — there is a temporary residence in the destination location, there is the possibility of multiple entries into the destination country, there is freedom of movement between the country of origin and the country of destination during the period of residence, there is a legal right to stay in the destination country, there is protection of migrants’ rights, and if there is a healthy demand for temporary labour in the destination country.
But still some doubts remain. How many times does a migrant have to move between countries to be called a circular migrant? As per the report on measuring circular migration by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Task Force, one is called a circular migrant if you have completed at least ‘two loops’ between two countries. Consider country A and B. If you move from A to B and back to A, then you are a return migrant. You had some work, you finished it and now you are back. If you move from A to B to A and then again to B, you have completed two loops between two countries and can be considered a circular migrant. This means you have travelled between your destination and origin country at least two times.
This can become more complicated if more than two countries are involved. Consider one more country C. If you move from A to B then back to A and then to C and back to A, you would be a circular migrant as per country A (as you completed two loops) but not for countries B and C. They might classify you as a temporary, short-term or return migrant.
In short, if your primary destination is the country of origin and if you move periodically between two countries for purposes of economic advancement such as employment, business etc., you can be considered a circular migrant.
As public policy
With the increasing fluid movement of people, policy around migration is one of the biggest debates in the world. The movement of citizens from the Global South to the West in search of more employment opportunities or a better standard of living creates brain drain for their origin countries and competition for the citizens of the destination countries. Similarly, the flow of people moving from rural areas to more urban areas of the same country, results in the breakdown of infrastructure and agrarian stagnation. Therefore, migration of any kind has become a policy hazard.
However, circular migration is now seen as the best way forward, as needs of development and individual economic advancement can be balanced out. It is seen as a balanced migration method which looks at migration not only from the point of view of the receiving country but also of the sending nation. For the country of origin, migration, especially international migration, is beneficial due to the flow of remittances which will boost and aid the domestic economy. The flow of foreign capital will enhance the economy ensuring more infrastructure, more jobs and by association, a better standard of living. However, large-scale transnational migration will also lead to brain drain, wherein the most talented people of your country will use their intellect and innovation for the advancement of another country.
From the perspective of the host countries, especially those of the West, a lesser population and a higher access to education has resulted in a large dearth of low-income low-skill jobs which migrants have been able to fill. However, the influx of migrants have caused a wide range of anxieties and cultural conflicts in the host populations with most of them now calling for restrictions and outright ban on migration.
Circular migration aims to quell all these fears. The negative effects of brain drain will reduce and a sort of brain circulation will be encouraged, wherein the individual can use his talents in both countries and still contribute to remittances. Most importantly as Ronald Skeldon puts it in his paper, ‘Managing migration for development: is circular migration the answer?’, “circular migration offers a way out to the governments of destination countries as migrants will circulate back to their home areas. Labour can be introduced to undertake essential functions but it will not remain and become a permanent part of the population.” This way, he says, circular migration can be “sold” to the populations of the host countries with the claim that these labourers will eventually go home.
Circular migration within India
In India, internal migration, which is migration within a particular country or State, has almost always been circular. With the advent of jobs in the manufacturing, construction and services sector, there has been a huge flow of migrants from rural areas to urban cities. Between 2004–2005 and 2011–2012, the construction sector witnessed one of the largest net increases in employment for all workers, specifically for rural males. This has led to rural populations and their economy dwindling and urban spaces, while booming, witnessing infrastructural collapse as they are unable to properly house incoming populations.
In India, the uneven development post-liberalisation, has led to a lot of inter-State migration, with States like West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar having some of the highest rates of out-migration. Initially, while most of the migration was to Delhi, nowadays it has increased to southern States as well. Sudipta Sarkar and Deepak. K. Mishra take a closer look at the circular migration of rural males of West Bengal in a 2020 paper published in Sage Journals. They state that most of the rural migrants were occupied in agricultural jobs in their origin States; and when they migrated a majority of them were engaged in low-skill jobs. The positive outcomes of such inter-State migration include increased access to higher paying jobs when compared to origin States (as per Sarkar and Mishra, a daily wage labourer in West Bengal gets ₹150-180 per day, while in Kerala they would get somewhere between ₹260-380), better household welfare due to remittances, ease of mobility etc. Some reports have even stated how women get more autonomy and decision-making power in the family due to the absence of men who migrate.
However, in such migration, especially to southern States where the language barrier is a big obstacle, rural circular migrants are often at the mercy of middlemen or brokers. They are made to work in unhygienic and unsafe conditions with little to no protective equipment. They are routinely exploited and suffer significant ‘unfreedoms’ in host States. Additionally, indigenous wage groups and unions resent these migrants as they are seen as taking away their jobs by agreeing to work for lower wages. The study also says that this kind of migration is merely subsistence migration — it’s the bare minimum. The migrants are able to barely provide for themselves and their families, with no scope for further asset creation or savings. There is also a certain precarity associated with these jobs as they are seasonal and often irregular. A lack of jobs in the host States means that they will either have to go back home or look for work in other urban cities. This precarity was on clear display during the pandemic in 2020 when migrants en-masse started walking back to their home towns when a lockdown was announced.
At the end of the day, as Amrita Dutta in her paper, ‘Circular Migration and Precarity: Perspectives from Rural Bihar’, says “in destination areas, rural or urban, circular migrants remain at the margins of physical, social, cultural, and political spaces.” It is high time that States start actively formulating policy to understand the extent of circular migration. While some States like Kerala have announced health insurance schemes for migrant workers (Awaz Health scheme), there needs to be more effort to ensure migrants rights. The precarity of workers needs to be addressed and there should be more efforts to integrate them in the destination States.