Migration over Millennia: South Asia to the Middle East

As someone of South Asian heritage, I have noticed a trend of economic migration from South Asia to the Middle East. While completing research for my PhD I came across evidence that this migration for economic purposes has been going on much longer than just the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The region of South Asia encompasses the modern countries of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The initial movement of hominins (including homo sapiens, extinct human species and immediate ancestors) out of the African continent expanded into Asia, including both the Middle East and South Asia, and spread into Southeast Asia, then continuing into the Pacific, Australia and the Americas. During my research I found parallels between the ancient and modern migration of South Asians to the Middle East and the economic reasons for this movement.

Ancient migration

The ancient Indus Valley or Harappan civilisation, covering modern day Pakistan and northwest India, presents the earliest recorded examples of migration between South Asia and the Middle East, in addition to regular trade between these two regions. Ancient texts refer to men or sons of Meluhha living in Mesopotamia (the ancient Middle East, covering Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey) and of a "Meluhhan village". It is generally accepted that Meluhha was the Mesopotamian's term for the Indus Valley and its people, indicating that Harappans had established their own settlement within the Mesopotamian world. The inhabitants of this settlement are believed to be merchants and traders taking advantage of the Mesopotamian market. 

Examples of objects displaying the Harappan writing system, which remains undeciphered despite extensive attempts over the last century, have been found in Mesopotamia. Although the script is undeciphered, the sign sequences seen in these Mesopotamian examples are very different to those found within the Indus Valley itself. This suggests that the Meluhhan traders who established themselves in Mesopotamia had adopted foreign names to assimilate into Mesopotamian society, but were continuing to represent these names using their own writing system.

A cylinder seal, a small device used to make impressions on clay, in Akkadian (the language of several Mesopotamian empires) that refers to a Meluhhan translator named Shu-ilishu has been found in Mesopotamia. Due to the trade in antiquities that was common over the 19th and early 20th centuries CE, the original find location of the seal is unknown. The seal impression below shows a number of figures, including a much smaller person sitting on the lap of a seated figure. This artefact indicates that there were people who were bilingual in the Mesopotamian and Harappan languages, which would have been useful in the economic relations between these two areas. 

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal impression referring to the personal translator of the ancient Indus or Meluhan language, Shu-ilishu, who lived around 2020 BCE during the late Akkadian period. Shows a seated figure with a small figure in their lap, two standing figures in front facing them, and a crouching figure behind the seated figure. Pottery and inscriptions are shown around the figures.
Shu-ilishu's cylinder seal, from approx. 2020 BCE


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Modern migration

Looking forward a few millennia, as the standard of living and access to wealth increased in the Middle East from the 1970s onwards, linked to growing oil prices, the influx of foreign workers to this region grew rapidly. Greater economic opportunities in both professional and manual labour industries drew many South Asian workers to the Middle East. A significant proportion of the latter type of workers were employed in the construction industry, building infrastructure reflective of the growing wealth of the Middle East. Over time, women from South Asia began being employed as maids and domestic servants as the net wealth of the average Middle Eastern household expanded. These workers spend at least a few years working in Middle Eastern countries, in particular nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while sending remittances back to family in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

Although the opportunity for greater financial gain is present in comparison to opportunities available in their home nations, these domestic and construction temporary workers operate in an unregulated labour industry and are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their employers, including withholding of wages and passports. Many workers are required to pay high fees in order to migrate to the GCC countries, and then are told they are in debt to their employers, often for a number of years. Work conditions are often hazardous and employer provided living conditions unsanitary, and there have been many recorded (and likely significantly more unrecorded) instances of physical and sexual abuse of female domestic workers by their employers. In 1997 this resulted in a ban on female Bangladeshi workers taking foreign jobs, but this ban was lifted in 2004. 

Due to the COVID-19 crisis that has been taking place over the past year and a half, many South Asian workers in the Middle East lost their jobs, could no longer afford to pay for accommodation and living expenses, but were unable to return to their home countries due to international travel restrictions. The loss of remittances to South Asian countries from temporary migrant workers, which totalled over $83 million US in 2019, also has an extreme impact on the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan economies, and the influx of returning migrant workers saturates the already growing labour force seeking work. 

South Asian migrant workers in the Middle East
(link here)

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In Summary

Economic opportunities have drawn South Asians to work and live in the Middle East for thousands of years, although the circumstances of this employment have changed given the long time scale of this phenomenon. Despite providing opportunities for greater income and the resulting growth in wealth of the families of migrant workers, the conditions of this work often have negative personal consequences for the workers. The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment of South Asian migrant workers in the Middle East, and the influence of this on economies in both regions, is currently unknown and may impact the future of this form of employment. It will be interesting to see how COVID-19 impacts the long term patterns of economic migration between South Asia and the Middle East. 


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