Transnational labour migration and livelihoods in rural Asia: Tracing patterns of agrarian and forest change

Ramesh Sunam*, Keith Barney, John F. McCarthy

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


While scholars and policy makers have increasingly focused on transnational labour migration (TLM) in Asia, few comparative studies have analysed how TLM shapes poverty, livelihoods, vulnerability, and agrarian-forest change across different rural contexts. Based on focused comparative fieldwork and a critical review of the secondary literature, this paper identifies the salient patterns of TLM-led change affecting rural livelihoods and agrarian-forest landscapes in three migrant-sending Asian countries: Nepal, Indonesia and Laos. Depending on how social relations, including those based on gender and ethnicity, and how specific geographic places are integrated into migration pathways, TLM can result in patterns of changes involving agricultural deactivation and de-agrarianisation, as well as incipient re-agrarianisation. We also find that where remittances are integrated with diversified livelihood portfolios, and where state policies play a supportive role, transnational labour migration may improve household livelihoods. In the absence of these factors, the transformative potential of TLM can be overestimated, and TLM may end up reproducing underlying structural drivers of rural poverty and vulnerability. We, therefore, challenge the simplistic narrative that TLM provides an easy solution to the limitations of rural development in agrarian Asia. We suggest policy innovations that ameliorate critical issues of migrant vulnerability and precarity, and that support the mobilisation of labour remittances for agricultural development and livelihood diversification.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Jan
Externally publishedYes


  • Agrarian change
  • Labour migration
  • Precarity
  • Remittances, livelihoods, rural poverty
  • Vulnerability, Asia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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