Introduction: Brokerage, Gender and Precarity in Asia’s Migration Industry

  • Michiel BaasEmail author


Due to the commercialization of migration pathways, the opportunity to migrate has opened up to an ever-widening group of potential migrants. Furthermore, the ongoing formalization and regulation of migration trajectories also makes that increasingly migrants have no choice but to seek out the services of specialists in order to meet stringent rules and regulations. This Introduction argues that the emergence of a migration industry across Asia needs to be understood in this light. Asking two interrelated questions—what is the migration industry and what is lacking in its analysis so far—this chapter shows how each of the studies included in this edited volume provides important insight to this.

In recent years, there has been a gradual realization that migration cannot solely be understood by focusing on either sending or receiving side. Although increasingly studies of migration take a multi-sited approach, following migrants across the border and from migration decision to ongoing trajectories, an actual focus on what unites sending and receiving sides remains relatively understudied. Studies of transnationalism have partly stepped into this void by showing how various networks act as facilitators and lubricators of migrant flows, but often continue to presuppose an established network, an active diaspora and a certain history to a particular flow of migrants from A to B. However, research increasingly indicates that migrants in Asia no longer strictly rely on such networks and established migrant communities. Due to the commercialization of migration pathways (Baas 2007; Garapich 2008; Lindquist et al. 2010, 11; Surak 2017, 2), the opportunity to migrate has opened up to an ever-widening group of potential migrants. Furthermore, the ongoing formalization and regulation of migration trajectories (Faist 2014; Spaan and Hillmann 2013; Kern and Müller-Böker 2015) also makes that increasingly migrants have no choice but to seek out the services of specialist in order to meet stringent rules and regulations. The emergence of a migration industry across Asia needs to be understood in this light.

While research on the migration industry has increased in recent years, most notably following the lead of scholars such as Garapich (2008), Lindquist (2010), and Hernández-León (2008, 2013), there continues to be a lack in empirically rich studies that take the existence of the migration industry as a starting point in order to derive at a deeper understanding of its role in facilitating migration. In particular, its practical, day-to-day functioning remains understudied. A particular problem here is the ongoing demonization of the migration industry (McKeown 2008; Lindquist 2015), which, although not always altogether unjustified, has a tendency to reduce its functioning to the experience of exploitation while glossing over how, especially for low-skilled migrants in Asia, migration is often not even possible without the involvement of agents, brokers and others that make up the industry.

This edited volume brings together a selection of papers which were initially presented at a two-day workshop titled ‘The Migration Industry: Facilitators and Brokerage in Asia’, held at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore in 2017. Each of these papers are deeply grounded in extensive fieldwork, building on empirical data gathered through interactions and interviews with brokers, agents and other facilitators of migration. While the experience of migrants with the industry is certainly not disregarded here as well, the papers take a particularly critical approach to migration policy, adjustments and interventions. The picture that emerges from these papers is revealing for the increasing co-dependence on, entanglement of and overlap between migrants, the industry and the state (of receiving as well as sending nation). While migrants are strikingly dependent on the industry for making migration possible, migrants are also involved in the industry themselves, sometimes even envisioning it as a pathway by itself: from migrant to agent or broker. While rules and regulations fuel the need for the migration industry, the state is also dependent on it for the inflow of the right type of migrant. Moreover, the state is actively part in formalizing the industry’s role in migration trajectories. While the industry itself depends on the migration desires of its clients, it also plays an active role in fuelling migration desires and creating new pathways. In the following two sections, I will briefly engage with two interlinked questions: What Is the Migration Industry, and What Is Lacking in the analysis of its functioning (in Asia) so far? In the final section, I will show how the various chapters in this volume provide important insight here.

What Is the Migration Industry?

Since the 1970s, there has been a steady increase in the use of labour recruitment agencies facilitating migration to Asia and the Middle East (Lindquist 2010, 123, drawing on Massey et al. 1998). As a term itself, the migration industry can be traced to 1977 when it was initially termed ‘the commerce of migration’, which was held to refer to the activities of a set of intermediaries who profited by offering services to migrants (as discussed in Lindquist 2010). Twenty years later, Salt and Stein would speak of ‘a global business’ when it comes to the migration industry. Scholars such as Robin Cohen (1997) noted that ‘despite the rigorous official control of immigration, there has been an extensive and rapid development of a migration industry comprising private lawyers, travel agents, recruiters, organizers, fixers and brokers who sustain links with origin and destination countries’ (Cohen 1997, 163). It was not until 2007 that the term became more commonplace among researchers working on various topics related to migration (e.g. Baas 2007). However, it was particularly Garapich’s work on Polish migrants in the EU that set the tone for further conceptualization on the migration industry. Garapich positioned the industry as a ‘particular sector of the service economy that stimulates mobility and eases adaptation’ (Garapich 2008, 735). Understanding what constitutes the migration industry and how it can be defined remains a topic of debate among scholars however. Various reasons can be pointed at for this.

First of all, there is the terminology itself: while some speak of migration management, brokers and agents, others use terms such migration merchants or subcontractors (e.g. Kyle and Liang 2001). Through such usage a certain divide percolates that distinguishes between legal and illegal migration, the latter mainly referring to practices of trafficking and illegal border crossings while the former is assumed to function within the narrow confines of local and overseas’ rules and regulations. The most widely encountered definition is the one by Hernández-León who speaks of the migration industry in terms of an ‘ensemble of entrepreneurs who, motivated by the pursuit of financial gain, provide a variety of services facilitating human mobility across international borders’ (see also Hernández-León 2013, 25). In his view, it is the migration industry that greases the engines of international migration (2008, 154). It does so by providing and articulating the expertise and infrastructural resources needed for cross-border movements (see also Nyberg Sørensen and Gammeltoft-Hansen 2013, 6). While other scholars have attempted to refine earlier mentioned definitions, the primary discussion has focused on which businesses and actors can be included under this particular umbrella header (e.g. Betts 2013; Light 2013). Fine-tuning the understanding of the migration industry, Nyberg Sørensen and Gammeltoft-Hansen (2013) expand it to include not just service providers that make migration possible but also those so-called control providers such as private contractors performing immigration checks, operating detention centres and/or carrying out forced returns (p. 6). In their analysis of the actors that make up the migration industry, they note the following ones: larger, often transnationally operating companies; agencies and companies facilitating legal migration (sometimes even undocumented); smaller enterprises, typically set up by migrants who have managed to commercialize their own knowledge/experience; clandestine actors (e.g. human smuggling networks, transnational crime organizations, trafficking rings); and finally (the increasing number of) NGOs, humanitarian organizations and migrant associations (pp. 8–10).

What Is Lacking?

Although recent studies and publications by Spaan and Hillmann (2013), Kern and Müller-Böker (2015), Surak (2017), and Cranston et al. (2018) have significantly contributed to the conceptualization of the migration industry, what continues to be lacking is scholarship that engages more empirically driven with the way the migration industry functions on a day-to-day basis. The earlier mentioned demonization or vilification remains an issue here. As Kern and Müller-Böker (2015, 158) note, besides the usual bad practices and fraud cases, ‘recruiters perform important roles for the facilitation of transnational mobility and present the necessary infrastructure for labour migration’. Moreover, it could be argued that the industry even plays an important role in making migration safer. ‘Brokers are important facilitators in supporting alternative income strategies and new livelihood options for people’ (ibid.). Finally, the migration industry seems to play an increasingly important role in migration governance itself.

When Lindquist et al. (2010) suggested to think of that middle space that connects sending and receiving nations as a ‘black box’ which migration research had a task to pry open in order to understand its functioning, they argued that a focus on brokers is a productive way of doing so. We follow this call here by presenting a selection of papers which do exactly that. By focusing directly on agents, brokers and other commercial and non-commercial actors involved in facilitating migration, the chapters that follow draw attention to the necessity of their involvement, the constraints faced and the risks taken (by migrants as well as the industry itself).

This Volume

This edited volume focuses on three key elements which provide for a deeper understanding of the functioning of the migration industry across Asia: brokerage, gender and precarity. Brokerage is utilized here as a shorthand for all these activities that agents (brokers) and others involved in the migration industry are involved in to drive, facilitate and regulate migration. The chapters presented in this volume all engage with various aspects of brokerage, especially in the way policy implementations and adjustments, often specifically meant to protect low-skilled migrants, give rise to various forms of brokerage and the involvement of a migration industry in general. We see gender as an increasingly important aspect in the way it structures migration in terms of constraints, opportunities and the direction of trajectories. The feminization of migration is particularly relevant here. Finally, the notion of precarity points at how industry, migrants and the state produce, engage with and negotiate the risks imbued, negotiated and taken in migration trajectories, especially those of low-skilled migrants.

In Chapter  2, Avyanthi Azis, Rhino Ariefiansyah, and Nastiti Setia Utami discuss the interplay of brokerage and precarity in the case of (provincial) Indonesia. In particular, the authors do so by problematizing the role informal brokers play in outmigration from the area of Indramayu, West Java. While migration research has frequently highlighted the precarity of migrant workers and how this influences their migration strategies and trajectories, less attention has been paid to the precarity of brokers themselves, and the way this impacts migration flows. As the authors show, the involvement of informal brokers and the way they facilitate migration trajectories is often just one way of generating an income among many. Conceptualizing their brokerage activities as ‘moonlighting’ helps develop a more nuanced understanding of the commercialization of migration pathways and the scope for making money out of such activities. They situate their analysis within the context of the lessening of other opportunities within the rural area environment of Indramayu which has traditionally always relied heavily on the cultivation of rice for income. By doing so, they point at the way providing brokerage (as an alternative or additional source of income) is deeply embedded in a local context and structure.

With its focus on labour migration from Myanmar to Thailand, Indrė Balčaitė’s contribution connects well with the previous chapter in the way that it highlights the informality of brokerage activities. Drawing on extensive fieldwork among Karen migrants from Myanmar who seek to work in Thailand, Balčaitė shows how a private migration infrastructure provides an alternative for as well as an interface to the bureaucratic migration management by both countries. Both documented and undocumented migration of the low-paid variety, deeply rely on expensive migrant brokerage to obtain legal (migrant) work rights in Thailand. Like in Azis et al.’s work, we see what role social networks play in this, and the informal character of activities meant to facilitate migration. Building on extensive fieldwork material, Balčaitė’s research sheds light on the omnipresence of brokerage in migration from Myanmar to Thailand as well as the importance of personal networks. Particularly striking is the finding that either documented or undocumented pathways involve similar actors which points at an entanglement of state, migration industry and other stakeholders’ related interests.

Chapter  4 then turns to understanding the ‘cost of migration’ by asking why low-skilled Indian migrant workers pay the amounts they do in order to secure migration to and employment in Singapore. By focusing on migration agents and brokers active in the greater Chennai Region of Tamil Nadu (India), Michiel Baas investigates the costing of migration pathways in order to derive at a deeper understanding of who and what it entails to migrate. As has been pointed out earlier, for low-skilled workers, it is almost unavoidable to make use of migration agents. The case of Singapore is particularly interesting here since it not only involves a migration agent based in India but also one in Singapore itself who functions as the liaison for employers interested in sourcing labour migrants from India. What becomes clear is that the individual amounts quoted for the various costs involved in facilitating low-skilled migration to Singapore do not necessarily add up to the amounts migrants themselves quote as having paid. As Baas argues, the murky nature of migration channels and individuals involved not only makes it nearly impossible for migrants to fully understand what they are paying for; migration agents who source migrants for their contacts in Singapore are also not always aware of what the subagents they rely on charge to those who show an interest in migrating. While generally the industry alleges to closely follow the stringent rules and regulations that were instituted to protect low-skilled migrants, these very same rules and regulation make that it is not always in the interest of agents and brokers to fully know or understand the industry’s intricate workings.

The final two chapters in this volume contribute to the picture that rules and regulations to protect low-skilled migrants often contribute to the inherent murkiness of the functioning of the migration industry in Asia. While Chapter  2 discusses this with relation to the practice of moonlighting within the context of facilitating outmigration from Indonesia, Chapter  3 does so in terms of transborder mobility from Myanmar to Thailand. State, industry and other stakeholders are involved in a complex and deeply entangled playing field that makes migration possible ‘at a cost’ but provides little clarity and transparency to migrants whose decision to migrate is usually influenced by precarious situations at home. Migrating to situations where they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and faced with the near-absence of labour rights—especially where it concerns destinations in the Middle East—measures of regulation, protection and intervention not rarely have the opposite effect.

Praveena Kodoth’s chapter is a clear example here. Focusing on the unauthorized recruitment of Indian migrant domestic workers for the Middle East, Kodoth takes as a point of departure recent policy measures that have virtually closed the legal route for migrant women. As the author eloquently argues, these policy measures reflect a dominant patriarchal and nationalist logic that speaks directly to the idea of control over women’s bodies and the normativity this is imbued with. Strikingly, Kodoth notes that the women public policy supposedly protects have little say in this themselves due to being poor and unorganized. She argues that intensification of controls alongside tacit accommodation of irregular mobility has given impetus to clandestine recruitment which has served to criminalize women while providing impunity to unauthorized recruiters. Even though official or legal recruitment practices for destinations in the Middle East have been restricted, clandestine recruitment for and migration to these destinations continues, though now involving considerably more risk. In general, it can be argued that the protection of migrant workers or the prevention of migration to particular destinations has the adverse effect of making migration riskier, occasionally even more dangerous, and most of all more expensive.

In the final chapter, V. J. Varghese’s detailed case study of migration fraud involving large numbers of nursing professionals from the Middle East to India continues Kodoth’s line of argument of the entanglement of state, industry and other stakeholders’ interests. Varghese shows how complex the relationship and entanglement truly is and how state, industry, stakeholders and migrants themselves deal with and relate to the ever-changing dynamics of the demand for employment overseas and the rules and regulations implemented to facilitate and regulate this. Varghese shows how the governmental regulation of emigration from India and the evolution of its migration industry has been guided by a particular fixity on low-skilled migrants from colonial times onwards. He argues that the configuration and practices of India’s migration industry are determined by historically and institutionally situated migration assemblages, which are an outcome of constant and ever-changing interaction between various actors. However, the expansion of the regulative infrastructure, stringent ‘migration policing’ and new operational mechanisms based on virtual technologies have not been able to prevent corruption and fraud. In fact, it seems that this has even increased as a result. As Varghese argues, migration control has become a precondition for informality. Players within the state apparatus and illegal actors find new ways out of the predicament of the ongoing fine-tuning of rules and regulations, and this in terms neutralizes the intended formal–informal dualism in terms of migration practices.

While the chapters in this volume bring together a number of case studies comprising countries as diverse as Indonesia, Myanmar-Thailand and India with its significant flows of various skilled migrants to the Middle East and Singapore, it does not pretend to provide an all-encompassing answer to the questions it raises about the migration industry. Instead, the intention here is to give impetus to further research and discussion on the developments within as well as functioning of the migration industry across Asia. Changing forms of brokerage and the interplay of factors of precarity and gender seem crucial to this analysis but also require additional reflection to come to a more inclusive and comparative understanding than is possible here. We look forward to seeing how future research will draw upon the findings presented and conclusions reached here and give the migration industry and associated infrastructure a more central place in the analysis of what triggers, facilitates and also constraints migration.

Note on Anonymity and Consent

Throughout the chapters that follow informants’ names and sometimes also other details about their lives and histories have been anonymized to protect their privacy. Considering the nature of the ethnographic methods employed, the informed consent was sought of those who participated in the various studies presented here.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore

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