The largest study into the movement of Keralites to the Middle East for jobs has begun following a decline in migration numbers.
Normally, the study is conducted every four to five years but a similar exercise was undertaken in 2016 following reports of a decline in migration to the Middle East.
The survey two years ago was the first to record a drop in Keralite migrants – from 2.4 million in 2014, to 2.24m in 2016.
Nicknamed ‘Gulfies’, people from the south Indian state of Kerala have shared a rich history with the UAE with migration beginning even before the discovery of oil.
Since then, many have improved the lives of their families back home with money earned in the Middle East pumped into bigger houses and better education for children.
As many as 25,000 households will be surveyed for the Kerala Migration Study that will include an eight-page questionnaire on subjects ranging from education, health and home finances.
Field work began last week and runs until March. Preliminary findings expected by the end of April aim to explain migration patterns to the Gulf states, said S Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city.
The centre has been conducting this study for 20 years. The eighth cycle will also address the experiences of female migrants, women whose husbands have worked overseas for more than 20 years and the problems fresh job-seekers face.
“On average one out of five households in Kerala are migrants. We want to know if there are new households where this is picking up or if it is the same families from the same areas going out,” Mr Rajan said.
The findings are expected to show if the slump in oil prices and introduction of VAT in parts of the GCC has had an impact on migration.
For UAE resident Farhan Ahmad, moving to the Gulf is still a better option.
“My son wants to be a doctor. I could not have dreamt of this without working here for 30 years,” said Mr Ahmad, a taxi driver. His brother and two cousins from Kerala also work in the UAE.
“It will take time to see if people save less because of VAT and if that makes fewer people come here. There are taxes at home but living costs are cheaper.”
Previous surveys such as the one in 2008 reflected the impact of the global financial crisis which left workers unpaid when construction companies closed down in Saudi Arabia. In most cases Indian government officials worked with authorities to resolve the cases and repatriate workers.
Despite this, the number of Keralites moving to the UAE in 2016 rose compared with other countries moving up to 41.5 per cent from 38.7 per cent in 2011.
“We want to map trends to see if there is a further decline or it has picked up. Some people believe 2016 was a short-term trend that will correct itself. The is another dimension for the Gulf because of low oil prices, the crisis over Qatar and new taxes,” Mr Rajan said.
Experts pinned the 2016 decline on educated migrants considering other countries instead.
“In Kerala, an aging population, higher level of development, higher wages, and an increase in education levels have all contributed the decline. These changes have also contributed to a shift in unskilled to skilled migration, particularly among highly educated women, as well as the opportunity for some to use the Gulf as a launchpad for onward migration in USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand,” said Cedwyn Fernandes, director of Middlesex University Dubai.
Most of the money earned by Keralites in the UAE is sent home. Previous studies have revealed that remittances were equal to one third of the state’s income.
While living standards have improved, the survey will also throw up cases of loans taken by workers, families deep in debt and the social consequences of families living apart.
Previous surveys estimate that one million women in Kerala live without their husbands, two million children are brought up without one or both parents and four million elderly live alone.
“We cannot shy away from how important migration is to the Kerala economy. It has changed the landscape both economically and socially because it has created wealth and a new type of people whose children can study in better schools and colleges,” Mr Rajan said.
“But we should talk about the negative because although money is important, it is not everything. Some have been cheated through migration, some have died.
Separation plays a big part in their lives. When people who leave their wife and children are not paid salaries, imagine the psychological problems they suffer. This is not just for migrants from Kerala. This story can be replayed for migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal and Philippines. People say remittances bring down poverty, but we should also look beyond the numbers at the hearts and minds of the migrants.”