Karakoram highway in Xinjiang, China. (Credit: beibaoke/Bigstock)
Karakoram highway in Xinjiang, China. (Credit: beibaoke/Bigstock) (via: bit.ly)

A great amount of discussion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is about the building of a transnational infrastructure network across continents, based on trade and investment. Along with infrastructure building, trade, and investment comes the movement of people. Inevitably, the volume of migration for One Belt, One Road (OBOR) member countries will increase. More migrant labour, international students, migrant entrepreneurs, and families will be expected. More jobs will be created for the local economy as a result.

One of the five major goals of the BRI is strengthening people-to-people ties. As stated in the project’s White Paper, this goal is to be achieved by promoting academic exchanges and dialogue between different cultures, in order to nurture mutual understanding and friendship. For the OBOR participant countries, 10,000 scholarships will be provided for academic exchange, the tourist visa process will be simplified, and joint training programs will be promoted.  However, the impact of people’s migration within the OBOR region goes beyond what is officially described and expected in the report.

By looking at the migration and the labour market issues at the global level, as well as within the relevant region and specific countries along the OBOR route, the opportunities and challenges in promoting migration and strengthening labour markets are revealed in this article.

Migration Issues

The traditional migration corridor has been from the global South to the developed countries of North America and Europe, which is South-North migration. The changing pattern is that more and more migration is happening among the low and middle-income countries, which is South-South migration. In total, there are 242 million international migrants, of which 82 million belong within the South-South migration movement. The migration pattern of the OBOR region falls in this latter category. Along the route, there are 4.5 billion people, which is potentially a very large labour force reserve.

Take China’s migration as an example. The country’s total emigration population amounts to 35 million, which is a major source of migrants to the entire world. China’s largest reserve of immigrants among the OBOR regions are from Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Eastern Europe. But the largest percentage increase during recent years is in West Asia, East Africa, and South Africa.

China’s migration to Africa and the Middle East has been on the rise. The Chinese migrant population in these regions is estimated between one to two million, concentrated in South Africa and Jordan. This migration is characterised as both skilled and unskilled labour, professionals and peasants. Typical Chinese labour migrants are employed by Chinese companies that are usually state-owned and engage in construction and resource extraction projects in Africa. They tend to work on fixed term contracts between one and three years. It is in this respect that the potential Chinese migration to other OBOR countries would be similar to the migration to Africa. Many of these migrants stay longer to become independent migrants, usually as entrepreneurs in light manufacturing, trade, restaurant and food service, and the agricultural sector, thereby employing local Africans.

China’s labour migration to Kazakhstan has also dramatically increased in recent years. Kazakhstan’s domestic industry only covers one percent of local demand, while 75 percent is covered by China. China has over 1,300 SMEs in Kazakhstan, dominating the local market in clothes and footwear.

In reality, most movement of labour is intraregional. Regional blocs within the OBOR include for example the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the EAEU, Russia and Kazakhstan are the main receiving countries while Central Asian countries (aside from Kazakhstan) are typically sending countries. Around 88 percent of Russian’s population growth is due to migration gains. The current migration and labour policies of the EAEU made it possible so that the labour market is integrated and labour mobility is high. For instance, workers of the EAEU member states are not required to obtain a work permit, and no restrictions are imposed on the national labour market of the member states.

Within APEC and ASEAN, irregular migrant labour is a common issue. Migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia typically work in the construction and service sectors in Thailand without valid visas. Illegal Vietnamese migrants have worked in farming in China’s Guangxi province. Managing this type of labour flow is important in order to reach a win-win situation for both sending and receiving countries.

Labour Market

The global labour market is facing challenges that are similar for many individual countries. It is observed that a lack of workers in both primary and secondary labour markets, a declining labour force, skill mismatch, and skill upgrading due to fast technological advances are the common issues faced by countries across cultures.

Generally, the OBOR countries have low ratings on the Labour Market Efficiency Index, which measures the flexibility of a labour market and efficient use of talent. The scores tend to be below 4.5, which indicates that the OBOR labour markets are inflexible and inefficient.

The way things are going, China will suffer from a shrinking working age population in ten years. Although it currently has a rather abundant labour force of one billion people, China’s projected shortfall in 2030 is equivalent to 24 percent of its current working age population. China also faces the problems of a lack of highly skilled labour and skills upgrading.

In total, East Asia needs a further 275 million migrants and Southeast Asia needs six million migrants to boost its labour force.  Meanwhile, South Asia could be a major source of migrants, from countries such as India and Bangladesh.

Russian also faces a declining labour force due to its aging population and low birth rate. Although Russia also lacks highly skilled workers, a considerable amount of skilled migrants flow freely into Russian from post-Soviet states, thanks to the EAEU’s integrated labour market. Likewise, the EU has the serious problem of lacking high-skilled labour and a shrinking workforce. It endeavors to encourage the high-skilled labour flow within the region by introducing the Blue Card system.


As OBOR covers over 60 countries and 4.5 billion people, how to maximise migration gains for member countries is the core challenge. A properly managed migration system can be a solution to labour market problems, such as shortfall in the labour force and filling the skill gap. Evidence from the EAEU labour market entails that an integrated labour market would facilitate labour mobility, and encourage free movement of labour to designated places. A relaxation of visa and work permit regulations, and recognition of foreign education credentials and skill certificates are some vital reforms of migration and labour market policies.

Nonetheless, migration and labour market policy making is impossible without accurate data. Therefore, collecting transparent and accurate information is the key to policy analysis. Furthermore, promoting skills-based training across countries in various business sectors, as well as academic exchanges, can nurture the free flow of highly skilled labour in the region.

Further studies on public perception, integration of migrants, and the impact of migration on the receiving countries can be helpful sources in understanding the migration pattern and the role of migration, and in promoting cross-cultural communication.

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Hui Wang

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Hertie School of Governance,

Dr. Hui Wang is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hertie School of Governance and a fellow of the Taihe Global Institute, a public-policy think-tank based in Beijing. She holds a PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in Economics from the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests are in migration, labour market, and global transformation. Hui is conducting research into the area of international migration. Her current research attempts to explore the relationship between social media and the integration of non-European migrants in Europe. She worked on China’s urbanisation issues and migrant labour market during her time at the International Organisation for Migration's Geneva headquarters. While at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, she engaged in researching China’s immigration policies for the Global Detention Project.