Labour migration

India's Kerala-born Narayanan Pushpavally, 59, was trafficked to Saudi Arabia in 2015 - © 2018 Sebastian Castelier

"The financial contribution of migration to our state is unimaginable!" acknowledges Irudaya Rajan, a leading expert in India-Gulf migration. Indeed, most labour sending Asian countries have taken tremendous advantage of the economic boom experienced by the Arabian Gulf since the 1970s. Payments sent home from abroad account for a tenth of the Philippines's growth domestic product and make up a third of the India's Kerala state's income, one of the highest ratios for any region in the world. Yet, it is estimated that some 600,000 migrants suffer forced labour in the Arab States and the emotional/social suffering associated with migration is immeasurable.

Gulf dream


Located along India's tropical Malabar Coast, the state of Kerala became a major manpower exporter following the oil boom in the Gulf in the 1970s. Fifty years ago, just before migration began in earnest, Kerala’s road network was a tenth of its current size, with only a third of the hospitals. "The whole development of Kerala happened thanks to the migration process," says Rony Thomas Rajan, assistant professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Kerala. Nowadays, about 1,9 million Keralites work in the Gulf, mainly in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

In recent years, ongoing structural changes in Gulf countries have however exacerbated evolving aspirations among the youth of Kerala to attach more importance to personal development. The number of candidates to the Gulf migration appear to be declining as local experts believe that going there ‘is no longer a madness’. 


Social impact

Behind most male Indian migrant worker stand a devoted wife whose life mirrors the migratory journey. In Kerala, about one million married women nicknamed ‘Gulf wives’ are left behind struggling with loneliness and longing for a visit from their husbands. Yet, most women do not have the courage to admit publicly the downside of being alone, out of fear to be judged by Kerala’s conservative society. Instead, they prefer to conceal their distress and immeasurable emotional pain. Read more...

Rooted in Kerala’s bittersweet connection to the Gulf, kathu pattu is a popular contemporary song style that narrates emotional distress associated with the migration to the Arabian Peninsula since the 1970s. Kathu pattu translates to “letter songs” and are inspired by the letters shared by Indian migrant husbands and their wives. According to local sources, 'the songs emphasise the inner feelings of our communities more than they evoke the economic well­being of society'. A psychologist by profession, the late singer S A Jameel is believed to have written the first kathu pattu song, gathering the material by listening to Gulf wives. Sung for the first time in 1977, Dubai Kathu Pattu quickly reached the top of the music charts in Kerala. Read more...


Every year, hundreds of Indians who work throughout the Gulf vanish, either killed, arrested and jailed, locked into force labour, or absconded to escape deportation, family pressures and financial distress. Pravasalokam, a Malayalam-language TV show based in the South Indian state of Kerala helps families to find their missing relatives in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Each week, Pravasalokam broadcast on both sides of the Arabian Sea portraits and interviews with families. Since 2000, the TV show aired over 1,700 cases which helped helped to locate about 800 missing migrants. Read more...




Notable books to read

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