Migration in Southern Shan State: Characteristics and Outcome


July 23, 2019 - Eaindra Theint Theint Thu, Khun Moe Htun, and Ben Belton

Eaindra Theint Theint Thu, Khun Moe Htun, and Ben Belton, 2019. Migration in Southern Shan State: Characteristics and Outcomes. Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research Paper 136. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Migration is a common phenomenon in southern Shan. Nearly one in three households (31%) have a household member who has ever migrated. At the time of the survey, 14% of households had a migrant and 7% of individuals of working age were migrating. However, southern Shan has developed as a migrant sending area less rapidly than other areas of the country.

Migrant flows began to increase rapidly from 2009. Six times more individuals migrated for the first time in 2017 than in 2009

International migrants outnumber domestic migrants, but domestic migration is growing more rapidly. Sixty-five percent of current migrants are currently working internationally, as compared to 35% working domestically. However, in every year from 2013 onwards, the number of first-time migrants to domestic destinations exceeded the number of first-time international migrants, indicating that opportunities for migration within Myanmar have increased in recent years

Thailand and Shan State are the most common destinations for migrants from southern Shan. Eighty-eight percent of current international migrants work in Thailand. Surprisingly, the majority of domestic migration takes place within Shan state, where 62% of domestic migrants are based.

The vast majority of migration is to urban areas. Domestic migrants work in roughly equal numbers in state/region capitals (38%) and other urban areas (41%), indicating that secondary and tertiary cities are providing significant opportunities for migration.

Women and men migrate in roughly equal numbers. Women account for 46% of migrants, men 54%. This ratio varies little between international and domestic migrants

Propensity to migrate varies with ethnicity, but is not closely related to landholding status. Individuals of mixed and Shan ethnicity are most likely to migrate (22% and 13% of working age individuals of these ethnicities migrated). Households are equally likely to have a migrant, irrespective of how much land they own.

About half of current international migrants borrowed to cover the cost of their migration. Only 11% of domestic migrants borrowed to migrate. The average cost of migration was at MMK 549,327 ($365) and MMK 25,321 ($17) for international and domestic migrants, respectively. Average amounts borrowed to support migration are of a similar order. Migrant earnings are typically sufficient for migration costs to be recouped quite rapidly.

International migrants earn more than twice as much as domestic migrants on average. Reported monthly salaries averaged MMK 458,000 ($305) and MMK 175,000 ($115), for international and domestic migrants, respectively

Well over half of migrants send remittances. Fifty-eight percent of migrants were reported to have sent remittances in the past 12 months.

Most remittances are spent on day-to-day living costs. More than half (52%) of respondents reported that the primary use of remittances was to cover the cost of day-to-day living expenses. Everyday necessities such as medical expenses, debt repayment, education costs and farm operating costs are among the most important uses of remittances after outlay for daily living expenses. This suggests that by migrating from rural areas (‘stepping out’), remittance-sending migrants provide vital v support that enables remaining household members to get by (‘hanging in’), but are less frequently able support household investments on a scale that allows for upgrading or expansion of productive activities (‘stepping up’).

The average duration of migration is quite short. Eighty percent of domestic migrants who returned to their place of origin migrated for two years or less. International return migrants spent more time away from home than domestic migrants (an average of four years, versus one year), but almost half migrated for one year or less (19% less than one year and 30% around one year).

Reasons for return migration reflect the precarious nature of much migrant work. Poor working conditions, loss or lack of work, poor health, and lack of legal status together account for 43% of decisions to return from migration. Together, these results suggest that the experience of migrating is often difficult and characterized by a high degree of precarity and vulnerability.

Most return migrants migrated only once, and have no intention to migrate again. Eighty-one percent of international and 69% of domestic return migrants had migrated on only one occasion, and more than 70% of return migrants did not expect to migrate again, with 14% undecided and 14% expressing the intention to migrate again

Implications for policy and programming:

  1. Domestic migration is growing more rapidly that international migration. Domestic migration is cheaper, less risky, and is associated with higher levels of skills acquisition than international migration. Moreover, value created by domestic migrants remains in country, creating economic spillovers. A policy environment that stimulates the growth of businesses, combined with skills training for domestic migrants, can also help to ensure that more of the benefits of migration remain in Myanmar.
  2. The impact of migration on rural labor markets in Shan appears to have been smaller than expected to date. Most migrants migrate only once, the average duration of migration is quite short, and most migrants return to farming when they come home. This may reflect high levels of access to agricultural land in southern Shan, relative to other areas of the country.
  3. …Nevertheless, the rural labor market in southern Shan is likely to tighten if migration continues to intensify. This will result in rising agricultural wages, and the need for further mechanization in agriculture to offset increased costs and ensure timeliness.
  4. Financial services designed to meet migrants’ needs could reduce the need to borrow informally, reducing the risk of becoming trapped in exploitative labor arrangements.
  5. Expanded provision of public health care, social safety nets, and cheaper schooling can free up more remittance income to be saved or used in productive investment by lessening the impact of shocks and reducing the burden of every day expenses.
  6. Although men and women migrate in roughly equal numbers, the burden of unpaid work caring for children left behind falls mainly on non-migrant women.


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