Public Health Perspective: ASEAN Economic Community and Migration

ASEAN Economic Migration: Aspiration or Reality


The Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. With the charter of ASEAN, it focuses on several issues: economy, natural resources (such as energy), and other investments. The formation of ASEAN was followed by AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Agreement), which is a direct result of a regional economic integration plan, ASEAN Economic Community, agreed in 2007 to establish the creation by 2015.

“ASEAN – its main purposes of its founding are to unite and create the sense of cooperation among Southeast Asia Countries in terms of politic and economy in order to build up a strong and certain regional[i].”

ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) aims to develop into a zero-end tariff and is designed to transform the region into one single-market zone. This integration is ideally based on the flow of investments, products, and essentially skilled labour workforce. As the inauguration of AEC approaches, the issue of the free-flow of qualified workers has been a highlighted topic. Several agreements have been signed so as to streamline the movement within the region. However, the nature of current economic migration does not sound as aspiring as the notion of “one region, one economy”.

The mobility policy of an inter- and intra-ASEAN migration is imbalanced. Work-permits and employment visas are subject to each nation’s regulations. In order to attract skilled professionals into AEC, the process of working across ASEAN nations requires a harmonised policy and procedure at a regional level. There is a lack of uniformity of visa requirement and system for foreign workers and proficient professions within the region. Some countries such as Thailand and the Philippines have constitutional and legal restrictions on the employment of foreigners. Even though there are agreements facilitating immigration formalities such as (i) The ASEAN Agreement on the Movement of Natural Persons (MNP)[ii] and (ii) The ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA)[iii], these agreements are only applied for temporary cross-border movement; it does not facilitate individuals to seek for employment opportunities in another ASEAN member states.

Secondly, the inequality in professional education and license regimes is incompatible among the member states. It is undeniable that there is a huge education-level difference between ASEAN countries. Some qualified workers are unable to apply for certain professions at the country destinations owing to their qualifications, experiences, and knowledge that are not readily accredited. Although the ASEAN member states have taken this issue into an account by developing agreements on recognition of qualification and skills such as (i) Mutual Recognition Arrangements (MRAs) and (ii) The ASEAN Qualification Framework (AQF), distinct measurement such as occupation-by-occupation analyse and political savvy within each country’s orgnaisation culture need to be realised.

Lastly, the gap between two-tired ASEAN nations creates the influx of unqualified labour from lower-income nations to higher-income nations. The unskilled workforce movement concentrates heavily on only a few borders; Myanmar (Burma) to Thailand, Cambodia to Thailand, Laos to Thailand, Indonesia to Malaysia, and Malaysia to Singapore. [iv] This migration flow through these top-five corridors represents the majority (87%) of unskilled labour.[v] The high percentage of unskilled workforce illustrates the idea that by trying to integrate economy in the region, it has to confront the difficulty of the economic diversity, and consequently it brought the incompatible size of economy and it will drag down the improvement because the community cannot step forward together.

In terms of unification as “one region, one economy”, an economic migration is an undeniable issue. Southeast Asia nations are not yet prepared to sacrifice itself for the majority’s interest to create the unity, not to mention each country’s political instability and disparities. Even though ASEAN has pave for a foundation labour movement frameworks and incentive, it is rather unrealistic to formalise the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by December 2015.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer, neither those of The EHESP Newsletter Association nor the EHESP School of Public Health.


[i] ASEAN Overview [Internet]. [cited 2015 Sep 14]. Available from:

[ii] ASEAN Agreement on The Movement of Natural Persons [Internet]. [cited 2015 Sep 19]. Available from:

[iii] ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement [Internet]. [cited 2015 Sep 18]. Available from:

[iv] Authors’ tabulations of data from the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Origin and Destination,” 2013 Revision. [Internet]. [cited 2015 Sep 18]. Available from: migrantstocks2013.htm

[v] Aniceto Orbeta Jr. “Enhancing Labor Mobility in ASEAN: Focus on Lower-skilled Workers” (Discussion paper 2013-17, Philippine Institute for Development Studies, 2013). [Internet]. [cited 2015 Sep 18]. Available from:


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