International Labour Organization
International Labour Organization
Indian Labor Migrants in Lebanon: A Comparative Study of Migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu

Originally posted March 2010

Historically, voluntary international labor migration has been a means by which people in developing countries seek to improve their economic and social conditions. In order to finance their travel abroad, the majority of labor migrants sell their belongings or take loans against property or land. This essay compares migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu with respect to their socioeconomic, demographic, and household profiles, their mode of financing the trip, and their debt status at the time of emigration.[1]

Characteristics of Punjab and Tamil Migrants

While macro-level factors set the framework within which migration decisions are made, each decision (in the case of voluntary emigration) results from a number of factors that operate at community, household, and individual levels.[2] In this section, we look at the migrants from individual and household levels.

Socioeconomic and Demographic Profile


In many developing countries, particularly in Asia, low and declining rural income and rural unemployment/under-employment are the major factors pushing migrants towards economically developed areas. Our study revealed that migrants were predominantly (84%) of rural origin. Punjab had sent a slightly higher percentage of migrants from rural areas as compared to Tamil Nadu.


The pattern of migration is influenced by the migration policies of Middle Eastern countries. Covertly and overtly, Muslims are preferred over other religious groups, since they are culturally and ethnically closer to nationals. This is why, generally, Muslims are the majority of migrants in almost all of the Middle Eastern countries. Lebanon, however, is the exception. The fact that Lebanon is a multiethnic, secular society that does not show a preference for a particular religious group in attracting migrants acts as a “pull factor” for Hindus. All of the migrants from Punjab were Hindus, as were more than 80% of those from Tamil Nadu.


In the present study, all of the migrant laborers were males. This is due to emigration restrictions by the government of India on females seeking to work outside the country as unskilled labor.


As found in several studies on migration, as well as in our sample, migrants were mostly between the ages of 18 and 35 at the time of migration. However, due to pressure to improve the economic status of households, even the aged were found in the sample. By and large, migrants from Punjab had a relatively younger age distribution compared to migrants from Tamil Nadu. Only 14% of Punjab migrants were over the age of 35, compared to 25% of Tamil migrants. The average age of migrants from Punjab was 23, as opposed to 29 for Tamil migrants.


For both the states combined, about 50% of the migrants were married at the time of migration. A state-wise breakdown shows that in the case of Tamil Nadu, nearly 57% were married compared to about 44% for Punjab. In the combined samples, almost 86% of migrants in the 18-24 age group were unmarried at the time of emigration.


One of the unique features of migration flows to the Middle East is that they have been dominated by unskilled labor with poor educational backgrounds. Our study confirms this pattern. As in other Middle Eastern countries, there was heavy demand in Lebanon for unskilled labor, especially in the fast-expanding service and construction sectors. In Lebanon, this demand was spurred by the need to rebuild the country following the devastating civil war (1975-90).[3] A comparison of the educational status of the migrants from the two states suggests that nearly 13% of Punjab migrants had no schooling against 9% of those from Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, 6% of migrants from Tamil Nadu were graduates compared to 3% from Punjab. In essence, the overwhelming majority of migrants were unskilled workers.


Migrants’ employment status and nature of employment before emigration reflect the economic conditions of their households. The workforce, broadly classified, was engaged in household agriculture and allied activities, and employed by others and self-employed. Slightly more migrants from Punjab were unemployed (23.4%) than those from Tamil Nadu (19.9%). The work participation rate in Punjab in general is lower than the all-India average, while it is the reverse in Tamil Nadu. Nearly 31% in Tamil Nadu worked for others, mostly as casual laborers either on farms or in village fields, or on petty jobs in urban areas with little difference across the two states. Nearly 36% in Punjab and 30% in Tamil Nadu were employed in households — a kind of disguised underemployment. The self-employed constituted 10.5% and 18.9% in Punjab and Tamil Nadu, respectively, which included petty occupations in traditional sectors like small shops, fishing, carpentry, etc. The migrants from both states had low economic status and were dependent on casual occupations for sustenance.

Household Profile

Migration decisions are often shaped within the household context and are rarely individualistic. Therefore, we describe below the household characteristics of migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu.


About 89% of migrants from Punjab were from joint households compared to nearly 80% from Tamil Nadu migrants. Again, the percentage of migrants from Punjab from rural joint families was more (78.6%) as compared to those from Tamil Nadu (69.1%). (See Table 2 below).


Relatively more migrants came from large households, with 68.2% Punjab migrants hailing from households larger than five against 57.7% from Tamil Nadu. Average household size in the case of Punjab was 6.8 compared to 6.4 for Tamil Nadu. This is in line with findings from available studies in India, which show that migrants generally come from large families.


It is difficult to collect information on income directly. Therefore, characteristics like land ownership, housing condition, household amenities, and possession of consumer goods have been used as proxy variables to indicate economic status of households from which migrants came. In rural areas, one of the important determinants of the economic status of a household is land ownership. Land is also a stable source of income compared to other rural casual occupations. To view the status of the households of the migrants from this perspective, the amount of land owned by rural households before emigration has been given in Table 3 below:

Strikingly, the incidence of landlessness is found to be as high as about 38% for the migrants from both the states combined. Almost half of the migrants from Punjab and nearly 27% from Tamil Nadu were landless at the time of emigration. There was no difference in the average sizes of landholdings between the migrants from the states of Punjab and Tamil Nadu. The average size of landholding was three acres.


Debt status is also a reflection of the economic status of a household. In rural areas, poor households generally resort to taking loans for various purposes such as consumption, buying agricultural inputs, etc. About 53% of migrants’ households in Punjab and 68% in Tamil Nadu were in debt at the time of emigration. Except in a few cases, the entire debt was incurred (by migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu alike) to finance the trip to Lebanon. The data indicates that Punjab migrants had a relatively better financial capacity than their counterparts from Tamil Nadu to canvass financial resources for migration through non-loan means (Table 4).


An index of household amenities has been computed by giving suitable weights to various amenities available in the household.[4] On the basis of the value of the index, a household has been classified as low, medium, or high. Just 12% of Punjab households fell in the low category against nearly 30% of Tamil Nadu households. Forty percent of the households of migrants from Punjab and 18% of Tamil Nadu belonged to the high category. This clearly indicates that Punjab migrants came from relatively better-off households in terms of amenities as compared to Tamil migrants.

Mode of Financing the Trip to Lebanon

Thirteen percent of Tamil migrants (19% of total rural Tamil migrants) financed their trip from personal savings compared to 47% of rural landless Punjab migrants (51% for overall rural Punjab migrants). This implies that in spite of being landless, almost half of the Punjab migrants could mobilize the resources needed for their trip mainly through personal savings. Rural landless Punjabis were not much different from the rest of Punjab migrants in terms of access to housing, housing amenities, consumer goods, and the capacity to mobilize the resources for migration, though about 31% of them were unemployed and 54% were working for others as casual laborers. Most of these migrants sold their small and marginal landholdings to finance the trip. Further, a large number of these rural landless remain unemployed due to the limited capacity of agriculture to absorb labor due to increasing mechanization in Punjab. This was compounded by the fact that household industries in Punjab were waning. In addition, the capacity of Punjab industries to generate employment remained low. In the face of population growth and a lack of employment opportunities, many marginal and small farmers were being pushed into the pool of landless laborers. These landless still possessed relatively better houses and had the capacity to mobilize resources for migration. They considered migration to be the best possible opportunity to find employment and earn more due to the higher wages available in the Middle East. These people cannot be called the poorest of the poor. To some extent, it also applies to rural landless in Tamil Nadu. However, those landless who did not own even a house and basic goods such as a radio or a clock and were living in mud houses without any amenities may be called the poorest of the poor. By this criterion, certainly 10-13% of rural landless Punjab migrants fell into the category of the poorest of poor. In terms of total Punjab migrants, these constituted only about 5% of migrants. As far as Tamil migrants were concerned, such migrants constituted about 25% of rural landless and 12-13% of total Tamil migrants who belonged to the poorest of the poor. All such migrants took loans from their relatives and/or friends to finance the trip to Lebanon.

Migration Networks and Channels of Migration to Lebanon


Migration networks play an important role in perpetuating labor migration. Although economic factors may initiate movements, social factors like networks facilitate the supply of international migrants to meet the labor demand of a host country. Furthermore, interpersonal ties are the only means by which international movements are perpetuated. Migration sustains itself in such a way that migration tends to create more migration.[5]

The migrants of the present sample came to Lebanon through networks operated by agents in the host country and their families in Punjab and Tamil Nadu and through relatives/friends and employers. However, the majority of migrants reached Lebanon from a few selected districts of each of the two states solely with the help of agents.

Table 5 gives the district-wise distribution of migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu. All of the districts where migrants were less than 3% of total migrants have been subsumed in the category “other districts.” Selectivity of districts of emigrants is quite evident from the table. In both states, the majority of emigrants were from three districts. In Punjab, out of 17 districts, nearly 64% migrants were from just three districts, namely, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, and Hoshiarpur (Jalandhar alone accounted for almost 27%). Interestingly, these three districts are contiguous (see Figure 1). Our investigations revealed that the recruitment agent himself was from Jalandhar. His wife and family members helped facilitate emigration from Jalandhar and its neighbouring districts to Lebanon.

In the case of Tamil Nadu, spatial concentration was even more striking, with 42% of migrants emerging from Sivaganga alone and about 17% and 13% from Ramanathapuram and Thanjavur, respectively. Together, these districts accounted for 73% of migrants from Tamil Nadu. However, unlike Punjab, in the case of Tamil Nadu, just two districts (Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram) are contiguous (See Fig. 1). The recruitment agent in Lebanon came from Sivaganga. He and his family members were involved in the business of sending labor to Lebanon from Tamil Nadu. The present study supports the findings of other research on the subject that the incidence of emigration is largely region specific.[6]

Major streams of migration from the three districts of each of the two states to Lebanon are shown in Figure 1.


As stated earlier, recruitment agents, friends/relatives, and direct hiring by employer in the host country are the channels of labor migration to Lebanon. The recruitment of labor through a government agency was virtually absent. The channels of migration used by the emigrants from the three major labor exporting districts and other districts (the rest of the districts of each state are lumped together) are presented in Tables 6 and 7.

The data suggest that of the total number of emigrants from Punjab, 55.2% migrated to Lebanon through recruitment agents, 39.3% got employment through relatives/friends, and 5.5% were recruited directly by employers. From the three major labor exporting districts of Punjab, however, 70.3% of laborers migrated through recruitment agents.

In contrast, the majority (62.2%) of migrants from Tamil Nadu arrived in Lebanon through relatives and friends, and only about 31% emigrated through recruitment agents. In the case of three districts — Sivagnga, Ramanathapuram, and Thanjavur — the majority of the migrants came through relatives or friends only. Out of 30 districts, 15 were not represented at all while another 12 cumulatively accounted for 27% of the migrants.

The above findings bring out the role played by networks in furthering the migration process, which led to migration selectivity from only a few districts in both the states. However, the Punjab and Tamil Nadu migrant networks differ. In the case of Punjab, recruitment agents have become well developed, particularly in the region of Doab — where Hoshiarpur, Janlandhar, and Kapurthala are located — which has a long history and tradition of migration. The agents facilitate migration from these districts by supplying information and arranging visas, passports, and jobs in Lebanon. In the case of Tamil Nadu, networks of friends and relatives perpetuate the migration and concentrate it, by and large, in Sivagangai, Ramnathpuram, and Thanjavur. Thus, in the case of both states, the majority of migrants originated from a few select districts and migrated to Lebanon mainly through one particular type of network, whether formal or informal. Recruiting networks thereby have played a key role in making migration a “chain process” and a self-perpetuating phenomenon.


The above profile of migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu to Lebanon is indicative not only of their poor economic background and poor asset base, but also of their poor job and earning potential at home. In both states, though a sizable number of migrants had been employed before migration, it was the traditional sectors (e.g., household agriculture) or petty household occupations with poor and unstable incomes that absorbed them. This is again a reflection of the very low economic status of the households, as most of them were dependent upon rural casual occupations for sustenance. The under-employment problem is also acute in these occupations. In such an environment, children play an economically useful role by engaging in some employment at a tender age. The absence of schooling and the high early dropout rate is attributable to this demand for children arising out of the poor economic condition of households. In turn, the lack of schooling contributes to low earning potential at home. This environment itself acts as a “push factor.” Indeed, most migrants cited the desire to earn more money as their reason for emigrating, with unemployment ranking second in importance. In addition to the strong demand for labor in the Middle East, the wage differentials between the countries of South Asia and Middle East continue to be large enough to act as a strong “pull factor,” despite a decline in wages in recent years. In fact, wage differentials are the major determinant of migration to Middle East, including Lebanon. This explains the pressure on workers to migrate to countries where even with their low education and lack of skills, they can earn many times the salary of those working in similar occupations in their home country.


[1]. The study is based on primary data collected in Lebanon in November-December 2001. A sample of 402 laborers (201 each from Punjab and Tamil Nadu working in Lebanon) was selected, using a stratified sampling scheme from the records maintained by Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee — Nehr-e-Ibrahim for the migrants from Punjab and from the Tamil-India Cultural and Welfare Association for the migrants from Tamil Nadu. These associations maintained a register which provided the basic information of the migrants such as name, age, sex, occupation, address in Lebanon and in India, and the date of their first entry in Lebanon. These registers constituted the sampling frame for the present study. Data was collected through personal interviews. A structured questionnaire was developed and used to collect information on the socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of migrants, yearly remittances, factors influencing remittance decisions, and mode of remittances. Methods of descriptive statistics were used to analyze the data; and bi-variate statistical method was used to discern the inter-relationships between variables of interest.

[2]. Nasra M. Shah, “An Overview of Present and Future Emigration Dynamics in South Asia,” International Migration, Vol. 32, Nos. 1-2 (1994 ), pp. 217- 288.

[3]. Regarding the Lebanese civil war and its impact, see Prem Saxena et al., “Nuptiality Transition and Marriage Squeeze in Lebanon: Consequences of Sixteen Years of Civil War,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies (Special Issue on Turbulence in the Middle East), Vol. 35, No. 2 (2004), pp. 241-258.

[4]. For computational details, see Seema Gaur, “Indian Migrant Labour in Lebanon: Factors Affecting Migration Decisions, Remittances and Expenditure Patterns (A comparative study of migrants from Punjab and Tamil Nadu),” Unpublished Ph,D. thesis, International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, India, 2003.

[5]. S. Massey Douglas et al., “Social capital and international migration: a test using information on family networks,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol.106 (2001), pp. 1262-1299.

[6]. P.R. Gopinathan Nair, “Incidence, Impact and Implications of Migration to the Middle East from Kerala, India,” UNDP/Asian Employment Programme (ILO/ARTEP), New Delhi (1988).


Most migrants cited the desire to earn more money as their reason for emigrating.