These are truly unprecedented times for us all. How we live, how we interact with our environment — these are some fundamentals that have changed drastically and will do so more in the coming months. Some of us have been luckier than others. The poor, the socially disadvantaged, migrant communities have all been hit far harder. Experts say that a fundamental restructuring of our social security architecture is needed now.
At IMN, we have spent the last month and a half talking to stakeholders of all kinds and especially migrants themselves, to better understand what their immediate needs are. Most of our ongoing initiatives are either aimed at co-ordinating and providing relief to migrants everywhere, or advocating for their safety and survival.
Based on conversations and interviews conducted by the IMN team as well as collated from numerous field reports, this edition of the newsletter, will highlight the situation of migrants in India and in destination countries, worldwide.
IMAGE (IMN): There are almost 8.8 million Indian emigrants in the Gulf countries. Many remain stranded there, with no work, little pay, and fearful of contagion.
2061 Indians in the GCC countries have tested positive, according to government sources quoted in an April 17 report by The Hindu. A decision has been taken to not evacuate anybody now, due to the fear of contagion, but workers stranded in the Gulf continue to live in fear. Recruiting agencies across Telangana, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh (three of the prominent source states) say that workers are fearful of both contagion and the expected economic slowdown. Many are also desperate to return to their families, as we reported for Firstpost on April 13.
The Story of a Female Emigrant to the Gulf (2020)
While the Gulf is an area of rapidly developing concern, Indian emigrants in other parts of the world are relatively better off.
Conversations with emigrant workers in Singapore reveal that, initially, the government did a stellar job of contact tracing, limiting contagion considerably. As of 10 April, however, 250 Indians have reportedly tested positive, about 50 percent of these cases connected to foreign worker dormitories. In Malaysia, migrants are bracing for economic impact and some have experienced pay cuts. In Europe, access to healthcare and comprehensive health insurance as well as some forms of economic support from the governments renders migrants more secure than their counterparts in the US where testing, healthcare, and livelihoods depend on where one lives.
SOURCE: IMN in Firstpost
“When the crisis started, a lot of people wanted to return. My own family asked me to come home. But I am a health professional, and this is a war for us. It would be unethical of me to go back.” an Indian immigrant working in Milan, Italy told us. A registered nurse, he used to work in the surgical department till all departments were collapsed into emergency COVID-19 ones.
“Our priorities are only humanitarian now,” he told us. “When patients come in, we don’t look at race, religion, or nationality. We just give the care they need and take decisions based on health status.”
IMMIGRANTS IN INDIA
A category of migrants who have been largely ignored in the national media narratives, immigrants in India, some of them undocumented, are also extremely vulnerable. Immigration figures stood at 5.3 million according to the 2011 Census, not including the undocumented population. A large proportion hail from Nepal and Bangladesh and form part of the vital labour force in the country which has been severely affected by the lockdown.
Worldwide, communities are concerned about refugees, particularly those in camps. Cramped living conditions and patchy access to vital health services may exacerbate the impact on already vulnerable refugee communities. India has a relatively small refugee population (only about 0.02% of the population) but many live in harsh conditions, subsisting in the informal sector, and have had their livelihoods badly hit. The UNHCR in India, as per its latest updates, is reaching out to distribute rations, essential health products, and reassure the different communities which come from a number of countries including Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia. “We are scared that hunger will kill the community before the virus; we are also scared that if anybody gets the disease, a hate campaign may be started against all of us.” Sabber Kway Min, a Rohingya community leader, told us.
India has 17.5 million emigrants and about 6 million immigrants. By contrast, as per the latest Census in 2011, we have 450 million internal migrants. 54 million of them cross state borders and many of them are, presumably, stranded in destination areas.
Scholarly estimates put the number of vulnerable migrants at almost 80 million, with sectors such as transportation, construction, services, etc drawing the most seasonal migrants. Seasonal migrants, severely under-represented in Census and NSSO data (due to the short term nature) typically migrate according to the cropping season, spending anything ranging from 3–7 months at destination and sometimes covering multiple destinations. They are the categories that are particularly vulnerable, working in informal sector occupations, with limited access to social security after crossing state borders. A majority are also from marginalised backgrounds, coming from poorer states such as UP, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh, further increasing their vulnerability. For these groups, segmented at the bottom of the labour market, pay is poor and networks far less robust than better migrant categories.
Our conversations with seasonal migrants in the construction sector (as part of an ongoing survey with Dvara Trust) reveal that worries about survival, access to rations, healthcare, and future job loss are foremost in their minds. Many are locked in at their worksites, and yearning to go home. Those who have made it home are worried about going back to work post lockdown.
Reports from numerous NGOs and civil society networks including Jan Sahas, Centre for Policy Research, Stranded Workers Action Network, Calcutta Research Group, and Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development all point to the same key concerns — rations, shelter, healthcare, employment, and a desperate desire to be home with their families. While restrictions have been eased in some states to allow intrastate migrants to return home and/or contribute to essential labour, interstate migrants remain stranded. Latest reports indicate that some states are devising plans to rescue their migrants in the face of this extended lockdown but for many, measures have come too late.
Over the last two months, stories of men and women beating all odds to make it home have flooded the media. Many of these stories are heartwarming. We know of people coming together across the country to help those in need, sharing what they have, contributing to relief funds, going above and beyond to help stranded migrants in their areas.
But, as we contribute holistically to relief, we must reflect on how invisibalised these vital migrant populations have been. Their labour — in construction, domestic work, services, transport — have built our cities and continue to hold them up. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to understand migration — particularly internal migration — in this country. And this means centering migrants in the story of development that we create in a post COVID 19 world.
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