IMN Situation Update №3
Since the outbreak of COVID 19 was declared a pandemic in March, international migrants have been a crucial category vulnerable to more than just the disease. While widespread lockdowns and social distancing brought the world economy to a halt, international migrants, far from home, faced the worst brunt of job loss, pay-cuts, rising prices, and lack of social security coverage. The Gulf countries, where the economic impact of COVID 19 was exacerbated by plummeting oil prices, is also home to nearly 9 million Indians who have migrated for a number of reasons including work, education, marriage, family reunion, and business. The Indian Government is now in the process of implementing a mammoth repatriation operation, particularly for Gulf emigrants, of which the first phase concluded between 7–15 May and the second has begun on 16 May.
We put together a situation updates and policy discussion webinar with a number of key stakeholders in the India-GCC emigration corridor to:
- better understand current realities,
- identify the key policy priorities going forward.
This situation update is part of a range of IMN initiatives to ensure that migration and migrants remain centred in the story of post-COVID recovery.
HOW THE CURRENT SITUATION IS CHANGING
- The impact on the GCC is now two-fold — oil prices as well as COVID 19 — and this will create a long-lasting economic impact that is likely to permanently change the nature of emigration in this corridor.
- Across the GCC, pay-cuts and contract terminations have generated tremendous economic distress for vulnerable migrants, especially low and semi-skilled ones who live on their own and have expenses such as rent, groceries, etc. As a result, reports of suicide are increasing (due to indebtedness, unequal access to healthcare) across the GCC and existing redressal mechanisms are not responding well enough due to social distancing norms.
- Unequal access to healthcare is a major issue — testing is free only if the individual is positive and costs a lot at private hospitals. Many migrants are putting off testing themselves, even in cases where they encountered a COVID positive individual because they are apprehensive of paying the money if the test turns out negative.
- Right now, a high migrant population is being considered a risk factor by the GCC governments and all avenues are being explored — including deportation, amnesty, repatriation — to lower this risk factor. While countries such as Kuwait are able to afford amnesty, popular migrant destination countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE are not financially able to fly back migrants at their own cost, although the UAE has made such an offer for vulnerable/stranded individuals.
- Women workers have unique vulnerabilities — especially domestic workers, many of whom migrate through irregular channels and are virtually off the grid entirely.
- Although many migrants want to return and are being facilitated to do so by the Indian Government, destination countries are unwilling to let go of healthcare workers (nurses, doctors, hospital technicians) and a negotiation will have to take place to prevent forced displacement of any kind.
LESSONS FOR NGOS WORKING ON MIGRANT WELFARE
- Understanding the involuntary nature of this situation — reverse rather than return migration — and the unique mental and material vulnerabilities that will result.
- Important for consultative dialogues within the country to include all necessary stakeholders — migrants, their families, recruiting industry, governments at all levels.
- Crucial to help state governments navigate the coming situation — re-integration and rehabilitation, certification and upskilling, policy design for social security.
- Figure out a system to help emigrants still stuck at destination with short term financial and material needs.
LESSONS FOR RESEARCHERS
- Given the fundamental way the emigration corridors with the GCC are going to change, research priorities can focus on what form this changed reality will take — new corridors, new industries that may emerge, new skill requirements.
- Research should also focus on how state governments of important emigrant sending states (Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal) can adapt existing models (Kerala’s, for instance) to provide the right support for emigrants who return.
(NOTE: IMN will soon be releasing a policy brief addressing how states can approach rehabilitation)
- Documentation of migrant experiences is crucial right now and can be done effectively by researchers working across the board.
INITIATIVES/ACTION PLANS SUGGESTED
- Although this has been a tremendous upheaval of existing patterns, it is an opportunity for systems change and allowing for more ethical systems to replace existing ones.
- Institute a robust migrant tracking system, inclusive of some form of pre-departure social security.
- Utilise existing regional level consultative dialogues to co-ordinate sending country priorities and negotiate together with the GCC governments. Prominent sending countries such as India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines can negotiate from a position of strength if they do so together.
- Create synergies between NGOs of source and destination countries to allow for better assistance to emigrants, information dissemination, and bargaining power.
List of Participants
- Froilan Malit Jr. (Cambridge University, Rights Corridor, UP-Diliman CIFAL Fellow, and Gulf Labour Markets and Migration)
- Mehru Vesuvala (Founder, Migrant Worker Protection Society, Bahrain)
- Anu Abraham (Researcher, Assistant Professor, NMIMS, Mumbai)
- Jeff Bond (Global Fund to End Modern Slavery)
- Amit Garg (Global Fund to End Modern Slavery)
- Deepak Chhabria (Federation of Indian Manpower Export Promotion Councils & Associations, FIMCA)
- Dr. A. Didar Singh (ex-Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, FICCI)
- Namrata Raju (Equidem Research)
- Seeta Sharma (International Labour Organisation)
- Dr. Meera Sethi (formerly of IOM)
- Priyansha Singh (IMN)
- Rohini Mitra (IMN)
Varun Aggarwal (IMN)