Migrant workers are suffering the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. They often lose their jobs, are shunned by society on their return and can no longer support their families.
During this global COVID-19 crisis, we oftentimes find ourselves grateful for frontline workers serving the public, such as healthcare professionals, producers and sellers of essential goods, cleaners, transport providers, workers on farms and many others. We may not recall at first, however, that a large number of these workers are migrants and refugees. All over the world, migrants are essential to public health in this crisis, risking their health and lives to serve society. And yet, many migrants are extremely vulnerable and face precarious situations which jeopardize the positive impacts they have – even during such a crisis – on development.
In Bangladesh, the rumors go that it was returning migrant workers from Italy who brought the virus to the country. Before airports in the Middle East, Malaysia and Bangladesh itself shut down, hundreds of them returned – with little preparation and information, without having the option to being properly quarantined or finding it difficult to self-isolate in one of the most densely populated countries globally. First cases of COVID-19 were indeed discovered with returnee migrant workers. In Nepal, we can observe similar dynamics. In both countries, families with a recent migrant worker returnee are now being shunned in the community, for fear that they carry the virus. Stigmatization is on the rise and needs to be halted before it divides the communities. Just a reminder: It is only weeks ago that migrant workers were celebrated as the heroes of the country, contributing millions of dollars of remittances to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - 18 billion USD in Bangladesh in 2019.
If you can't make it home, you are on your own
Millions of Bangladeshi and Nepali workers are in the Middle East – in Bangladesh alone, around 700’000 people leave every year. Those who did not make it back home on time and are still “in-service” in the Middle East or other countries, find themselves in dire situations. Some still have to work with limited to no protection and safety measures in place - for example on the seven construction sites of the football stadiums in Qatar, where the 2022 FIFA World Cup is to be held.
Some of them lost their jobs without receiving their due salaries and have nowhere to go. The labor camps, where the workers live in rooms with several bunk beds taking shifts for sleeping, allow for anything but social distancing. Calls by the government to stay at home and not use public spaces become a farce and appear more to protect their nationals than the migrant workers.
Lack of hygiene in the labor camps was a concern before but has now turned into a matter of life and death. Many migrant workers abroad are distressed, afraid of contracting the virus and not having access to the necessary health care. This in turn burdens the families back home with worries about the health and wellbeing of their loved ones abroad. At the same time the remittances are drying out, as the situation in the destination country does not allow to send the money. This situation is a mental time-bomb that needs to be addressed by the often-lacking psycho-social support, easing the mental tensions of both the migrant workers and their families at home.
Further, back home, hundreds of aspirant migrant workers – having paid the recruitment fees (at times amounting to over 3’000 CHF), having their passport and job contracts in hand, basically sitting on their suitcases ready to leave for foreign employment – are stranded with uncertain futures. Oftentimes they have incurred high debts to pay all the fees and are now left without jobs. How will they be able to pay the money shark at the local level? Will they be able to start their jobs, or will the predicted economic downturn force them to stay at home? Their families count on the remittances they were supposed to send home to sustain their livelihoods – now they have to survive without. What prospects do these future migrant workers have? How will the severe reduction in remittances impact the South Asian economies? We don’t know, but fear that this will push many families even deeper into poverty.
What we are doing
What we know and see is that the already vulnerable, low skilled migrant workers and their families now face additional challenges around the migration cycle. It is of utmost importance to address these COVID-19 induced hardships immediately so that migrant workers continue to contribute positively to the development and to come out of this crisis stronger and more resilient. This is why Helvetas in Bangladesh, together with SDC, is currently reflecting on how to support migrant workers and their families in these circumstances. In Nepal, through the SDC “Safer Migration” project, Helvetas supports migrant workers with up-to-date information, as well as psycho-social support for those left behind. In Myanmar, returnee migrants from Thailand are supported through Helvetas and SDC with face masks and drinking water while they are quarantined in special centers and once they leave the center, they receive some cash to buy food.
Since March 2020, Katrin Rosenberg has been heading the SDC's new labor migration project in Bangladesh, implemented by Helvetas. At Helvetas she is a specialist in migration issues, among other things.