Hundreds of thousands of South Asian migrant workers are currently stuck abroad and awaiting repatriation by their government after losing their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Working mainly in the oil-rich Gulf region, about 40 million migrant workers sends vital remittances back home which in turn form a substantial part of their country’s GDP.
But economic fallout from the pandemic means many could be jobless for a long time, putting pressure on their home countries to step in.
Along with India, which is carrying out one of the world’s biggest repatriation missions, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are rushing to establish quarantine centres and allocate emergency funds for those coming home.
Receiving so many of them at once threatens to overwhelm fragile public health systems and a dwindling jobs market in the region, which is home to a fifth of the world’s population.
“You have a whole lot of people who are unemployed, who cannot be absorbed in the economic system… and at the same time governmental subsidies and aid or benefits may not be reaching all of them,” said Nilanjan Ghosh, a director at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) think-tank.
“The ultimate result is going to be conflict – in all forms. That is the biggest risk,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, highlighting the possibility of food riots.
Besides migrant workers, regional governments are working to repatriate students with expired visas and vulnerable citizens such as pregnant women who have been stranded overseas due to travel bans and closed borders.
India put commercial jets, military aircraft and naval warships into action earlier this month to bring back nearly a million Indians from neighbouring countries, the Middle East, Singapore, Britain and the United States.
Nepali officials said they expected as many as 400,000 migrant workers back – about 100,000 of them immediately – mainly from the Gulf and Malaysia after its lockdown is likely relaxed on June 02.
Such mass movements of people have raised concerns about the risk of increased coronavirus infections in the region, which has about 179,000 confirmed cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Most of the South Asians who work overseas are employed in construction or as domestic workers in the Gulf states.
The money they send home is a crucial lifeline for their families and makes up as much as 60% of South Asia’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.
With global job markets decimated due to the crisis, economic and foreign policy experts say the chances of the migrants returning quickly to work in their destination countries appear slim.
Officials in Nepal and Sri Lanka said they were still chalking out their reintegration plans, with Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha warning some 10,000 expected returnees that “finding jobs won’t be easy”.
Bangladesh’s foreign ministry said it was hoping to bring back about 29,000 of its citizens in several phases to avoid straining limited quarantine centres.
The government plans to provide emergency aid of 5,000 taka (US$59) to each migrant worker when they arrive. Later, they will be able to apply for loans of up to 500,000 taka as part of a US$23 million fund to support migrant workers and their families.
In India, the biggest challenge may be faced by authorities in the southern state of Kerala, which has the largest number of people working in the Gulf – about two million.
Out of nearly half a million people who have registered to return to Kerala, more than 61,000 have cited job loss as the reason, according to the state government. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)