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South Asian Migrant Crisis

  • Category
    Social Issues
  • Published
    5th Aug, 2020

Recent, a petition filed in the Kerala High Court to set up a mechanism to assist NRIs who had lost their jobs abroad and had returned to India, to seek due compensation, exposes the precarious conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Context

Recent, a petition filed in the Kerala High Court to set up a mechanism to assist NRIs who had lost their jobs abroad and had returned to India, to seek due compensation, exposes the precarious conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Background

  • In early July, the Kerala High Court had issued notice to the Central and State governments on a petition seeking to set up a mechanism to assist NRIs who had lost their jobs abroad and had returned to India, to seek due compensation. The petition exposes the precarious conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
  • Employers, particularly construction companies, have used the crisis as an opportunity to retrench masses of migrant labourers without paying them wages or allowances.

Insights on the situation

  • The South Asia-­Gulf migration corridor is among the largest in the world. South Asians account for nearly 15 million in the Gulf. The South Asian labour force forms the backbone of the Gulf economies.
  • Indians constitute the largest segment of the South Asian workforce. Gulf migration is predominantly a male­driven phenomenon.

Kafala System

  • The Kafala (Sponsorship) System emerged in the 1950’s to regulate the relationship between employers and migrant workers in many countries in West Asia.
  • Under the Kafala system a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (kafeel) for their contract period.
  • The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the kafeel.
  • Often the kafeel exerts further control over the migrant worker by confiscating their passport and travel documents, despite legislation in some destination countries that declares this practice illegal.
  • The power that the Kafala system delegates to the sponsor over the migrant worker, has been likened to a contemporary form of slavery.
  • The pandemic, the shutdown of companies, the tightening of borders, and the exploitative nature of the Kafala sponsorship system have all aggravated the miseries of South Asian migrant workers. They have no safety net, social security protection, welfare mechanisms, or labour rights.

Impact of CoVID-19

  • In the initial days of the lockdown, the Kerala government was requested to send regular medicines for lifestyle diseases. Since medicines are expensive in the GCC countries. However, the suspension of flights caused an acute shortage of medicines and exposed the frail medical insurance system in the GCC for these workers.
  • A majority of the migrants are single men living in congested labour camps. The COVID­19 spike in these labour camps has mainly been due to overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.
  • However, as the COVID­19 crisis and response unfolded in the Gulf countries, the most neglected segment turned out to be the migrant women domestic workers, whose untold miseries have increased in the present volatile situation.
  • The Indian missions, with their inadequate administrative personnel, could not adequately cater to the needs of the migrants. The situation forced the Indian government to repatriate the NRIs through the Vande Bharat Mission. The Indian government has repatriated over 7.88 lakh NRIs from various destinations.

Challenges and Steps taken by various countries

  • The countries of origin are now faced with the challenge of rehabilitating, reintegrating, and resettling these migrant workers.
  • To facilitate this, the Indian government has announced ‘SWADES’ for skill mapping of citizens returning from abroad, but the implementation seems uncertain. Kerala the largest beneficiary of international migration has announced ‘Dream Kerala’ to utilise the multifaceted resources of the migrants.
  • Bangladesh has announced a special package for the resettlement of return migrants which includes money on arrival, money to launch self­-employment projects, and compensation for the families of those who died abroad from COVID­19.
  • The Overseas Employment Corporation in Pakistan has come out with special programs to upgrade the skills of returnees.
  • Meanwhile, in the GCC countries, the movements for the nationalisation of labour and the anti­-migrant sentiment have peaked.
  • Countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia have provided subsidies to private companies to prevent native lay­offs. However, the nationalisation process is not going to be smooth given the stigma attached to certain jobs and the influence of ‘royal sheikh culture’.
  • Paradoxically, countries that are sending migrant workers abroad are caught between the promotion of migration, on the one hand, and the protection of migrant rights in increasingly hostile countries receiving migrants, on the other.

Way Forward

The need of the hour is a comprehensive migration management system for countries that send workers as well as those that receive them.  No South Asian country except Sri Lanka has an adequate migration policy. The pandemic has given the countries an opportunity to voice the rights of South Asian migrants and to bring the South Asia­Gulf migration corridor within the ambit of SAARC, the ILO, and UN conventions.

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