Published on People Move

The resilient international migrant deserves better

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In observance of the International Migrants Day, Dec 18

While labor policies for international migrants in their host countries are well documented – and show the raw deal for many of them, especially low-skilled workers – the repatriation exercises carried out during COVID-19 by origin countries revealed more opportunities for improvement. The contagious nature of the crisis necessitated quick policy responses like border closures and lockdowns in several countries. However, while these policies applied to all within each national boundary, international migrants were always bound to find the restrictions harder as they came under the ambit of different safety nets compared to nationals. As migrants wished to ‘return home’ in the face of layoffs, crowded and newly contagious labour dormitories, and overall socioeconomic uncertainty, massive repatriation exercises faced inevitable delays. These were compounded by pressure to sustain remittances to the origin country.

Despite this, remittances, which were initially expected to face a sharp decline, are now expected to fall by much less, and even increased in Q3 due to several one-off factors. Although remittances and the migrants sending them have displayed resilience in several instances, a crisis like COVID-19 asks what origin countries can do to increase their preparedness to improve migrant welfare not just during repatriation, but also in dealing with ripple effects for future legal migration in host countries. On International Migration Day, it is important to recognise their contribution over and above acknowledging an observable facet like remittances, by also investigating how disaster policies apply differently owing to their intersectional labour and economic identities.

Typically, during crises in origin countries, remittances are as or more effective than aid because of their lack of volatility and counter-cyclical nature during natural and unnatural crises when capital inflows dry up. The various theoretically established motivations of altruism, exchange, and investment that determine their frequency and volume also ensure their durability. This in turn powers the resilience of several households in LMICs, ranging from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Philippines. However, during a period of crises in host countries, remittances are procyclical and decline as seen in the case of the global recession in 2008. This worsens risk conditions created by migrants’ social, economic, and political marginalisation and makes their accounting and repatriation complicated even for large states to execute.

In the general environment of fear and uncertainty that led to impulsive policy responses, COVID-19 also provided traction to perceptions of immigrants as ‘virus carriers’ in host countries as well as in origin countries as they returned, similar to the case of internal migrants. Several instances of wage theft and unfair termination that could not be contested, due to the lack of a transitional justice mechanism for grievance redressal during a pandemic, were reported. Such gaps were also the result of mass migration movements and the formation of corridors of opportunity over time, as individuals in poorer origin countries sought better livelihoods overseas in order to support their families through remittances. The forced nature of return emigration during COVID-19 presents an additional challenge to re-integration not just in social and employment terms, but also in the mental duress faced by repatriated citizens. While these raise questions of human dignity of migrants and especially so during a pandemic, it also interacts with dynamics of political tension and the eventual effectiveness of bilateral cooperation.

However, the international migrant is resilient and can endure not just the mountains and the seas but perhaps also these hardships of rights and trust. They may have already been doing so for several decades. There may be delays before they can set sail again, as labor demand in the existing corridors may diminish for several jobs as business cycles unravel heterogeneously. But help is on the way in the form of an expected increasing demand for health-sector and skilled workers towards countries with older populations which could be supplied by younger countries experiencing their demographic windows of opportunity.

International migrants represent a key ingredient of the forces that have made the world a smaller and more prosperous place. However, migrant-inclusive risk management, its interaction with bilateral dynamics, and the representation of all migrants by their respective origin countries needs to come into the spotlight. This period presents an important opportunity for countries to elicit reliable responses from their return emigrants regarding their welfare not just during the pandemic, but also thus far. Large migration surveys and scientific focus groups can do more to inform actions that can protect the stock of current and future migrants. As the dust settles, COVID-19 will have recalibrated bargaining power of LMICs in the world order. In partnership with international organizations like the World Bank, the time is appropriate to replenish the toolbox for international migration governance for all migrants, especially the poorer ones who are the lifeline of their countries, in order to truly celebrate them.


Balasubramanyam Pattath

Ph.D candidate at Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

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