Kerala Return Emigrant Survey 2021: Insights and the Way Forward


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In observance of International Migrants Day, Dec 18

Return emigration is an optional yet natural consequence of emigration, especially when the prospect of permanent residence in the destination country is limited.  In the case of emigration of South Asian migrants to countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the inevitability of return anchors their sense of self and their reference groups to their soils of origin. For several such emigrants, COVID-19 advanced and forced their return en masse, causing a decline in the international migrant stock for the first time in recent history. For Kerala in India, a state whose development trajectory is inextricably tied to its emigration history, return migration was an estimated 1.43 million emigrants returning between May 2020 and April 2021  constituting two-thirds of the total number of 2.1 million emigrants estimated to live abroad in 2018. To investigate the determinants of return and the short and medium-term impact of COVID-19 on Kerala migrants, through the Centre of Development Studies and the International Institute of Migration and Development, India, we have conducted a Return Emigrant (REM) Survey of 1985 REM between May and December 2020. 

Based on previous findings from our surveys including another household survey conducted in Kerala for the World Bank, we classify the REM into normal REM (NREM) as those who could have returned as part of their planned migration cycle (with the possibility that the date of return was advanced by the pandemic), distressed REM (DREM) as those negatively affected by the pandemic in various ways and were hence forced to return, REM who returned strategically to re-emigrate (RREM) and ‘others’ who returned for purposes such as marriage and personal contingencies. Based on the self-selection of ‘reason for return’, we also classified the REM based on their future plans, ranging from the desire to start a new business, re-emigration, and retirement. Around 50% of the DREM wanted to re-emigrate while the negative experience encountered during COVID-19 may have influenced the 32% who decided to seek work in Kerala or retire.

Although Kerala’s impressive socioeconomic indicators and infrastructure which supported an initially strong response to COVID-19 are due to the human capital accumulation that is partly linked to the migration phenomenon over the last four decades, it is also often criticised as making the development model unsustainable. Kerala’s economy is unlike other Indian states which send even more migrants, because its state domestic product crucially depends on remittances that comprise 36.3% of the State Domestic Product. In our sample 75% REM sent remittances home, the most common reason being debt payments (30%), followed by household expenses (25%), periodic investments (21%), and maintenance (12%). As remittances are resilient during times of economic crises, we delineated remittances into those sent pre-COVID-19 and those sent during and after the first COVID-19 lockdowns. As a marker of resilience as well as emergency aid, we found an overall increase in monthly remittances since COVID-19 began, indicating resilience among more than 70% of the sample. We found that the number of DREM sending remittances waned at larger amounts pre- and post-COVID-19 lockdowns, indicating a cash crunch due to job losses, withholding of wages, and usage of savings towards repatriation. The Return Emigrant (REM) who usually sent larger amounts increased (decreased) their remittances post lockdown conditional on a desire to return permanently to Kerala (re-emigrate).

However, the weakening of several emigrants’ ability to remit and an enhanced vulnerability to persist in the foreign environment where social protection laws operate differently for them led to several instances of wage theft and forced labour. We found evidence of this among the Kerala REM using not just a quantitative module but also by conducting qualitative interviews. Among the 47% who lost their jobs, 39% have reported non-payment of wages or dues as well as a reduction in wages. Among the workers who were asked to resign by the employers, 40.9% of the workers experienced wage theft. Among those who managed to work during the initial months of the pandemic, 8.8% worked without wages and later lost their jobs, while 18.2% faced reduction in wages. Likewise, 10.9% of the workers whose work visas were not extended experienced wage theft. We also found a positive correlation between the duration of stay and the non-payment of wages. Through the interviews, we found that companies had resorted to implementing various arbitrary criteria to offload their wage bills, terminating employees below certain years of experience without paying accrued benefits over time, while others in the tourism sector (which offers lower social security) stopped paying their workers since February 2020. Among the REM who lost their jobs since March 2020, only 3% were given any advice on addressing wage theft and the lack of knowledge and poor accessibility to the existing grievance redressal mechanisms curtailed any efforts.

This survey provided a snapshot of the dynamics of return migration after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which devolved into a migration crisis due to the unaddressed vulnerabilities in existing migration governance. The study concludes with policy recommendations centred around improving data collection pertaining to migrant stocks and flows, enhancing social security systems for migrant workers, advocating for short-term relief to the COVID-19 REM as well as long-term reintegration assistance for future REM, and supporting entrepreneurial innovations that sustain and infuse new life into remittance flows across the globe. 


Balasubramanyam Pattath

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

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