COVID-19: Humanitarian Crisis of Refugees and Migrant Workers

States and international organisations need to step up efforts and make specific policies and measures to protect refugees and migrant workers.

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The temporary closure of international borders and lockdown to protect the spread of COVID-19 have impacted 20.4 million refugees and millions of migrant workers. At this time, it is very early to claim how this pandemic has affected societies, classes and governance in a different parts of the world. The closure of the international borders, nationwide lockdown and changing policies at national and international levels have adversely impacted these vulnerable groups.

Both refugees and migrants seek new settlements outside their native places. Nonetheless, the difference lies in the decision they take to move from their native place. According to the United Nations Human Right Council (UNHRC), the situation of war, internal conflict or violence against social group or community makes them flee their country. The fear also did not permit them to return to their native place. For many migrants, it is generally the economic push or pulls factors that encourage movement. Broadly, migration can be divided into two broader categories—international and internal migrations. The term international migration defines the movement of people across international boundaries and stays in a host country for some minimum length of time. Internal migration is domestic migration and the mobility confines within the country’s geographical unit. The population of refugees and migrants are spread almost every corner of the world, and at present Germany, Sudan, Pakistan and Turkey are the countries with a large refugee population, whereas people from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar account for 68 per cent of those displaced across the border. The World Migration Report 2020 reveals that there were around 272 million international migrants in the world in 2019, of which Europe and Asia each hosted approximately 82 million and 84 million international migrants, respectively.  

Insecurities and Vulnerabilities

 Refugees and migrants (generally semiskilled and unskilled) often leave in high densely populated settlements. These colonies are typically located in remote areas or areas with limited healthcare.

Many of these settlements have poor access to water, sanitation and basic amenities. The outbreak of COVID-19 has added new miseries to the lives of these vulnerable groups.

Also Read : Refugee Crisis: Who is Bearing the Brunt?

The living condition of many refugees and migrants seems not to permit them to maintain hygiene and social distancing. Hence, these people appear to be more at risk of getting infected to coronavirus. The unavailability of proper medical facilities intensifies their pathetic situation. Many refugees and migrant people, especially in developing or underdeveloped countries, were living in low income. Their daily life used to be a life of struggle to make both ends meet. The closure of factories, business, and markets due to lockdown appears to reduce their basic amenities, including food and medicines.

Reverse Migration and Loss of Remittances

 The trigger of reverse migration of workers (comprising skilled, semiskilled and unskilled) at national and international levels due to lock down or job loss due to coronavirus may further intensify their pathetic condition. In India alone, the lockdown has impacted 40 million internal migrants. The internal reverse migration may lead to demographic imbalance dividend and put pressure for creating new job avenues, and medical and education facilities on receiving states. Moreover, it may also contribute to increasing the incidence of COVID-19 cases in acquiring nations. In India, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and Assam have shown an increase in the number of COVID cases as migrants started returning to their homeland. Another possible impact of reverse migration may be visible in the form of shortage of workers from the places they are migrating back to their home. Manufacturing industries located in Delhi NCR, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu may majorly effect with the shortage of human power. Whereas, the reverse migration of international migration may impact on country’s remittances and lead to the situation of job crisis for receiving countries.

India, the highest-remittances receiving country, could witness fall in remittances. As per World Bank estimation, India faced 23 per cent decline and received only 64 billion USD in comparison to USD 83 billion last year. The aftermath of COVID-19 has made countries to introduce the policy that bans travel, either, to prevent new COVID-19 cases (like Colombia) or to safeguard their labour market for natives (like the US). The recent move of the US to temporarily suspend H-1B visa would keep as many as 525,000 foreign workers. This decision will impact India more than any other country in the world. It is significant because as per estimation about 70 per cent of H-1B, and L-1 visa issued to Indian national. Suspension of H-1B may restrict migration on temporary visa permit of a large number of high-skilled workers from the information technology (IT) sector in India. It may also cost an estimated loss of 1200 crore to the domestic IT sector. Hence, it may harm the Indian labour market.

Refugees and Displaced Communities

Despite the vast need in many countries of the world, especially in developing countries, refugees and displaced communities have been left to fight the corona pandemic on their own. Most of the programmes of feeding and protecting the population have hardly incorporated the non-citizens. The outbreak of coronavirus has mounted pressure on the state to protect citizens from the spread of disease and also providing them basic amenities, mainly for people belonging to low-income families. This pressure appears to shift the focus of policymakers on citizen and leaving the migrants and refugees.

Moreover, the condition of refugees gets more worsened as many places have seen several NGOs  were forced to reduce or close their interventions under the impact of COVID-19.

Also Read : No goodbyes: An account of Afghani refugee settlement in India

The closure of services from NGOs will cut or reduce the supply of food and medical facilities for the refugees. Human trafficking is another major issue that emerges as a result of the outbreak of COVID-19. Refugees and displaced communities have become highly vulnerable to trafficking.

Fresh approach to the Migration Governance

The corona pandemic affected all sections of migrants and refugees, whether low-skilled in Gulf countries, refugees in many parts of the world or high-skilled migrants to the US. There is a need for a fresh approach to the migration governance because of corona pandemic that can provide more sustainable, orderly and safe migration. The outbreak of COVID-19 has deprived many migrant workers and refugees of meeting their needs. The economic stress due to job loss can put a family of many migrant workers and refugees at higher risk of entering into chronic poverty. Their children get deprived of access to education, even if schools are reopened. Many women and children are at high risk of trafficking. States and international organisations need to step up efforts and make specific policies and measures to protect refugees and migrant workers.