Reintegrating Returning Migrants: A Global Challenge
Prior to the pandemic, migrant workers were seen as the backbone of economic growth, but as they return to their home countries, their communities and governments have begun to see them merely as disease carriers.
Migration – internal and international – has been dominating headlines in India. The challenges faced by migrant workers is a policy problem affecting countries across the world as per the views of the global panel at the webinar organised by the Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism (GRFDT). The webinar “Return and Integration Challenges of Migrants During and Post-COVID-19” was moderated by Prof, Omar H. Ali, who framed two critical questions for the panellists. While the first one centred on the various challenges pertaining to return and reintegration of migrants, the second wanted the panellists to share possible solutions to address this issue.
Reintegration into Distressed Economies
Migrants move to a foreign country lured by better economic prospects. They are key workers in the destination countries, but as Prof. Thomas Faist highlighted, are often denied access to basic rights. Citing the example of Romanian workers in the meatpacking district in Germany, Prof. Faist pointed out that Romanians, despite being the EU citizens, were also subject to deplorable working conditions making them vulnerable to the virus. Some of these Romanian migrants brought the virus back to Romania when they returned which in turn complicates reintegration. Another challenge facing some origin countries is the potential economic destabilization that can arise as a result of an influx of returning migrants. Prof. Faist offered the example of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In the Indian context too, Prof. Pushpendra Kumar Singh identified job creation for returning migrants at a time when the economy is in severe distress as a pressing concern for the government. Prior to the pandemic, India was already tackling high unemployment. COVID-19 has only exacerbated an already precarious economic situation, and as per some estimates the pandemic could cost India more than 100 million jobs.
A similar concern about the precarious economic situation has affected Ghana as well. On 12 May, the Ghana Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration published a request for information on Ghanaian residents stranded abroad as a result of closure of borders for possible repatriation. The conditions laid out by the Ministry were such that citizens abroad needed to pay for their cost of travel back to Ghana and were given 24 hours to make that information available to the government. Such a policy is a useful tactic to control the number of returning migrants. Kwadwo Boakye-Yiadom said that while this move was a step in the right direction, it excluded migrants who could not afford to pay the airfare. Furthermore, the 24 hour deadline meant that many people missed the announcement and of those who might have heard were not given any information on reintegration plans. In the absence on information on reintegration, he contends, it becomes difficult for Ghanaians abroad to decide whether to return to a country that they have been away from for so long and that too, in the midst of an economic crisis.
From a policy perspective, it is important to acknowledge that returning migrants are not all the same.
Shabari Nair, International Labour Organisation (ILO), New Delhi, emphasised the need for governments to recognise the different backgrounds of each returning migrant and devise policies that address the unique reintegration challenges they each face.
For instance, migrant workers returning to India who paid money to emigrate but have returned home without having been paid their wages need access to justice. Most migration flows to Middle East, Southeast Asia, and within South Asia are of a temporary nature. According to Nair, the biggest policy gap in all South Asian countries, except for Sri Lanka, is the absence of a holistic policy on return and reintegration. When migrant workers come back, they are not considered of a status where they can access services applicable to nationals who are below poverty line, which is an integral problem. This is because a lot of these people are viewed to be better off than those residing in the origin country which is a big misperception.
Sharing on the significant gender dimension to COVID-19, Prof. Walton-Roberts said that even though infection rate of the Coronavirus may be higher in men, it is women who are disproportionately represented in frontline workers. Citing the example of Canada, he argued that the epicentre of infection, which is in long-term care homes, is predominantly staffed by women, and especially women of colour. Following President Trump’s announcement banning refugees, many asylum seekers walked across into the Canadian province of Quebec. Among these were many Haitian women who found work in long-term care homes. Their work in these facilities, Prof Walton-Roberts said, has led to huge public support calling for the fast track regularisation of these asylum seekers.
Jean-Rene Bilongo shared about granting amnesty to irregular migrants in Italy. He argued that nearly 700,000 undocumented migrants, overlooked by Italian authorities, are living in deplorable conditions and at risk of getting infected. But, because they are undocumented they are unlikely to access public health facilities for fear of being reported. The return of Eastern European migrant workers to their home countries Romania and Bulgaria has created a labour shortage in Italy. Bilongo’s organisation has been engaging in advocacy campaigns to push the Italian government to legalise undocumented migrants. Granting amnesty, according to Bilongo, is a strong way to promote inclusiveness and integration. Solidarity in times of a pandemic means protecting the population, not only the citizens, and it also means paying greater attention to undocumented workers. Bilongo and Prof. Walton-Roberts highlighted how because of the work of undocumented migrants, Italians and Americans, respectively, have been able to have their daily meals on the table.
Also Read : COVID-19 and International Migration Governance
In Africa, Niger has long been a transitional corridor for irregular migrants from Ghana and neighbouring Western African countries travelling to Europe. These migrants traverse the Sahara Dessert and cross into Libya and Algeria from where they cross the Mediterranean into Europe. According to Yiadom, in March, a convoy comprising of 256 people including 53 Ghanaians were intercepted and pushed back by Libya militia men at a border outpost between Niger and Libya. These migrants were forced to undertake a perilous journey to Niger in temperatures over 45 degrees and it was days before they received humanitarian assistance from IOM and Niger’s police. Yiadom also estimates that some 2000 Ghanaian women employed as domestic workers are also stranded in the Gulf countries in abusive conditions. Facilitating the return of irregular and domestic workers should be a priority for the Ghanaian government because these are the most vulnerable groups.
Prof. Thomas Faist suggested that European countries must negotiate with origin countries to come up with a comprehensive economic package to facilitate the return of migrant workers instead of forcing origin countries to simply accept those whose asylum claims have been rejected. A combination of readmission, return, and prospects and gateways for legal migration is urgently required. In the European-African migration context, Prof. Faist called for sponsoring civil society organisations (CSOs) because they are the ones who ensure that negative effects of migration are caught early.
Similarly, Prof. Walton-Roberts argued that understanding the integration of low-skilled migrant workers, especially internal migrants, is linked to the important role that CSOs can play.
According to her, provisioning of basic needs such as food and shelter and organising a humane system of quarantine is extremely important and has not been fulfilled in an adequate and coordinated manner in India. This is where states need to focus in immediate and longer-term response and supporting CSOs can prove useful. In Kerala, women’s groups have played key roles in disaster response and planning.
Nair agreed with Prof. Walton-Roberts on the need for a bottom-up approach. However, in the Indian context, he argued that the Indian national returning to the village or community requires a whole-of-government approach in order to facilitate reintegration. In order for reintegration to be successful, such an approach necessitates extensive coordination between local authorities, between the state and centre, and between different ministries which may be cumbersome to achieve.
Prof. Singh contended that it is the Indian state which has to be the primary caregiver. Returning migrants will test the differential capacities of states as well as CSOs. He argued that states like Kerala have better capacities to deal with returning migrants, but the top sending states – UP, Rajasthan, Bihar, and West Bengal lack that capacity. Reintegration efforts will also be complicated by the attempts in the last 5–6 years to deprive CSO of funding and financing through changing legislations. Prof. Singh contends that the source of funding of CSOs in India has dried up to less than a third of what it used to be in the past. Prof. Singh also argues that government cannot just offer employment through the MNREGA as part of its reintegration policy but that the overall quality of the rural employment program in terms of wages itself needs improving. One way to do so, according to Prof. Singh, is to raise wages to at least make it minimum wage which will motivate returning international migrants accustomed to higher wages to work and utilise the MNREGA. He also called on the government to expand the work program beyond rural employment to meet the urgent need of implementing a similar programme in urban areas. Echoing same sentiments as Prof. Walton-Roberts further called for strident efforts to incorporate women and other marginalised segments of the population into such schemes.
Yiadom also called on the Ghanaian government to step in to do more. He also called for greater cooperation between parties such as UN, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and countries of origin to address the bleak humanitarian situation in Niger. He proposed the creation of some kind of international humanitarian corridor for aid delivery and to facilitate the safe return of migrants to their home countries. Similarly, Bilongo emphasised the need to involve a large number of stakeholders including NGOs, CSOs, influential writers, academics, and clergymen to spur the Italian government into action on legalising irregular migrants.
Reintegration, as emphasised by Prof. Faist, Nair and Bilongo, is not merely at the economic level, but also has a social dimension. Key to successful reintegration is erasing the stigma associated with returning migrants. Prior to the pandemic, migrant workers were seen as the backbone of economic growth, but as they return to their home countries, their communities and governments have begun to see them merely as disease carriers. The impact of migration cannot be understated. At a time when protests on racial inequality have erupted worldwide, Yiadom, Prof. Walton-Roberts, and Prof. Ali also stressed the link between forced migration from Africa over decades and its adverse consequence of creating systemic injustices as visible in the US today. Tying in with the Black Lives Matter movement, Prof. Ali concluded the session by reminding everyone of the importance of recognising the needs of vulnerable people. Further, he emphasised that there remain many struggles and challenges to be faced internationally.