Returning to a bleak future

May 17, 2020

Experts believe that the lack of a coherent policy to deal with the influx of Pakistanis returning will be a major challenge

As the number of Covid-19 cases continues to increase in the wake of recent easing of lockdown restrictions across the country, the government prepares to bring back more than 100,000 migrant workers from various countries, mainly the Gulf region. A good percentage of them are potential carriers of the virus.

While talking to international media, Dr Moeed Yusuf, the national security adviser to prime minister, admitted that around 12 per cent of the passengers on most flights bringing back migrant workers from UAE to Pakistan are infected with Covid-19. He said that the infection rate on some of the flights had been as high as 40 to 50 per cent.

Dr Yusuf blamed the poor living conditions of migrants in the Gulf for the high rate of infection. “The hypothesis is that a lot of the labourers live in crowded dormitories where, essentially, it’s easier to infect one another,” he said. The UAE government rejected the claim saying that all migrant workers are tested for Covid-19 before departure.

While this exchange of statements made headlines across the media, for those who lost their jobs abroad, which usually is the only source of income for their families, and returned to the country where they are suspected as virus carriers, the future looks bleak.

Raana Rahim, country coordinator for Pakistan at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) says remittances from overseas Pakistanis are not only a source of subsistence income for their families. They are also a critical component of Pakistan’s economy, particularly in building the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

“Pakistani migrant workers, particularly in the GCC countries, are mostly employed in construction and services sectors,” says Rahim. According to the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment data, 38 per cent of Pakistani workers in GCC countries work as labourers (mostly unskilled), 12 per cent as taxi drivers, 7 per cent as masons, 5 per cent as carpenters and 4 per cent as technicians.

“Pakistanis employed in these categories have been seriously affected by the prolonged lockdown, having been laid off, with no possibility to return to Pakistan,” she says. “The Pakistani government reacted immediately and has organised daily repatriation flights since mid-April.”

Organisations and experts working with issues related to migrant workers, however, complain that the government has made no plan or policy to deal with the influx of migrants. “Yes they will be quarantined for seven days but the government has no policy or plan for accommodating this work force or facilitating them to reintegrate into the society,” says Shahid Naveed, a former coordinator at the Migrant Resource Centre in Islamabad.

Those working on issues related to migrant workers anticipate that there will be no economic opportunity for returning workers in Pakistan for the next two to three years.

He also says that a majority of the migrant workers returning from Gulf belong to rural areas and small cities where testing facilities are not available and in case of coronavirus-related symptoms developing at a later stage, they would have to come to cities for testing. “In some reported cases, they tried hiding their illness to avoid social exclusion,” says an expert working with an international organisation. Requested not to be named, she says that a number of migrant workers had become a target of social exclusion because of their sect.

Those working on issues related to migrant workers anticipate that there will be no economic opportunity for these workers in Pakistan for the next two to three years. “They are unskilled and usually remain unskilled even after spending many years in Gulf countries. One possible way out is accommodating them in agriculture and dairy sectors – not in the traditional ways but after building their capacities in line with modern ways,” suggests Shahid Naveed.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that nearly 2.2 billion workers, representing 68 per cent of the global workforce, are living in countries with recommended or required workplace closures. The UN agency says that migrant workers are among the most vulnerable groups in this pandemic situation. Reports document rising levels of discrimination and xenophobia against migrants and in some cases food insecurity, worsening working conditions including reduction or non-payment of wages, cramped or inadequate living conditions, and increased restrictions on movement or forced return to home countries where they may be stigmatised as carriers of the virus.

“We are in contact with some migrant workers. A majority of them tell us that they have not received their salaries since the start of Covid-19 situation. Even if emergency cash assistance is provided to them under some initiative such as Ehsaas cash programme, it would not be enough.”

Experts also expect an increase in recourse to illegal ways of migration due to lack of economic opportunities in home countries. They say that these workers may easily be tricked by ‘fake agents’.

According to a brief issued by the World Food Programme (WFP) in April, the impacts of the crisis might affect migrants differently, depending on their migratory or working status. If response measures are not adequately designed, many migrants risk remaining unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation, poverty and food insecurity.

The ILO has identified three areas of action in this situation; migrant workers’ inclusion in the national Covid-19 responses; bilateral cooperation between countries of origin and destination; social dialogue and full involvement of employers’ and workers’ organisations in the development of Covid-19 responses and skills recognition for migrant workers to take up employment opportunities arising in healthcare and other sectors for their reintegration into the job industry in their home countries.

The writer is a reporter at The News in Islamabad.

Returning to a bleak future