Plight of the Migrant Workers: Covid-19's Paralysis of Global Labour Flows

Updated: Jun 20

This article has been written by contributor Sharanya Chakraborty


The Covid 19 pandemic led to a halt in global migration flows by the end of July 2020. This has stranded nearly 3 million migrants miles away from their families. The restrictions that this pandemic has imposed upon them have been challenging for the migrants to survive. The migrants found little with which to survive. They walked on and on to return to their homes as no transport was organized by the government. This has been a pressing scenario throughout the world and has been continually reported by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This migrant worker crisis has also strained the capacities of some countries to meet their own needs and left them in perilous limbo. Half of the stranded migrants have been stuck in the Middle East, with over 1 million of them stuck in Asia.

At the beginning of March 2020, many workers born in the Persian Gulf, workers of foreign construction, and domestic services lost their jobs due to the pandemic and other related disruptions. Nearly 5 million workers from the former Soviet States, have languished often jobless in Russia. Their eyes are filled with a ray of hope to return to their countries of origin on government-chartered flights. The unemployed workers in Thailand returned to the nearby South Asian countries and the Afghan refugees of over 20,000 were forced back to Iran. This created major chaos at the border. Thousands of Venezuelan migrant workers made their way back to their own country on foot as opportunities dried up elsewhere. Many workers on their return to Venezuela faced a pushback from the government that termed them "biological weapons".

Thousands of migrant workers all around the globe were in transit because of closed borders in the early days of the pandemic outbreak. Many were completely trapped in transit nations. Over 2000 Haitians were trapped in the Panamanian Jungle as their paths were blocked. Across Guatemala there were numerous migrant caravans that were ignored and disregarded as they traveled towards Mexico and the United States. Despite the lack of aid, thousands of people were halted in October due to virus concerns. In north Africa and the middle east the situation was more dire, with many migrants being expelled from Algeria, Yemen, and Libya.

There were many instances of legitimate concerns that migrants would be carriers of new coronavirus strains. They raised the ethical quandaries about the responsibility of any country for the people to return to their areas with high Covid 19 pandemic prevalence. Many countries were not willing to accept the returning migrants, especially host countries like the United Arab Emirates. To further increase the complexities of this, in several instances some migrants refused offers of free return travel because they thought that it would undermine the costly and tiresome journeys which they had already invested in.

Moving to a case study of India, millions of migrant workers have fled to urban cities and towns from rural areas in search of better opportunities. The sudden lockdown enforced by the Indian government was followed by a Janata curfew on March 22, 2020. The situation this created was chaotic for these vulnerable workers. All transport facilities were suspended, while shops and industrial units were closed alongside factories and workplaces. The majority of migrant workers were subjected to loss of income, food shortages, and a critically uncertain future. Suicides have, as a result, been well documented. As everything was very uncertain (no food, job, or notion of when this lockdown would end) many of the workers had to return to their villages. The crisis then only intensified. Due to their massive migration to rural areas, this created a health security challenge almost everywhere with an exceptional logistic nightmare. The only option left with them was to walk. These journeys were both hazardous and arduous, in this heat, they had to walk more than 1000 miles by foot without any food for continuous days. Fatalities were well documented in the bitter conditions and chaotic travel situations. Many migrant workers were arrested by the police and law enforcement officials as they were violating the lockdown. This plight was well documented on social media, with pictures of migrant workers in their vulnerability and extreme material deprivation. These illustrations raise the question on the ability for the state governments to organize arrangements and facilities for migrant workers. Stranded without food, without water, without any wages or shelter since the pandemic hit, the migrant workers crisis in India is just that, a crisis.

In India state governments have tried to help migrant workers so that they could return to their homes safely. Efforts were made to arrange buses to take people back to their villages, but road travel has been similarly perilous. It is well known that car crashes are more likely to kill a person than getting infected by the coronavirus in India. The main concern is as the workers are returning from the cities to their villages, there is a greater risk of spreading coronavirus to their rural village from the urban cities as many will have traveled with it. Every day, thousands of people that are returning to the rural areas do not have the proper facility or infrastructure to put them in institutional quarantine. The rural areas do not have any Covid 19 facilities and thus prevention of the spread of coronavirus seems very difficult. Due to chronic funding in rural healthcare, the current rural infrastructure has been entirely inadequate, something that has been highlighted by the pandemic. Beyond the case of India, what has ultimately kept all the migrant workers united is rapid, unexpected, and unprecedented disruption.

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