The Covid- 19 catastrophe has led to an unprecedented forced reverse migration. Migrants both national and international are encountering a crisis of wage theft and joblessness, inability to send remittances home, and conditions of crime, poverty, acute disorganisation and violence. Confinement and lockdown have destroyed their livelihood and caused among them a desperation for employment. Many have landed in situations resembling bonded labour and slavery. Labour security in such times is a major concern, with workers confused whether to migrate or not. The Covid-19 pandemic has come as a reality check on welfare and labour policies, highlighting the concept of “Food and Freedom” given by Prof Amartya Sen, which entails that it’s a human right to have adequate food and freedom from hunger.
Migration has been there since as long as human beings have been there. People have always migrated for survival and livelihood. The present pandemic and the nation-wide locking down of the country has created a multiplicity of crisis irrespective of caste, class , faith , gender and other identities. The deadly virus has repercussions on the informal labour economy and the lives of women, children and the elderly, who are more vulnerable in such situations. The pandemic has also put several questions in the public discourse about the risks and reasons for migration. It has created a fear among migrant workers about their health and livelihood. Adding to their troubles are quarantine measures, limited knowledge, and stigmatisation. The prolonged lockdown has endangered migrants so much that there is a need to rethink social security measures for them.
In such a crisis, several questions about the pandemic are still unanswered for migrants. The efficacy of social distancing, means to prevent oneself from infection, such awareness is lacking among them. They have been thrust into a do or die situation, with several testing positive for the pandemic and deprived of their livelihood. According to an estimate by the World Bank, globally there has been a decline in 20% in remittances dispatched to lower and middle income countries in 2020. Remittances are used for multiple purposes: daily needs, health care, education of children, family debts, etc. If employment is cut short, migrants find themselves in a very desperate situation, even unable to survive. Joblessness, homelessness, lack of income to return home have all contributed to downward mobility. Risks of detention, unemployment, deportation, trafficking, abuse, exploitation and several vulnerabilities and exposure to Covid-19 without any immunisation has created a major predicament for migrants. Their pre-existing vulnerabilities have worsened their situation. There is a kind of hindered mobility encountered among them, with cost and logistic challenges and fear of contracting the virus. The anxiety generated due to the pandemic has also created discrimination against migrants. As they are restricted with depleted savings, they may crumble and fall apart. Even after returning to work they might face stigma and hate, prejudices and victimisation.
Migrants are an important source of seasonal labour, but due to the contagious nature of Covid-19, countries and communities are experiencing widespread mobility crisis. The Agenda of 2030 on Sustainable Development reflected that human mobility is integrally associated with sustainable development goals. Around the world the restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic has had an impact on human movement. Migrants are victims of such circumstances and in need of safeguards. There is an effective need of a migrant policy in the post-Covid period. There is a need to adopt a community-based approach that can counter prejudices and stigmas. Comprehensive anti-hate crime policies and safeguarding health and safety should be the priority. Mechanisms to address migrant vulnerabilities and guarding the migrant population, social security measures, and social inclusion should be the prime objective. The role of NGOs and civil society, reforming labour conditions, and rethinking existing immigration processes and programmes can improve the lives of migrants in the post-Covid era.
The writer teaches Sociology at Central University of Odisha, Koraput. [email protected]