Accessibility statement

Forced repatriation of migrant workers amid Covid-19

Posted on 29 May 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought an unprecedented toll on the economies across the globe. Like others, the Gulf states, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, KSA, Oman, Qatar and the UAE are also in strain as businesses and services have been shut down, oil price is plummeting, and tourism has come to a halt. As much as the globe is going to experience an apocalyptic economic downturn, a foreseeable 'migration crisis' is going to expose the long-standing vulnerability of 25 million migrants, stationed in the Gulf labour markets.

Historically, the hardship of large-scale emergencies, emanating from any global crisis, had primarily caused job cuts, layoffs and mass deportation of migrant workers. Although it might be too early to grasp the full-scale of the negative impact on foreign employment and remittances, it would be far less of a surprise to see a wave of joblessness, mass redundancies, forced repatriation and a subsequent slump of remittance flow in the coming months. The World Bank has suggested a 20 per cent decline of international remittance this year, while the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia has predicted 1.7 million job losses in the Arab region.

Previous instances suggest, as an easily disposable labour, migrant workers will be the primary sufferers, although international laws have given them the necessary protection. The Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 has mentioned, 'one [migrant] shall enjoy equality of treatment with nationals in respect in particular of guarantees of security of employment, the provision of alternative employment, relief work or retraining'. Moreover, international laws also guarantee emergency treatment to migrants including the irregular ones. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW), 1990  mentioned, 'emergency medical care shall not be refused [to migrant workers] by reason of any irregularity with regard to stay or employment'.

To tackle the health crisis and sustain their economies, Gulf states have announced different rescue and stimulus packages. However, with a few exceptions, there is an absence of commitment to protect migrant workers' health, wages and jobs. Low-skilled migrant workers in these countries are at a greater risk of contagion as they live in notoriously overcrowded accommodation with shared bunk beds where maintaining hygiene or social distancing is next to impossible. The disproportionate number of corona positive cases among migrant workers in some Gulf countries and Singapore illustrates the miserable reality.

While health protection of migrant workers has been imperative, Gulf countries tend to take advantage of their vulnerability. It is sad that some countries, as a primary initiative, have started mass deportation of irregular workers. Countries including Kuwait, UAE and Maldives have asked originating countries to take back this section of workers. It was alleged that hundreds of workers infected with Covid-19 have been repatriated from UAE. Kuwait, in the guise of a general amnesty, has started deportation, even amid this unprecedented travel and mobility restrictions. A threat to review the labour ties and the time chosen to implement this policy have generated a sense of discomfort and criticism to many.

Gulf governments have not considered that a mass deportation may increase the risk of contagion and will exacerbate the problems prevailing in originating countries.  Moreover, they have become oblivious to the fact that irregular workers can be the victims of strict immigration policy, and transnational recruitment system associated with wide-spread visa trading whereby the migrant workers become victims in most cases. Thereby, before taking any hard-line policy like deportation, the real causes of irregularity as well as migrant workers' contribution should be taken into consideration.

Unfortunately, absence of humanitarian responsibility among the host states has become very common these days. The existence of cut-throat competition at state-level for foreign employment and inward remittance, and an absence of meaningful alliance among sending states have contributed to the denial of humanitarian obligations and outright flouting of international laws by the host states.

Since the Covid-19 has posed a global crisis, a mutually agreed effort by both originating and receiving countries was imperative to offset its devastating impacts. Considering the potential health risk and being mindful of international laws, the host countries should stop their unjust action of repatriating migrant workers amid this crisis. The originating countries, in collaboration with regional and international advocacy groups, could launch an endeavour to convince the host states in this regard. 

Mohammed Hossain Sarker, is a PhD candidate and researcher supervised by Dr Alice Nah. The original article featured in the Financial Express.