Pandemic Borders

For Indian migrants in the Gulf it is a financial rather than a health crisis

What awaits the millions of Indian migrants in the Gulf who lack much needed access to healthcare and financial security?

S. Irudaya Rajan H. Arokkiaraj
20 April 2020
Construction workers in Dubai
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Picture by Piotr Zarobkiewicz / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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“The lockdown made me jobless for the past several days, so I am using the money which I was supposed to send to my family back home for their expenses, now I am worried how my family will meet their daily needs without my remittances” an Indian taxi driver in Kuwait explains to us during an interview. We don’t know exactly how many Indians in the Gulf countries face a similar situation, but thousands of migrants are running out of money and are uncertain about their future.

The pandemic halted not only migration in the populous India-Gulf migration corridor, but also the businesses in this region. This situation created short and long-term repercussions among Indian migrants in Gulf countries. Large numbers of Indians (estimated to be between 8 and 10 million) in the Persian Gulf region are employed in low profile jobs in construction sectors, restaurants, drivers, small enterprises, service sectors and domestic services.

Kerala alone accounts for 2.1 million migrants living in six countries in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait) according to the latest Kerala Migration Survey 2018 conducted by the Centre for Development Studies. Most of them need to step out daily to earn their living. These daily wage workers are often provided either with free accommodation or allowances for their accommodation and food. Besides, these workers try to increase their monthly income by doing over-time. Lockdowns have forced them to remain out of the workforce with no income. This has a financial impact not only on the migrants in the Gulf but also the millions of their family members in India who depend on the money sent by these migrants. During 2018, India has received close to USD 80 billion as remittances according to the World Bank.

Thousands of migrants in the Gulf are running out of money and are uncertain about their future

Jobless or uncertain whether their employers will pay their wages for the lockdown period to be able to send money to their families, the migrant families have to utilise their savings to meet their expenses. This means that migrants are under more pressure to stay for a more extended period in the Gulf in order to earn more.

Workers who depend on their employer for food and accommodation, face the fear of having to meet these expenses from their salaries, adding an additional financial burden.

Workers are also living in fear that their employer might ask them to go home after the lockdown as some businesses and services such as restaurants and taxi companies are facing a financial crisis due to the lockdown.

Undocumented migrants in the Gulf are particularly vulnerable, as some Gulf countries are using this period to crackdown on workers over-staying their visas. One example is the Kuwaiti government which announced amnesty with free air tickets for all expatriates over-staying their visas in the country. The period lasts from 1 April to 30 April, 2020. But air travel to India from any country affected by the pandemic is officially suspended till 14 April. Hence, the Indians in Kuwait are worried that their employers would refuse to accommodate them during the first half of the amnesty period. The Indian Embassy in Kuwait should take proactive measures to assist Indians over-staying until they are safely repatriated.

Meanwhile, the health and well-being of these workers are at risk, as they stay in labour camps, dormitories and shared apartments with inadequate space to maintain social distancing. In addition to this, the health concerns of the destitute and distressed Indian workers kept in shelter homes operated either by the host countries in the Gulf (for example, the Saudi Government’s ladies deportation centre) or the Indian embassies in Gulf countries (for example, the shelter established by the Indian consulate in Dubai) needs more attention.

Amidst this health crisis, migrants are more concerned with their financial woes than with their health

Sub-standard living conditions and poor hygiene expose these vulnerable workers to the risk of contracting the virus. These low-income migrant workers are largely excluded from social security and health insurance in Gulf countries, which would reduce their access to healthcare related benefits and treatment if they are infected. This would prove to be an additional source of distress on their already meagre savings and lack of income till the lockdown ends.

The aftermath of the pandemic may also have an adverse impact on the Indian workers who have obtained their work visas but are unable to enter the Gulf countries due to the lockdown. The instability of the Gulf economy has been further worsened by the pandemic. As a consequence, the employers may either cancel or postpone the recruitment of workers. This may further decline the already dipping rate of recruitment of migrant workers in the India-Gulf corridor. Since the spread of the virus is identified with people having a foreign travel history, this may lead to the stigmatization of the migrants returning from the Gulf and other countries.

Despite the measures undertaken by Gulf countries, the pandemic has already caused severe and unprecedented economic, social, health and psychological implications on the migrant workers. These migrant workers should be brought under the purview of national health services and support systems.

Amidst this health crisis, migrants are more concerned with their financial woes than with their health. To overcome this, the Gulf governments should come forward to provide incentives for the migrant workers to cover their rent, food and wages or offer them the same benefits extended to non-migrant households. As for those workers returning to India, the Indian government should provide and cover the costs of special repatriation flights.

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