Pandemic Borders

Migrants face a dilemma during COVID-19: uncertainty at home or abroad?

As the world economy struggles, more migrants are forced to return home or revisit their plans taken before the pandemic.

Zeynep Sahin Mençutek
5 June 2020
Indonesian workers arrive at Kualanamu international airport in Indonesia on April 09, 2020 after being deported from Malaysia.
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Picture by Aditya Sutanta/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Ahmet worked as a carpenter for 20 years in Genoa, Italy. When the pandemic hit the country, he did not expect that it would unfold at this scale. Beside the risk of loosing his job with elderly Italian siblings, he realized the risk of not being able to return to his village in Turkey where his family -wife, two sons, and old parents- live.

Alarmed by Italy’s decision to stop international flights, he traveled to Nice, the closest French city by bus to take the earliest possible flight to Turkey. When he arrived to his village, he was less welcomed than in normal vacation times due to the suspicion of being a ‘carrier of virus’ from Europe. Attitudes got normalized after his 14 days of self-quarantine. Now, on the one hand, he does not know whether he would be able to work again in Italy or in Turkey, and on the other, he feels lucky when watching the news about the overwhelmed public health system and high death tolls in Italy.

Ahmet’s COVID-19 story is not unique, the pandemic urged many migrants across the globe to return to their home countries, although many of them were also stranded or wait for governments to fly them home. India, as the country with the highest number of international migrants in the world, experienced the return of more than sixty thousand migrant workers until 22 March when it restricted all international travel. Moreover, more than three million Indian internal migrants returned from major cities to their home states as they lost daily earnings. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians working abroad rushed to return home due to business closures and economic slowdown. Hundreds of Venezuelans in Columbia returned from exile because they were losing their financial lifeline. Thousands of jobless migrant workers in Thailand traveled back to Myanmar, Cambodia and the Lao from official and unofficial crossing points. Over 14,000 Mozambican migrants working in the mining sector returned from South Africa within a few days, as South Africa declared lockdown. The countries of returnees had to ask the International Organization of Migration (IOM) for support at the crossing points with data collection and in helping national authorities to meet needs in shelter, food, non-food relief items, health support and risk communication.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has an impact on all types of mobility and migration dynamics, including return migration. Lockdown measures prevent many migrants from earning a living from their unsecured, temporary and informal jobs. Even, the highly skilled migrants, turned into the first candidates to be laid off in cases of downsizing companies, meaning the return of some to their countries of origin sooner or later. Some migrants make plans for permanent return as soon as borders open because they are concerned about the lack of access to extensive health care, financial security, social protection and support in the countries of migration. Rational calculations, fears, concerns, emotions are all mixed up to make migrants more intensively consider returning.

During crisis, like the pandemic, aspirations and decisions of migrants are marked by deep impasses between staying and returning. They face rapidly changing circumstances with conflicting motivations. Returnees take the risks of returning to a life of uncertainty, not being able to go back to the country where they work, not completing their migration project and the risk of encountering stigma in the country of origin as importers of the virus.

The worsening of hyperinflation, poverty, unemployment is among the likely perils in the home country. Those migrants who continue to stay take the risks on their health and safety as well as several layers of uncertainty as they might be unemployed due to the economies slowing down, running out of money, or not being able to send remittances to their homes. The feeling of suspicion against foreigners may stay or get worse. There is too much evidence to expect possible rise in discrimination, xenophobia as well as politicians blaming foreigners for everything, generating more restrictive measures such as building fences or suspending asylum admissions.

Undocumented migrants become more vulnerable to forced returns during the pandemic. Countries of immigration like Kuwait tend to crackdown on workers over-staying their visas or permits in such a period of lockdown. Increasing identity checks by security officers create more fear among the undocumented migrants in Europe for being detained or deported. The Gulf countries seem to wait for repatriations or deportations to conduct “safe returns” until the borders open. EU member states suspended return and resettlement provisions due to the outbreak. Germany’s migration agency postponed its voluntary return programme and its reintegration assistance to Cameroon, Mali, Morocco and Senegal.

But some countries display a more decisive stand. The United States is alleged to deport thousands of people to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico amidst the pandemic, including unaccompanied children and many who are infected with the virus. Mediterranean countries like Cyprus and Malta pushed back migrant boats, costing many lives lost at sea excusing their act with the risk of the virus.

Return operations have to ensure the safety, voluntariness and dignity of people

The pandemic has the potential to influence state-induced return of refugees, although the state of emergency on Europe’s external borders disappeared from the news for now. Millions of Syrian refugees in the neighbouring host countries, like those in Turkey, become more vulnerable during and after COVID-19 in relation to the economic recession.

Despite their initial humanitarian and temporary approach of accommodating the stay of Syrians, Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese governments have firmly encouraged and assisted thousands of Syrians to return since 2018. With the pandemic, these countries may increasingly focus on the narratives centred on return of refugees to Syria or migration elsewhere as the “easiest solution” to respond to mounting economic problems and social tensions. There is no doubt that the return policies follow such narratives.

As the world economy is severely affected, more migrants may unfortunately have to return or revisit their plans taken before the pandemic. The impact of return migration may span from decline in remittances, poverty, to encountering challenges in reintegration , to the risk of persecution and death in extreme cases.

All these possibilities necessitate earlier preparations of governments and international humanitarian actors. Voluntary return should be facilitated by both countries of origin and countries of residence by ensuring minimum loss in previously acquired rights (e.g residence, pension). Forced returns of refugees and irregular migrants from territories of immigration and borders with the excuse of the pandemic should be avoided.

Return operations have to ensure the safety, voluntariness and dignity of people. Global humanitarian and health cooperation, through building on existing coordination structures, localization and flexible funding structures, should be mobilized and improved. This is urgent for Venezuela, Syria, Myanmar, Ukraine, Libya which has priority for international humanitarian response and where the return of refugees and migrant workers is happening. In the long run, this is necessary for many developing countries in Africa, South Asia, South America and the Middle East. Reintegration of returnees should be taken more seriously.

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