Pandemic Borders

Sri Lanka’s returning migrants need more than plane tickets and quarantines

Bringing migrants home during the pandemic is not only a health concern but a social and economic one as well.

Bilesha Weeraratne
26 Jan 2021 - 12:00am
Sri Lankan street vendor pushes his cart while Health workers take blood and swab samples for COVID-19 tests in the back. Colombo, Sri Lanka. 6 January 2021
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Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Sri Lanka is struggling to reintegrate the large numbers of migrant workers returning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the country is one of the few that has been conscious about the issue of reintegration and the Sub Policy and National Action Plan on Return and Reintegration of Migrant Workers introduced in 2015 is a testimony to this. However, the policy provides tools for return and reintegration during normal times and provides little support for the extraordinary circumstances experienced following the COVID-19 outbreak. So despite the success in implementing health related reintegration protocols, there are huge lapses in terms of socio-economic reintegration of returning migrant workers.

Healthy reintegration

Bringing migrants home during the pandemic involves unforeseen health concerns for everyone. As such, the first stage of the reintegration process involves evaluating the COVID-19 risk among returnees. Since mid-March 2020, all returning migrants have undergone a mandatory health-oriented reintegration protocol, with them subjected to a PCR test upon arrival. Healthy returnees are directed to a 14-day quarantine either in a state sponsored facility or at own cost in a hotel. Those who test positive are treated at the state’s expense in a government hospital. After that, returnees are cleared for socio-economic reintegration.

New form of xenophobia

The pandemic has exposed a new form of xenophobia in Sri Lanka directed at returnees. Throughout the first wave of the pandemic, returning migrants were driving the case load of patients in Sri Lanka (see Figure 1). For instance, in late May 2020 the case load of COVID-19 patients in the country spiked due to the repatriation of migrant workers from Kuwait. This led to a degree of public opposition to repatriation. The then Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Relations, Ravinatha Aryasinha, noted that the average Sri Lankan ‘may have harboured concerns that an influx of those from abroad would swell the numbers of those infected domestically’. Such resistance to repatriation and negative attitude towards returnees, were likely to have psycho-social impact on returnees’ reintegration efforts.

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Figure 1: Distribution of COVID-19 patients from May to July 2020 | Author’s compilation

Employment for returnees

A key component of reintegration is economicand centred around employment. The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) has initiated data collection from returning migrant workers to identify their expectations for employment. A sample of this survey shows that 23% preferred to be re-employed in Sri Lanka, 8% preferred to start a self-employment activity in Sri Lanka, while 35% preferred foreign employment (see Figure 2).

To meet these needs, the authorities are trying to work with the private sector to provide employment opportunities for returnees by matching their skills with the labour demand in the country. For those interested in self-employment, the SLBFE aims to provide in-kind assistance for up to LKR 25,000 (around GBP 100) per returnee to support their start-ups. However, at the time of writing there were no concrete evidence of employment related reintegration measures being rolled out.

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Figure 2: Expectations of repatriated migrant workers: September 2020 | Source: SLBFE (2020)

Struggling families and economy

Unlike in normal circumstances, most migrant workers are returning to families suffering from stress because of the pandemic and therefore unable to support them as they try to reintegrate. Employed family members in households are likely to be concerned about their own job security during the pandemic. Thus, a migrant’s return is likely to create additional stress among family members about the sustainability of the family’s income amidst the loss of remittance income.

Beyond the family, the weak labour market in the ‘new normal’ is already struggling to absorb unemployed workers in Sri Lanka. As such, returnees face further challenges in finding employment in what is already a dismal labour market. For instance, Mahinda (name changed to maintain privacy), a 53 year old male who was employed as a Building Information Modeling (BIM) coordinator in Oman till he returned in March 2020, at times says that he feels depressed for being unemployed for nearly nine months. ”I have very dim hopes of re-migration or re-employment in Sri Lanka”, he explains.

Excessive rate of return

By November 2020, Sri Lanka had repatriated over 40,000 people, while another 54,000 look forward to returning. This high rate of return is beyond the normal capacity of the return and reintegration mechanisms in the country. As identified by the guidelines followed by the United Nations for repatriation and reintegration activities, when returns happen rapidly or exert pressure on a country’s capacity to absorb this large number of people, the distinction between efforts to bring people home and help them to successfully adjust to life back at home may be blurred.

This is exactly the case in Sri Lanka. And with the Sri Lankan airports being closed for inward travel, return and repatriation as well as related quarantine operations are consuming a disproportionate share of resources and attention, relegating the overall reintegration efforts to a lower importance. The result is that many months later, most returnees are still struggling to reintegrate.

Way forward

There are practical ways to help the reintegration process in the short-run. These include providing tele-counseling services to introduce coping strategies to returnees, and supporting returnees in their claims for pending wages or benefits from employers overseas. The government should also consider families of returning migrant workers eligible for social protection.

While repatriation efforts are functioning efficiently, socio-economic reintegration of returnees still needs more attention and any solution requires a holistic approach.

Without adequate attention to this problem, Sri Lanka would suffer longer than required from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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