Migration experts and observers have urged destination counties to stop repatriating migrant workers forcefully and instead ensure their human rights amid the current Covid-19 crisis.
The global migration regime obliges destination countries to look after the migrants, irrespective of their immigration status, they noted. However, at this critical time, migrants are being left unprotected and subjected to forced return.
At the same time, they have urged the countries of origin to collectively negotiate with the countries of destination to stop any forced return of migrants. "States that benefit from migrants' remittances have failed to meaningfully alleviate their suffering," they added.
They made these remarks while speaking at an e-Symposium on Covid-19 and migration called "Migrant Workers of South Asia: Experiences of Return, Repatriation and Deportation" organised by the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) on Wednesday.
Dr Jagannath Adhikari, an academic and researcher based in Australia, said, "Migrant workers are exposed to discrimination in destination countries amid the pandemic. We are observing human rights violations against them: on the job market, with payment of wages and the provision of healthcare services, as well as in the process of sending them back to their home countries."
William Gois, coordinator of the Migrant Forum in Asia observed that taking advantage of their government's repatriation programmes, many employers in destination countries are terminating the contracts of migrants without clearing their due wages.
"This amounts to wage theft", he noted, urging origin countries to immediately begin documenting during repatriation of workers or soon after arrival.
LK Rugunage, a migration expert from Sri Lanka, reported that in some countries – with the support of the government – employers have lowered workers' salaries by 20-50 percent. "This is unacceptable," he noted.
Dr Ganesh Gurung, founding chairperson of Nepal Institute of Development Studies (NIDS), mentioned problems being faced by migrant workers of South Asia in destination countries are almost identical.
While commenting on the role of Nepalese embassies in different destination countries, he said, "Women migrant workers are more vulnerable amid Covid-19 and many of them have become pregnant after being violated in destination countries. Additionally, our embassies are not capable of providing services to the migrants due to a lack of resources."
Talking about the same point, Dr Syeda Rozana Rashid, migration expert and also a professor of International Relations at Dhaka University told The Business Standard, "Although Bangladeshi embassies are working in different destination countries to help the migrant workers, the assistance they offer is inadequate. Migrant workers do not get the expected services because of a manpower shortage at different embassies."
Dr Nasra M Shah, professor of migration and development at the Lahore School of Economics, Pakistan, said, "Many meetings have been held to ensure rights of migrants, and also there are international declarations including the Colombo Process' for migrants' rights, but these declarations have not come into practical action," she added.
Highlighting the treatment of migrant workers Dr S Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala stated that, "The world has failed them: states, regional processes and international actors – even us, the academics."
Rajan said, while the situation may look bleak in the short-run, eventually things will work out for the better for the migrants as new corridors of migration will open up – in Africa for example – and demands for new types of jobs will be created.
Migration expert and former ILO senior specialist Dr Piyasiri Wickramasekara noted with regret that regional processes have not been of much use when migrant workers needed them the most.
To help develop appropriate policies he underscored the need for proper data generation on returned migrants.
Dr CR Abrar, executive director of RMMRU, was the moderator of the symposium. He stressed that destination countries must ensure all rights of migrant workers – which include access to proper tests and treatment of Covid-19 and ensuring safe accommodations.
In his opening statement, Abrar also said that linking repatriation with future labour market opportunities amounts to blackmail by destination countries. "In this trying time, there has been a stark deficit in the protection of migrants in the countries that they help build," he noted.
This was the second e-Symposium that RMMRU organised under its Covid-19 and Migration seminar series titled "Build Back Better." A number of academics, rights activists, development partners, and representatives of migrants' rights organisations attended the symposium.