“Migration powers economic growth, reduces inequalities, and connects diverse societies. Yet it is also a source of political tensions and human tragedies”
- Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
The enormous contributions that migrants make both to their countries of origin, transit and destination are well documented. ESCAP research shows that migrant workers contribute to their destination countries through multiple channels. They not only fill gaps in the labour market and do work that local populations are unwilling or unable to do, they lower production costs and shore up entire sectors of the economy of some countries. The contributions to their countries of origin are less disputed as the remittances that they send not only maintain their families back home, but they provide precious foreign exchange and comprise significant proportions of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of many countries in the region. They also contribute to the transfer of knowledge and skills and are often innovators and entrepreneurs.
Yet in a crisis, they are often the most vulnerable due to lack of access to health care, housing and social protection. They are furthermore subject to rising levels of discrimination and xenophobia.
The COVID-19 crisis is proving to be no exception. In many countries in Asia and the Pacific and beyond, it is the migrants, housed in crowded conditions with no way to practice social distancing who have been infected at higher rates – proving once again the dangers of social exclusion not only to the excluded but to society as a whole. Many of them are trapped in countries which will not allow them to return home without jobs, incomes and access to health care. They wait in hope for their countries to arrange to fly them back from their places of work where they are looked upon as potential sources of infection.
Women migrant workers are often employed in domestic work, and many of them have suddenly lost their jobs, because employers perceive them as vectors of infection. Many work in hospitals, health care clinics and old-age care facilities, looking after COVID-19 patients, or cleaning hospital rooms, risking their lives on a daily basis. In addition, women migrant workers who are pushed into the shadows of society during the crisis are likely to experience high levels of harassment and violence. With services such as hotlines being cut, they will have fewer ways to seek help and escape it.
The massive crash in crude oil prices has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the double whammy means that a large number of migrant workers from the region face an uncertain future in countries of destination whose economies are dependent to a large extent on oil. Remittances to lower and middle-income countries across the world are expected to drop by 20 per cent and by 23 per cent in South Asia in 2020.
Even within countries, internal migrants are faced with the same challenges as international migrants. Large scale lock downs have left them without jobs, income, and in some cases regular access to food and shelter. With all forms of public transport also ceased, people have trudged hundreds of kilometers only to be met with further stigmatization and hostility as they are perceived as carriers of the virus. Due to no fault of theirs, this is unfortunately true in some cases.
Years after all the discussions and debates on ensuring that the human rights of migrants are protected, we have clearly a long way to go.
In the short term, countries must expand existing social protection programmes to cover migrants. National stimulus packages and emergency social protection measures, including those for food and shelter, must be extended to migrants, and migrants must be tested and treated for COVID-19 at no or minimal costs to the migrants themselves. Countries with a long- term vision must realize that to kick-start economic growth after the pandemic, they must implement strong employment retention policies to cover the entire labour force, including migrants. This would prevent the forced displacement of migrant workers, particularly internal migrants. We must build back better and create more equal and inclusive societies, including migrants and their families.
The Asia-Pacific regional review of the implementation of the Global Compact for Migration to be held in the later part of the year provides an opportunity to highlight the challenges faced by migrants and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will furthermore seek ways to create long-term safe, orderly and regular pathways for migration through regional cooperation. It is time to balance the enormous economic contributions made by migrants to development across the world with a commitment to protecting them better.