South Asian nations are scrambling to repatriate hundreds of thousands of migrants stuck abroad without work due to the coronavirus crisis – a huge challenge that risks sparking social unrest and spreading Covid-19, labour experts and researchers say.

About 40 million South Asians work overseas, mainly in the oil-rich Gulf, sending vital remittances back home. But economic fallout from the pandemic means many could be jobless for a long time, putting pressure on their home countries to step in.

Along with India, which is carrying out one of the world’s biggest repatriation missions, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are rushing to establish quarantine centres and allocate emergency funds for the homecomers.

Receiving so many of them at once threatens to overwhelm fragile public health systems and a dwindling jobs market in the region, which is home to a fifth of the world’s population.

“You have a whole lot of people who are unemployed, who cannot be absorbed in the economic system... and at the same time governmental subsidies and aid or benefits may not be reaching all of them,” said Nilanjan Ghosh, a director at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank.

“The ultimate result is going to be conflict, in all forms. That is the biggest risk,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, highlighting the possibility of food riots.

Daily-wage workers along with their families take shelter form the rain as they head towards their villages on the 26th day of the lockdown in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Jets and warships

Besides migrant workers, regional governments are working to repatriate students with expired visas and vulnerable citizens such as pregnant women who have been stranded overseas due to travel bans and closed borders.

India put commercial jets, military aircraft and naval warships into action earlier this month to bring back nearly a million Indians from neighbouring countries, the Middle East, Singapore, Britain and the United States.

Nepali officials said they expected as many as 400,000 migrant workers back – about 100,000 of them immediately – mainly from the Gulf and Malaysia after its lockdown is likely relaxed on June 2.

Such mass movements of people have raised concerns about the risk of increased coronavirus infections in the region, which has about 179,000 confirmed cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

“All efforts must be made to ensure transmission, which is certainly a risk, must be avoided,” said Shabarinath Nair, South Asia migration specialist at the International Labour Organisation.

Indians returning home will be screened at the airport for Covid-19 symptoms before they depart and only those who show no signs of the illness will be allowed to board their flights. Once they land, they will be quarantined in hotels, college hostels and empty houses for two weeks, the government has said.

Sandhya Sitoula, a Kathmandu-based advocate on migrants’ rights, said Nepal needed two million testing kits and more quarantine facilities for workers who come back as there were currently only enough to house 10,000 new people. But Samir Adhikari, a health ministry official, said Nepal had “no shortage” with about 100,000 testing kits and more expected from abroad.

Migrant workers with their families stand in queues in Ghaziabad as they wait to board buses to their home in Bihar. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

‘Onus on government’

Most of the South Asians who work overseas are employed in construction or as domestic workers in the Gulf states. The money they send home is a crucial lifeline for their families and makes up as much as 60% of South Asia’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

With global job markets decimated due to the crisis, economic and foreign policy experts say the chances of the migrants returning quickly to work in their destination countries appear slim.

“The onus of integrating them into the economy will fall mostly on India’s state governments,” said Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at research group Brookings India. India’s weeks-long lockdown has already hit nearly 40 million internal migrant workers, forcing tens of thousands to undertake arduous journeys back to their native villages – some on foot.

The exodus prompted the federal government to announce a series of relief measures, including food handouts and work offers under a rural jobs programme. Similar plans have not been announced for the homecoming workers, however.

The labour ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

A police officer wears a smart helmet as he uses it to check the temperature of workers during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease. Credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Loans, skills training

Officials in Nepal and Sri Lanka said they were still chalking out their reintegration plans, with Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha warning some 10,000 expected returnees that “finding jobs won’t be easy”.

Bangladesh’s foreign ministry said it was hoping to bring back about 29,000 of its citizens in several phases to avoid straining limited quarantine centres.

The government plans to provide emergency aid of 5,000 taka, or $59, to each migrant worker when they arrive. Later, they will be able to apply for loans of up to 500,000 taka as part of a $23-million fund to support migrant workers and their families.

In India, the biggest challenge may be faced by authorities in the Southern state of Kerala, which has the largest number of people working in the Gulf – about two million. Out of nearly half a million people who have registered to return to Kerala, more than 61,000 have cited job loss as the reason, according to the state government.

“Of these, many are very poor and they might need cash transfers for survival,” said S Irudaya Rajan, a member of the Kerala government’s expert committee on Covid-19 and the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.

He said he has recommended the state provide Rs 20,000 to 100,000 poor returning migrants for at least two months and help them upgrade their skills to improve their chances of finding jobs outside the Middle East.

The state has also launched a project to reintegrate the returning migrants, which will offer subsidised loans of up to three million rupees to set up small businesses from restaurants and repair shops to beauty parlours. It also plans to widen five national highways and revive small and medium-sized industries with Rs 3.4 billion to provide jobs to repatriated workers.

Observer Research Foundation’s Ghosh and Ganesh Gurung of the Nepal Institute of Development Studies said infrastructure jobs were the best bet at a time when the services and manufacturing sectors have come to a near standstill.

Governments should keep women workers in mind with “gender-responsive” policies that ensure jobs and employment contracts that protect women’s rights, said Nair of the International Labour Organisation.

Women comprise slightly less than half of all international migrants. In 2015, more than three million South Asian women travelled to the Middle East, most in search of domestic work, according to the United Nations’ agency on women.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.