In 2019, India had the largest diaspora in the world, which was sending back billions of dollars in remittances and contributing significantly to the economy. This year has changed everything.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life, leading to job losses, travel restrictions and visa limbos. For travellers and students, the standstill has been infuriating. But for millions of international migrants, including from India, the extraordinary disruption has meant threatened or lost livelihoods.

The International Labour Organisation calls this a “crisis within a crisis”:

“Tens of millions of migrant workers, forced to return home because of the Covid-19 pandemic after losing their jobs, face unemployment and poverty in their home countries…Migrant workers have found themselves stranded in host countries without access to social protection...Even those with jobs may be taking reduced wages and living in cramped worksite residences where social distancing is impossible.”

It is hard to predict a return to normal, but academics say it may not happen until 2021 – and possibly, not even after.

Migration powerhouse

The migration of Indians has steadily increased over the decades. According to Kaleidoscopic Ethnicity by Professor Prema Kurien of Syracuse University, the pattern began in the 1970s, when an oil price rise sparked out-migration in large numbers from Asian countries to the Middle East. The Gulf underwent a huge infrastructure transformation, for which foreign labour was essential, and by 1980, Indians and Pakistanis constituted around 19% of the foreign workforce in the region.

Between 1990 and 2019, migration from India increased threefold, making it the largest country of origin for migrants. Last year, it had a 17.5 million-strong diaspora around the world. Of these, some estimates say, eight to nine million lived in six countries in one region alone: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait in the Persian Gulf. Half of the migrants to the Persian Gulf were unskilled, 30% semi-skilled, and only the remaining 20% skilled.

Their conditions changed precipitously in February and March of this year, as the coronavirus pandemic barrelled through the world. Many were left jobless, and some homeless. Desperate and despairing, they beseeched the Indian government to find them a way home, but so far, several months later, only 878,000 Indians have been repatriated through the Vande Bharat mission.

Indian nationals stranded in Iran arrive at Porbandar on INS Shardul. Photo credit: PIB/AFP

This is just the “teaser before the movie,” said S Irudaya Rajan, chair professor of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs research unit on international migration. His prediction is that at a minimum, two million Indians, and at a maximum, three million Indians will be back this year. “Future migration will depend on how Covid-19 pans out, and what measures the government takes,” he said.

Nonetheless, what’s certain is that in the short term – over the next six to eight months – remittances will decline. The World Bank predicts the drop will be 23% this year, though Rajan believes this figure is too high. “My prediction is something around 15%.”

He believes Kerala, which sends the most migrants and receives a fifth of India’s remittances, will lose around Rs 15,000 crore. “When we talk about 15 lakh migrants returning, we’re talking about 15 lakh families being affected in India,” he said. “A single, stranded migrant in Dubai could have been supporting a whole family.”

It’s unfortunate that no government has considered the plight of these migrants or their families. “There hasn’t been a single word about rehabilitation,” said Rajan. “They’re not doing much for domestic migrants either…These people really require our support.”

Heller Arokkiaraj, a postdoctoral fellow at the Leibniz Science Campus in Germany who co-authored an article with Rajan, noted that the Persian Gulf had been turning its back on migrant workers even before the pandemic. “Whether you take Saudi Arabia, UAE or any other country in the Gulf, they have been trying to cut down the migrant population for a very long time because several large construction projects are now complete,” he said. The Kuwait government restricted travel from 10 countries, including India, earlier this year, and is capping immigration from India to 15%.

Indian citizens arriving at the Cochin International Airport on a special flight from Abu Dhabi are bused to a quarantine centre. Photo credit: Arunchandra Bose/AFP

In a recent webinar, A Didar Singh, former Secretary, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, and former Secretary-General, FICCI, took the view that low-skilled migrant workers will be hit harder by job cuts. Yet, with global policies, it’s the other way round – there is greater antipathy towards the lower-skilled group. “This is a very odd thing you notice across the world so far as policy is concerned,” he said.

More localisation

“As a country, we are really in the soup,” said Tuhin Ghosh, a professor at Jadavpur University. “When migrants return this year, the human capital will not be utilised properly because there are no jobs. And whenever human capital is underutilised, you can think about a definite fall in the GDP.”

The second effect of the influx, Ghosh said, will be a loss in social capital when returning migrants compete with non-migrant locals for jobs. “As a whole, the composite capital of the country will drop dramatically,” he said.

What, then, can be a way out? Scholars believe that once the pandemic eases and global restrictions lift, Indians will again try to find a temporary home abroad, but maybe not in the same countries as before.

The conservatism of typical destinations, such as the US and Persian Gulf, will spur a realignment towards nations and regions with more welcoming policies, such as Africa, Ireland, Singapore and Malaysia. Students, too, may show preference for Scandinavian countries, such as Finland and Sweden, over the US and Australia “because of the bitter experiences they had during Covid-19.”

One trend from recent years, though, will continue, according to Arokkiaraj. “Data published by the MEA have observed that the trend of international migration has now shifted to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from the southern states,” Arokkiaraj and Rajan write in their paper. That trend will continue because of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar’s demographic profile, boasting the country’s largest young population.

These states also have cheaper labour, Arokkiaraj said. “If the Gulf recruits labour from Tamil Nadu or Kerala for 1,000 dinar, they can recruit two people from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar for 500 each,” he elaborated.

Air India’s first repatriation flight from Singapore returns to Delhi. Photo credit: Sonal Goel/Twitter

Until re-migration begins, projects such as Skill India should teach returning migrants additional skills, such as global languages, so that they can find jobs abroad after the pandemic. For that, India needs a systematic migration policy. “Currently, India says we are ‘facilitating’ migration,” said Rajan. “But in order to promote orderly and safe migration in the post-Covid era, we should be talking about promoting open, safe migration, because we can’t offer employment for our growing demographic dividend.”

Without an open migration policy, the tough living conditions for outbound Indians will continue, both during and after Covid-19. “They will be stranded, stuck, cheated, not given salaries,” said Rajan. “All this can be taken care of if the government promotes safe, legal migration, and works closely with recruitment agencies.”

Overall, the pandemic will result in more localisation and less globalisation, said Dr. Singh. “This will have an impact on businesses and the very functioning of individual countries, but it’s something we have to build into our future policy-making.”

He added: “All receiving countries…want to manage migration. To manage migration and make correct policies, the single most important thing you need to have is that of the voice of the migrants themselves.”

Nowhere in our policy-making do we incorporate the voices of migrants, he argued. How do we encourage more research, papers, policies and articles to say that the voice of migrants must be heard? That’s the defining question of the post-coronavirus era.