by Charmi Saujani
India is the largest country of origin of international migrants as well as the world’s top recipient of remittances. Since the 1970s “oil boom,” Indian migration to the Gulf has served as a valuable source of income for the nation and as the backbone of the economies of high-migration states such as Kerala through the transfer of remittances. During this time, Indian migrant workers have made substantial contributions to the economic development of the Gulf States.
Image credit: Khaleej Times
The India-Gulf region is the second-largest migration corridor in the world. Of the nearly 31 million non-resident Indians (NRIs), an estimated 8.5 million are working in the Gulf. Indians constitute over 30% of the expatriate workforce in the Gulf States, where the proportion of non-nationals in the employed population is among the highest in the world. Kerala alone accounts for 2.1 million migrants living in six countries in the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait) according to the latest Kerala Migration Survey 2018 conducted by the Centre for Development Studies. Many of the international migrant workers are low-skilled workers, in sectors such as construction and hospitality, or domestic workers.
The outflow of Indian migrants to the region has slackened while return migration has increased due to economic slowdowns, fluctuating oil prices, and changes in Gulf labor policies. The future of India-Gulf migration is further clouded by the Coronavirus pandemic, which poses unprecedented health and livelihoods challenges for the millions of Indians working in the Gulf, as well as for the families and communities that depend on them. Overcoming this burden presents a daunting test for the Indian government.
Once the pandemic hit, Indian migrant workers were not only under threat of starvation or disease, they were also unwanted by both the Gulf and India. On March 19, 2020, the UAE banned entry of valid resident visa holders to the country and began a suspension of both work visas and visas upon arrival. By March 23, the UAE’s two largest air carriers, Etihad and Emirates, stopped all passenger flights, effectively closing the country’s borders. Other Gulf States implemented similar measures: Kuwait closed its borders to all but citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council states on March 13, Saudi Arabia on March 15 and Bahrain and Qatar on March 18. With borders closed, the Indian government refused to repatriate its citizens who were working in the Gulf. This move had been highly contested, both in India and the Gulf. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Kerala argued for the repatriation of labourers because “preventive measures and quarantine methods implemented in Dubai are neither effective nor adequate.” The UAE also wanted India to repatriate workers and was offering to pay for both flights and COVID-19 tests for returning Indian workers—while threatening that it will discontinue hiring Indians in the future if their government did not act quickly. In response, on April 11, the Indian ambassador had indicated that India could not accept repatriated workers until the lockdown in India was lifted. Finally, under the Vande Bharat mission, India’s Ministry of External Affairs had arranged flights to repatriate Indians stuck overseas since the first week of May, more than a month after a nationwide lockdown kicked off on 25 March.
Indian Embassies in the Gulf States swung into action with help lines and other measures to assist those stranded at airports. Cramped accommodations and inadequate sanitation — circumstances in which social distancing was nearly impossible — heightened the health risks for many blue-collar workers. Fear of job loss rendered them susceptible to unscrupulous employers who had an impossible choice of continuing to work or being forced to accept unpaid leave. Adding to the deep sense of personal insecurity faced by low-wage workers were the difficulties of contacting families in India due to restrictions on free internet calling. Undocumented migrants in the Gulf were particularly vulnerable, as some Gulf countries were using this period to crackdown on workers over-staying their visas.
In response to pressure from the Gulf states, India and Pakistan have started organising special flights to repatriate citizens from the region. However, that is proving a huge challenge. On March 18, an expanding compulsory quarantine at the port of first departure for a minimum period of 14 days for passengers coming from/transiting through UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait came into effect. With as many as 23 flights arriving daily from the Gulf, officials in Mumbai rushed to strengthen defences by creating quarantine centres and administering tests for the estimated 26,000 asymptomatic (mostly blue collar) workers. In the UAE alone, more than 300,000 Indian nationals had registered to be repatriated. The Indian government was prioritising people with short-term visas, those with medical emergencies, pregnant women and the elderly. And due to the limited number of seats, even those who meet the criteria were finding it difficult to get on the flights. Some Indians were also struggling to find the money to pay for both their flights and their 14-day stay at a quarantine facility in India. India had announced about 35 repatriation flights for the Gulf region between 16 and 23 May. Before these flights started functioning, several stranded migrant workers were in dire straits, in large part due to the clauses tying their visas to their employers under the much criticised kafala sponsorship system.
India is the country with the highest outward remittances received from the UAE, accounting for 37.9 percent of personal remittances sent from the UAE in 2019, according to the Central Bank of UAE’s annual report. This return of migrants will affect this income flow in severely. The Indian migrant workers in the Gulf who were in preventive quarantine or who tested positive for the virus faced the prospect of unpaid wages, arbitrary dismissal, and deportation. This precarious situation was arguably even more acute for the indeterminate number of workers who were irregular residents. Many of them lack access to healthcare and live in conditions in which social distancing is not an option. The treatment of migrant workers in the Gulf had come under greater scrutiny, with human rights groups saying conditions had deteriorated because of the pandemic. In the UAE, most attractive because of the economic opportunities it offers, there is no social safety net for foreigners, who make up about 90 per cent of the population. Despite the measures undertaken by Gulf countries, the pandemic has caused severe and unprecedented economic, social, health and psychological implications on the migrant workers. These migrant workers should be brought under the purview of national health services and support systems.
The aftermath of the pandemic may also have an adverse impact on the Indian workers who have obtained their work visas but are unable to enter the Gulf countries due to the lockdown. The instability of the Gulf economy has been further worsened by the pandemic. Consequently, the employers may either cancel or postpone the recruitment of workers. This may further decline the already dipping rate of recruitment of migrant workers in the India-Gulf corridor. While many of these issues may seem to be particular to the Gulf, the experiences of migrant workers around the world demonstrate global connections and the challenges of addressing crises through national frameworks. The next steps taken by governments and international organisations must consider responses to the coronavirus on a scale that moves beyond national borders in order to develop safeguards to protect the lives and livelihoods of those that are most vulnerable to the virus and the changes in capitalism.