Tens of millions of migrant workers – forced to return home because of the Covid-19 pandemic, after having lost their jobs – are facing unemployment and poverty in their home countries, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned.
As containment measures ease, millions of migrant workers may be required to return home to low and middle income countries where labour markets – which were fragile before the Covid-19 outbreak – are now further weakened by the additional strain of high levels of unemployment and serious business disruptions due to the pandemic.
In addition, their families will suffer financially from the loss of the remittances normally sent to them.
Meanwhile, other migrant workers have found themselves stranded in host countries without access to social protection and little money for food or accommodation. Even those with jobs may be receiving reduced wages and living in cramped worksite residences where social distancing is impossible – putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus.
While many migrant workers, particularly women, are doing essential jobs for their host societies during the pandemic – particularly in the care or agriculture sectors – those in other sectors have lost their jobs or have continued to work informally.
"We know that many millions of migrant workers, who were under lockdown in their countries of work, have lost their jobs and are now expected to return home to countries that are already grappling with weak economies and rising unemployment," said Manuela Tomei, director of ILO's Conditions of Work and Equality Department.
"This is a potential crisis within a crisis. Cooperation and planning are key to averting a worse crisis," she continued.
It is estimated there are 164 million migrant workers worldwide, nearly half of them women, comprising 4.7 percent of the global labour force. While not all of these workers will return home – after losing their jobs or for other reasons – informal ILO research in more than 20 countries indicates that many millions are expected to do so.
Most of their home countries have very limited scope to reintegrate such large numbers of people, and often do not have policies and systems in place to ensure effective labour migration governance and smooth reintegration plans – including for skills development and recognition.
Governments in Asia and Africa, in particular, expect millions of migrant workers to return, – voluntarily or due to need – as their job prospects evaporate.
A package of ILO briefing and policy documents – focusing on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on workers who are migrants, refugees, or forcibly displaced persons – draws attention to the potentially serious social and economic impact if returns occur over a short period of time, and if migrants are not included in social protection measures or given help to reintegrate into national labour markets.
The research also shows how returning migrant workers bring skills and talent that can help their home economies rebuild better after the pandemic. However, the key to unlocking this potential is the establishment of a rights-based and orderly return and reintegration system, access to social protection, and the proper recognition of skills.
This can facilitate better skills and jobs matching – increasing productivity for national industries.
"With the right policies, the return of these workers can be converted into a resource for recovery," said Michelle Leighton, chief of ILO's Labour Migration Department.
In addition, migrant workers may bring knowledge and capital to open new businesses that can help to improve employment opportunities.
Helping returning migrants reintegrate will also reduce tensions in their home countries, where some communities may fear that returning migrants may bring the virus or take jobs away.
Rebuilding the livelihood strategies of returning migrants will allow them to pay any debts related to their original recruitment abroad, avoiding the risk of forced labour and human trafficking, or re-migration through irregular pathways.
"With the right policies, the return of these workers can be converted into a resource for recovery," said Michelle.
"These migrants will bring with them talents and new skills, and in some cases capital – that can support efforts in their home countries to rebuild better. We must help these countries seize the opportunity," she said.