The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has affected the livelihood, health, and wellbeing of migrant workers, including their family members, at home and abroad. More than 10 million Bangladeshi migrant workers, who work hard in faraway lands, away from their loved ones and often in sub-human conditions, are now particularly vulnerable to the impact of this crisis.
The direct impact of Covid-19 has two sides. Firstly, on an average 50,000 workers head out to their countries of destination per month, who are now stuck in Bangladesh. Secondly, Bangladesh's foreign exchange earnings through remittance has already decreased. It is projected to fall by 22 percent in 2020.
Recent media reports reveal that migrants were stigmatised both by the authorities and the society in general. Generalised media coverage has created a negative image of migrants and their families coming from Italy since March and they have been paying the price for it. In Malaysia, undocumented migrants are facing crackdown and detention even during the time of the Covid-19 crisis. The situation in Singapore is also bad as most of its virus infections are among foreign workers living in dormitories. 2,920 Bangladeshi migrant workers tested positive for coronavirus, according to data of the Singapore's ministry of health on 19 April.
Many of migrants have already lost their jobs, many are not getting salary or being forcefully repatriated to their home countries. The helpline database of Ovibasi Karmni Unnyan Program (OKUP) reveals that as of March, 40 percent of migrant workers were living in inhumane conditions due to 'lockdown' and were not having jobs or receiving salaries. On the other hand, 25 percent of these migrant workers' families were in crisis as the workers could not send money to them.
Bangladesh is facing the challenge of taking back all undocumented workers from the Middle East. The undocumented workers and freelancers are very vulnerable during this pandemic as they are not eligible for any kind of compensation. These workers will suffer the most. The harsh reality is, 28,849 Bangladeshi workers will return home from the Middle East in the next few weeks and already more than 3,000 have already returned. Besides, Bangladesh mission in Saudi Arabia estimates that the coronavirus fallout and dropping oil prices may lead to the deportation of up to 10 lakh Bangladeshi migrant workers in the next five years. This phenomenon is causing suffering, stress, anxiety, and paranoia to these remittance earners abroad and their families at home.
Such returns place additional strain on the Government of Bangladesh. The expatriates' welfare ministry has allocated budget and taken initiatives to address the situation. Migrant rights organisations are also working to support these people and doing advocacy for them involving government and other stakeholders.
The first challenge is to maintain safety and security for migrant workers and their families. The cultural practice and reality are a great barrier to maintain social distance and ensure the safety of migrant communities at home and abroad. International Organization for Migration (IOM) has already warned that 'forced returns can intensify serious public health risks for everyone – migrants, public officials, health workers, social workers, and both host and origin communities'.
Managing the safe repatriation and reintegration of these returnee migrants will be a challenging issue. Mapping the needs of these returnees and their families is a first step to study. Government with its international stakeholders like IOM, ILO, and other think tanks should conduct the study to develop their plan of reintegration. However, we must not forget that reintegration involves social and psychosocial disorders too, and it is not only limited to economic issues.
Unfortunately, the mental health and wellbeing of migrant workers and their families is a rare area of study. It was never given importance to by the development sector or at the policy level. However, the first study or psychosocial counselling was provided by IOM to the trafficking survivors in 2015. A recent BRAC study carried out on 558 returnee workers during the Covid-19 pandemic revealed that 74 percent of respondents were under immense mental pressure, anxiety, and fear. The present crisis also underlined that online mental health consultation could be one of the priorities that the government and other stakeholders need to take into account at this moment. Tele-counselling and mental health support like 'Kaan Pete Roi' to prevent suicide and UNDP funded 'Moner Bondhu' to support distressed people already set examples. During this Covid-19 crisis, migrant welfare organizations like YPSA (Young Power Social Action) and OKUP are doing their best for the migrant workers and their families with their limited resources. However, until now, there are not any integrated efforts on the ground to help the stressed community fight the Covid-19 and overcome associated crises. This is the time to come up with national policy and incorporate it with Probashi Kallyan Help Desks at home and abroad. Academics, researchers, and the government should work together to repel the worries of migrant workers and their families.
Ahmed Abid, is a filmmaker and joint PhD Research fellow, Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative (HADRI), Western Sydney University, Australia and Human Rights Centre, University of Padova (Italy)