As economies around the world grapple with the devastating fallouts of the novel coronavirus, the migrant population has emerged as one of the worst affected by the pandemic. The deadly disease has not only exacerbated the risks being faced by an already vulnerable group, it has arguably even reversed some of the earlier gains in terms of ensuring their basic human rights. As the International Migrants Day is being observed around the world on December 18, International Organisation for Migration’s Chief of Mission for Nepal Lorena Lando shared with The Himalayan Times her assessment of the situation facing Nepali migrants, existing gaps in support activities, among other issues. Excerpts:
How has the migration landscape changed due to the coronavirus pandemic?
The coronavirus pandemic has had a substantial effect on global migration and mobility. According to a report by the IOM, between November 2 and 23, 2020, globally a total of 224 countries, territories or areas have issued travel-related measures.
As the pandemic’s effects continue to vary widely across world regions, migrants encounter diverse challenges depending on the policy and epidemiological contexts in their sending, transit, and receiving areas. Regulations and measures are evolving rapidly, and mobile populations often lack timely, accurate information about these changes. Migrants and their families are also facing frequently challenging socioeconomic situations and have been especially impacted by the global economic downturn generated by the pandemic, which has in turn reduced remittances and heightened food insecurity.
Furthermore, in crisis contexts, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing gaps in access to basic services and protection challenges, particularly for the most vulnerable groups, and has often generated stigma and discrimination against migrants.
What is your assessment of the situation of Nepali migrants at present?
Evidence shows that many of the risks and impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting migrants. The pandemic has certainly pushed already vulnerable migrants and their families further into precarious situations.
Among those returning, many are arriving empty-handed, having spent their savings while waiting to safely return home, some forced to take loans with high interest rates, and some have been unable to be paid their wages from employers.
The majority are returning with a few personal belongings and prospects of falling further into debt and poverty.
This will pose a risk to further exacerbate the unemployment situation of Nepal which is already unable to provide job opportunities to approximately 500,000 youth that enter the labour market every year.
Other challenges migrants face include discrimination in treatment, wage cuts, layoffs, job loss, being stranded, forced returns or collective expulsions. Major reasons of return of migrant workers can range from completion of contract period, job loss, voluntary return, amnesty granted by destination countries to the undocumented migrants, among others.
Undocumented migrant workers are some of the most vulnerable in this pandemic. They often work in the informal sector, in restaurants, shops or as domestic workers without labour permits. Due to lockdowns these jobs ceased to exist and may have fallen under further exploitation due to their precarious situation.
Many women domestic workers have experienced certain vulnerabilities due to the pre-existing conditions on restrictions of movement, excessive working hours, delay or withholding of wages and in some cases physical abuse — all that have been reportedly exacerbated under the given situation.
Also, some migrant women have returned with unwanted pregnancies and/or as single mothers with young children. In these cases, there are far-reaching consequences for both the women and children including social exclusion, discrimination and lack of access to legal identity for the child to receive appropriate protection, access to mental health and psychosocial support, and access basic health services and continuity of care.
The pandemic has severely affected Nepal’s migration, which has been for many years a substantial pillar of the national and household economies. As you are aware, in 2018-19 the contribution of remittances to Nepal’s GDP was equivalent to 25.4 per cent (IOM, 2019).
Though the number of returnees from foreign countries did not go as high as estimated at the beginning of the pandemic — as of December 13, over 175,000 Nepalis have flown back home since the government relaxed the restrictions on international flights, according to available data by COVID-19 Crisis Management Committee. In addition to that media reports estimate that around 900,000 Nepali migrant workers returned from neighbouring India since the start of the pandemic.
Lower number of returns than the predictions in the initial stage is attributed to job retention of those working at essential service sectors and migrants chose to continue to work rather than coming home, not to forget that many may have also the loans they have taken to migrate as Employer Pays model is yet to be implemented in its true spirit.
Similarly, remittances inflow did not go down as initially estimated by Nepal Rastra Bank and World Bank. Nepal’s central bank is confident that the country will not see negative growth in remittance earning in 2020. It is believed the positive sign is attributed to diversion of remittance from informal to formal channels and sending in cash instead of goods.
Has the pandemic affected IOM’s activities?
If so, how? IOM’s activities have certainly been affected by the pandemic, as also all other sectors. Nevertheless, IOM has, in coordination with government agencies and partner agencies, managed to continue its essential tasks on ensuring that migrants are not deprived of their fundamental rights in the name of the pandemic.
IOM continued its direct assistance to migrants in need, surveys and assessments to produce migration and COVID-related reliable data and facts to feed into policy and decision making, distribution of virus preventive kits and conducting capacity building training for government officials and civil society organisations (CSOs), fully complying with WHO standards to contain the spread of COVID-19 virus.
Among other activities, the IOM teams deployed in the field for population mobility mapping exercise met over 600 informants in-person during the lockdown period, as well provided grants supports for micro enterprise and self-employment to most vulnerable migrants.
Could you elaborate on the support extended by the IOM for the benefit of migrants during the pandemic?
IOM in Nepal is working with the government and partners to ensure that migrants and their families, whether in regular or irregular situations, as well as returnees, are included in all aspects of COVID-19 preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. IOM has been advocating for assurance of migrants’ rights and protection during the pandemic throug