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COVID-19 and the migration cycle in Southeast Asia

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Photo by Norbert Braun on Unsplash.

Although faring better than other regions, Southeast Asia has been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The past two years have also exposed and deepened inequalities and threatened to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, especially with regards to the movement of people in the region. This article seeks to answer the following questions: How has the pandemic affected each stage of the migration cycle in Southeast Asia?; and, how and where can migrants contribute to a better normal? 


A complex tapestry of migrant experiences 


Behind the immobility and precarity resulting from the pandemic lies an array of complex and diverse experiences: migrants and their families manoeuvring their lives and livelihoods in the new normal, migrants getting locked out of their destination, or stranded abroad and awaiting repatriation, and at risk of becoming an irregular migrant, among others. Irregular migrants are locked in and locked out and suffer asymmetric consequences relative to the regular migrant worker. On the other hand, the repercussions for asylum-seekers and refugees are dire: asylum systems in Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam are partially or not at all operational.


The region consists of migrant-receiving countries keen to prevent and control the spread of the coronavirus among its population, migrant-sending countries keen to also protect their out-bound migrants and leverage economic losses, and transit countries keen to facilitate orderly migration and prevent the pandemic’s reach through their populace. Layering this are the respective states’ domestic and institutional conditions and their pandemic responses and policies. Southeast Asian states, as posited by Sorpong Peou, are unconsolidated democracies. The presence of other institutional actors, such as the military, and institutional deficiencies to provide services and wholly protect human rights are features of Southeast Asian states. However, mobility should not be hampered; it is a result of an individual’s choice and it is their right. 


Pre-departure, departure, and possible transit 


The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stressed the widening gulf between Movers, individuals with resources and the privilege to move freely, and Non-Movers, individuals with limited resources locked in place by pandemic-related or pre-existing travel restrictions. Over the past two years, Southeast Asia saw sharp declines in outbound migrants. Other hurdles for migrants in this stage include the availability of vaccines, the respective destination states’ preference on specific vaccines, the appropriate health requirements, possible exploitations by unethical recruitment agencies, and state interventions in their mobility.


An example of the state intervening in the out-migration of its workforce can be found in the Philippines, which set a limit on the deployment of healthcare workers overseas. Malaysia and Thailand saw a decline in the issuance of visas and work permits in 2020 and are at present approving work permits selectively. The fast-changing travel routes, options, and restrictions may lead to an increased dependence on possibly exploitative employment agencies or irregular channels for travel, accommodation, and job placements. When travel bans were adopted, individuals in transit through a third country or due to travel found themselves unable to reach their destination. The possibility of being stranded is still real, as the result of changing travel routes and sudden restrictions.


Entry and stay


Upon entering the country of destination, migrants are subject to its jurisdiction. They are dependent on the state’s response and prevention policies regarding the pandemic. To ensure the safety and dignity of migrants, host countries should guarantee access to welfare and healthcare without the threat of deportation, safe and humane migrant quarantine facilities, and access to justice and effective remedies to labour rights abuses. The burden of the costs of quarantine facilities and testing often falls on the migrant or the employers. Pre-pandemic, migrants have dealt with xenophobia, stigmatisation, and discrimination in receiving countries. A new outbreak of anti-Chinese sentiment arose in Indonesia, while in Malaysia, authorities rounded up hundreds of undocumented migrants including children and refugees in an effort to ‘stem the spread of the coronavirus’. The outbreak of the virus triggered episodes of xenophobia towards Asian migrants in all countries and increasingly towards foreigners in general. The pandemic has also been weaponised to spread anti-migrant narratives and calls for increased immigration control and reduction of migrant rights.


Return and reintegration


The closure of borders in Thailand in 2020 saw the return of 60,000 to 200,000 Laotian, Burmese, and Cambodian migrant workers to their countries of origin. Similarly, Malaysia saw the departure of 40,000 and 12,000 Thai and Indonesian migrant workers respectively to their countries. In 2021, the Philippines repatriated over 800,000 overseas Filipino workers. A combination of factors prompted migrant workers’ returns, such as the fear of the worsening pandemic situation, job losses, and the expiration of work permits. COVID-19-related travel restrictions and lockdowns pose unique logistical, administrative, and economic hurdles to operate the repatriation of migrants. The process of return and reintegration is complex and multidimensional. Successful return and reintegration entail the migrants’ re-entry into economic life to sustain their livelihoods, access to public services and social protection schemes, and the presence of support networks to facilitate re-engagement with the community and national values. IOM Philippines recently launched the National Action Plan on sustainable, gender-responsive return and reintegration in a concerted effort to ensure that labour migration is safe, especially for women, and to support access to their communities to return safely and navigate their reintegration options, through whole-of-society, whole-of-government, gender-responsive and rights-based approaches. Lacking any of these, especially when the migrant is not fully prepared to return, hampers their reintegration. 


For a better normal 


A ‘better normal’ requires keeping an eye on the risk of future pandemics and other public health crises alongside pragmatic, participative, and centrally-led interventionist state policies. This requires building on existing institutions and mechanisms, and prioritising a combination of research-led responses, an approach focused on health rather than on security, and the participation of stakeholders.


This is a tall order for Southeast Asian states to push through and overcome their domestic and institutional conditions for a better normal. The pandemic offers an opportunity for greater cross-country cooperation to establish a system that addresses cross-border challenges through policy alignment and intergovernmental collaboration. Greater international coordination to bring predictability into mobility systems is needed to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration. In looking deeper at the pandemic’s impacts on the migration cycle in Southeast Asia and on migrant experiences and agency, we can identify the key challenges and potential alternatives for the future. Ideally, migrants as a whole should be treated with dignity and should have access to emergency social assistance and protections, social insurance systems, and healthcare. The inclusion and consideration (or not) of migrants in the COVID-19 response and recovery and social protections will affect the crisis’ trajectories as did the experience of Singapore earlier in 2020. Only through the creation of better systems of care can we create a ‘better normal’ where no one gets left behind.

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Romina Abuan

Romina Eloisa M. Abuan is a Junior Project Officer at the UP Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders (CIFAL), or International Training Centre for Authorities and Leaders, in the Philippines. She is Filipina and was born and raised in Macau SAR. She completed her Bachelors in Government and Public Administration, specialising in International and Public Affairs at the University of Macau, and has a Minor in Portuguese Studies. She is currently pursuing her Masters of Arts in Asian Studies concentrating on Southeast Asia at the Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman. Her lived and observed experiences as a second-generation (returnee) and migrant has allowed her to view migration from an insider’s and outsider's perspective. Her research interests include Southeast Asia, Migration, Diaspora, and Southeast Asian International Relations.

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Twitter: @RomiEAbuan


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