The impact of return migration to Kerala from the Gulf amidst the pandemic
In the last few weeks, 413,000 Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) living outside India have registered to return to Kerala due to the pandemic. So far, 150,000 Indians have registered with the Indian Embassy in the United Arab Emirates to return. Half of those registered are NRKs. The majority are blue-collar workers, willing to return to India due to the loss of their jobs. NRKs, as the largest migrant community in the Gulf, have suffered the most from job losses and pay cuts.
It is estimated that around 2.1 million emigrants from Kerala live around the world, as found in the 2018 Kerala Migration Survey. Nearly 90% of Keralite migrants leave for the Gulf with temporary employment contracts and intend to return after their contracts expire. Moreover, it is estimated that almost 36% of Kerala’s state GDP stems from remittances. This is almost 13 times higher than the share of remittances received by the Indian Union (2.7% of total GDP in 2017). The flow of remittances and their share in the state economy indicate the dependency of the state on these remittances.
Workers fear not only the threat of the virus but also the economic effects of the slowdown of the Gulf economy, which largely depends on oil and related activities. The number of available jobs is shrinking. Moreover, the migrants who have returned to Kerala for breaks/holidays are stuck and are in danger of losing their livelihoods. The prevailing situation halted large infrastructure projects in the Gulf, and caused the oil prices to fall drastically. As the Gulf is facing a severe economic crisis, it may not recruit migrants in the near future. This will hit Kerala’s economy and migrants’ livelihoods the hardest.
Migrants are running out of money and are unable to go out for work. In some cases, workers are not provided with adequate financial support for food or rent. Thus, the unavoidable return of NRKs will be a blow for Kerala’s economies. On the one hand, they will lose direly needed remittances, and, on the other hand, they will have returning workers adding to the state’s unemployed for an undefined period. In this situation, Kerala is not in a position to provide employment opportunities for the returning migrants.
Meanwhile, the phenomenon of migration is not individual, but also concerned with migrants’ families, as families of migrants in Kerala have long been depending on remittances to meet their expenses. Before the crisis, migrants would remit to support their spouses and family, to meet children educational and medical expenses, and to repay loans. Therefore, families of migrants are also directly affected by the return of migrants due to the pandemic.
Though many have returned, many NRKs have also remained in the Gulf despite the prevailing conditions. They may not be in direct risk, but their economic future is uncertain. This trend may also affect remittances. As people are becoming jobless, they have to spend their savings to overcome this dim phase. Therefore, they may remit less for a while. Under these circumstances, both savings and remittances of those who have either left or remained in the Gulf are and will be affected.
There is an interconnection between migrants and remittances. Remittances are the lifeblood of Kerala's economy and have been steadily increasing over the last two decades. But the real global economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic may lead to losses in remittances. It is estimated that Kerala's annual remittances are expected to decline by 15%, as the crisis has further heightened the livelihood concerns of returning migrants and NRKs remain in the Gulf. It is pertinent to mention that most of the Indians abroad who are infected by COVID-19 are in the Gulf countries. Due to shutdowns or quarantines, their earnings have decreased, their families are facing a difficult time, and their remittances have been affected.
The pandemic and the consequences of lockdown have had apparent impacts on remittances to Kerala from Gulf countries and an unemployment crisis among NRKs. Kerala may have to supplement the expected drop in the remittances with other income. However, the more significant impact will unfold over the coming months. Only then can we see how far Kerala’s remittance economy has been hit by this pandemic. While the Keralite government has created medical facilities for returning NRKs, it will need to do more to overcome financial difficulties due to the loss of livelihoods.
Kerala may see these returning workers as an opportunity since their skill sets can be mobilised in sectors suffering from a shortage of human resources. Furthermore, enhancing the skills of returning migrants may also facilitate further international migration to new destinations or to the Gulf itself. However, this hypothesis would require comprehensive research to examine the best possible ways for the economic integration of the returning NRKs. For quite some time in Kerala, return migration and integration policies have lost their relevance. This moment could be an opportunity to re-orient these policies to address the current needs.
Dr Heller Arokkiaraj, Postdoc fellow at Leibniz ScienceCampus, Eastern Europe - Global Area (EEGA) in Leipzig, Germany. He is specialized in the field of international migration from India. He holds a PhD in Social Work from the University of Delhi, India (2019).