What is waiting at home? Migrant workers’ return, reintegration and remigration amid the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has halted major socio-economic activities worldwide, interrupting the migration cycle and resulting in many migrant workers stranded and unemployed without access to social protection measures. While many migrants still remain immobile and trapped, some governments have implemented repatriation mechanisms as part of their major pandemic responses. As migrants return, this begs the question of what is waiting for them at home.
People move out of necessity – the need for higher income, more opportunities, better living conditions, and overall better quality of life – and often not by choice. Labour migration has been the predominant form of human mobility, especially among Southeast Asian nations. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), about 23.6 million migrants are estimated to live outside their countries of origin, with the Philippines having more than six million emigrants, the highest figure in the sub-region and the ninth highest globally. These migrants move for work, with aspirations of ending multigenerational poverty. Many of these labour migrants are elementary-skilled workers engaged in low-wage jobs such as domestic work. Some of them have even gone through irregular pathways of migration and are thus considered undocumented migrants.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there had already been pre-existing social and economic vulnerabilities facing migrants in Southeast Asia, and all over the world. The pandemic has just become a risk multiplier for these vulnerabilities, halting the search for a better life as migrants have had to suddenly return home in precarious situations and often almost empty-handed. The International Labour Organization reported that returning migrant workers lacked appropriate assistance, such as accommodations and cash transfers in transit and during the mandatory quarantine periods. In many cases, migrants have had to shoulder the finances for their return, quarantine accommodations, and COVID-19 testing.
Upon return home, many low-wage migrant workers had accumulated barely enough savings and incurred further debts just to provide the basic necessities for their families amid pandemic lockdowns. Moreover, they face a lack of decent work opportunities in their home countries because of the economic recession. Under this uncertainty, returned migrants are further hindered by the lacking or inadequate sustainable reintegration programmes in origin countries, which are generally developing countries dependent on migrant remittances. As such, despite the ongoing pandemic and the new variants, many migrant workers are looking to remigrate in pursuit of a better life, due to a continuous lack of employment opportunities in their local communities. This becomes a vicious cycle of migration and remigration as a result of multigenerational poverty, worsened by the pandemic.
The United Nation’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration states the need for dignified return and reintegration. However, in reality, migrants with interrupted migration cycles have little to no return preparedness at all. This is very challenging for migrant-sending countries, because they now face unprecedented social and economic costs of return and reintegration. Given that most ASEAN workers are temporary migrants, ASEAN member states must be equipped with inclusive and sustainable return and reintegration policies and programmes. To begin with, there is a need to recognise that returning migrants have diverse needs. These return issues impact the reintegration of migrants in both economic and psychosocial dimensions.
Migration practitioners and experts have long argued that reintegration preparation should begin at the start of the migration cycle – during the recruitment of migrant workers. Governments, as well as recruitment agencies, should provide readiness programmes to mitigate the psychosocial challenges of migration to both migrants and their families, especially children. Additionally, migrants and their families need access to basic social services such as health care, education, and other social protection measures. Governments of migrant-sending countries should have an active role in leveraging migrant remittances for sustainable development. In doing so, governments harness remittances which help to reduce inequality and poverty, improve health and nutrition, quality education and access to housing, and provide overall better quality of life for migrants and their families and communities back home.
Some governments and organisations are already providing or promoting this necessary support for migrant workers, but more is needed. The International Fund for Agricultural Development promotes financial inclusion and literacy for migrants and their families, migrant investments in local communities, and an improved regulatory framework for remittance markets to lower transfer costs. The International Labour Organization has already identified significant reintegration programmes in the ASEAN sub-region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Indonesia has a Reintegration Programme for Returning Migrant Workers, which aims to further develop the skills and abilities of different migrant groups. Likewise, the Philippines instituted the National Reintegration Center for Overseas Filipino Workers, which offers special programmes for vulnerable migrant populations, such as undocumented returned workers, survivors of abuse and exploitation, as well as women migrant workers. Vietnam also has support policies directed towards returned migrant workers from the country’s poor districts.
For post-COVID recovery and a ‘better normal’ across ASEAN, it is imperative that migration governance integrates sustainable and human rights-based approaches that ensure dignified return, sustainable reintegration, and voluntary remigration of migrant workers. Ultimately, migration and remigration should no longer be born out of necessity but rather out of choice, and returning home should indeed feel like home.
Katrina R. Guanio is a researcher and graduate student specialising in population and development. She is a Senior Project Officer at UP - Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders (CIFAL), or International Training Centre for Authorities and Leaders, in the Philippines. She works on research studies and projects on migration, gender equality, and sustainable development.