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Covid-19, International Labour Migrants and Left-Behind Families in Bangladesh

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have widespread impacts on workforces and communities across the globe, migrant workers and their left-behind family members are likely to be among those suffering the worst of the crisis.

A joint study by MISTY partners at the Refugee Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) and the Bangladesh Civil Society for Migrants (BCSM) that documents the experiences of Bangladeshi labour migrants and members of the left-behind households amid the Covid-19 crisis shows very clearly how the pandemic has disproportionately affected these vulnerable communities.

Now published as an ebook, “The Other Face of Globalisation: Covid-19, International Labour Migrants and Left-Behind Families in Bangladesh” is a compelling account of the plight of both male and female Bangladeshi migrants in their various destination countries and after their return to their country of origin during April-July 2020. Data from a survey of 200 households in 21 districts of Bangladesh and in-depth interviews with 25 involuntarily-returned migrants shows that around 67% migrants who involuntarily returned to Bangladesh became the victim of unpaid wages and 62% of these returnees left behind assets abroad amid the Covid-19 crisis. During their stay abroad, around 27% of these returnees lost their jobs and 26% became partially employed due to the pandemic's impact. The study further found that around 61% of the dependent households did not receive remittance during the survey period. In the absence of regular remittance flow, the migrant households faced major challenges in meeting food expenditure and borrowing money was around 54% of the family income sources during this period.

Summarising these findings, Dr CR Abrar (BCSM's Chairman and RMMRU executive director) notes that;

When migrants face a crisis, their left-behind family members also suffer. The spread of Covid-19 has again shown us the other face of globalisation in respect to labour migration. Destination countries have developed stimulus packages to face the Covid-19 crisis. However, migrants are mostly excluded from such packages, owing to their precarious work conditions.

The research is far-reaching in its scope, building a comprehensive picture of the challenges facing returnee migrant workers in Bangladesh during COVID-19 through first-hand accounts of the migrants’ experiences of health shocks and risks, partial or full loss of employment, food scarcity, and fear of arrest, detention and deportation. The primary data also includes 42 case studies of gender-based violence in migrant households during the particularly difficult COVID – 19 period of May to June 2020. These case studies provide further evidence that the global health crisis has amplified existing gender based inequalities and violence and also created new forms of discrimination and abuse that disproportionately impact women of the migrant households.

Returned migrants were among the first to be singled out when Bangladesh reported its first COVID-19 infection case in March 2020. For the female returnees, this was in addition to the already existing stigma attached to their migration. Women returnees describe experiences of exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers in the destination countries and then further trauma and abuse when returning to Bangladesh. One involuntarily-returned female migrant from Hong Kong describes how upon arrival in Bangladesh, she was placed in quarantine in the Hajj camp, near the airport and kept there for two weeks in terrible conditions with insufficient food. When she was able to finally reach her hometown, she was forced to hide for more than a month inside her house because the neighbours became threatening, blaming her for bringing the virus home with her.

What this book does most powerfully is highlight the vulnerability of migrant work forces in crisis situations and the need to do more to ensure their rights and protection. Its main stated objective is to “provide policy-makers with evidence, based on which the government can develop systematic policies to support and protect migrants during future crisis situations.” Based on the evidence they have collected in conducting this study, the authors conclude with practical policy recommendations to support positive change.

It is, they say, most important that the Government of Bangladesh continues to generate data around the return of workers and to develop guidelines on how to evaluate the cases of those whom the countries of destination have involuntarily returned so that the government and civil society can launch international campaigns for compensation and payment of due wages. Further, they advise that distressed migrant families should be effectively included in public assistance schemes so that they can better cope during a crisis, and clear, inclusive policy planning is required to reintegrate the physically, mentally or sexually abused returned female migrants.

Recommendations for the international community include fulfilling their commitment to SDG 3 by ensuring that the health policies of destination countries formally integrate equal access to services for migrants, and, perhaps most pointedly, a thorough review of existing international guidelines in respect to migrants to understand why they are not currently able to provide protection to vulnerable migrants during crisis situations.

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