Migrants and Stranded passengers wait outside Secunderabad Railway Station to board trains as Indian Railways resume transport services, a man wearing a mask and a white and blue checks shirt is seen talking on the mobile.
Migrants and Stranded passengers wait outside Secunderabad Railway Station to board trains as Indian Railways resume transport services, a man wearing a mask and a white and blue checks shirt is seen talking on the mobile.

No work, no support: Indians who returned after losing job abroad due to COVID-19

Indians who returned following job loss abroad during COVID-19 are clueless about what is next, as India doesn’t have a rehabilitation policy that can help them.

When Wilson Raju, a 28-year-old fisherman, came home on an Indian Navy rescue vessel from an Iranian island with some 700 Indians in July 2020, he was positive about rebuilding his life. “We believed that our struggles have ended. We believed that the state will help us to rebuild our lives. But, sad to say, nothing has happened till now. I feel disappointed,” Wilson said.

Wilson had gone to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) through an agent in Tamil Nadu paying US$ 823 for a fishing job. From there, he was sent to Iran for fishing. When the COVID-19 outbreak struck Iran in February 2020, the Persian country and its neighbouring states closed their borders. Wilson and his 700 friends were left stranded along the Iranian coast.

As their employer was non-cooperative, Wilson and the others had to survive on one meal a day for five months, till India facilitated their return through the Vande Bharat Mission, a rescue operation initiated by the Indian government to bring back stranded citizens from COVID-19 hit countries.

Unfortunately, the stranded fishermen still had to pay US$ 82 per head to return even on the rescue vessel. Wilson and his friends were paid by the employer twice between November 2019 and March 2020. They were supposed to get more compensation. But the employer failed to do so. “We had saved that money. And it helped us to pay the Indian government to board the rescue ship,” Wilson added. 

Since May 2020, the Vande Bharat Mission has brought back some 40 lakh Indians till now from different COVID-19 hit countries by operating more than 1,000 Air India flights and two Indian Navy vessels.

Returnees losing hope

Upon returning, Wilson started to look for work. All he knows is fishing. So, he repaired his small boat and started to go fishing. “As it’s a small boat, I can go only up to 10 nautical miles and fish. Sometimes, I get a good catch, and sometimes not,” Wilson said.

Wilson has loans of around US$ 5,500. With interest, it is now around US$ 8,250.

“I couldn’t earn anything by going to the Gulf. I migrated to the UAE in November 2018 and got stranded in Iran. I could work only for two months. And the employer didn’t pay me my full salary too. Now upon returning, there’s no regular job. So, I’m clueless about how to repay my loans,” Wilson added.

Wilson’s case is not an isolated one. His close friends, Shanu S and Johnson A, who also returned from Iran with Wilson, are also in the same situation.

“Many a time, I think of ending my life...,” Shanu told TNM.

If Wilson, Shanu, and Johnson are fishermen who are stranded without any job or support for rehabilitation, Aneesh K, an automobile engineer who lost his job in Oman during a COVID-19 layoff, is also facing the same uncertainty upon return.

“I was sent back along with some 1,400 laid-off employees. I was hopeful of rebuilding life here. But nothing has materialised so far. I tried to remigrate, but I was cheated by an unscrupulous agent. I lost some US$ 350. Luckily, by then, I sensed that I was getting cheated and ended the communication there,” Aneesh said.

Lack of rehabilitation measures

Even though Keralites had begun migrating to South East Asian countries in the 1950s and to the Gulf in the 1960s, the state still lacks effective rehabilitation measures for returnee migrants, say Kerala-based migrant rights activists.

“Kerala set up Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs (NORKA) in 1996 to ensure the welfare of Keralite migrants. But like any other government body, this institution also has failed to cater to the needs of migrants and returnee migrants,” Mini Mohan, a migrant rights researcher and trade unionist in Thiruvananthapuram, told TNM.

“Filled with political appointees, businessmen, and bureaucrats who don’t know the challenges of migration, Norka fails to understand the woes of migrants. Additionally, they also fail to come up with workable and accessible rehabilitation plans for returnees,” Mini said, adding that nobody is going to get any help without restructuring the current Norka system.

Ignatius Loyola, a migrant rights activist who actively works with returnee migrants for their welfare, said that the Kerala government has ignored returnee migrants even when the government knows that lakhs have returned jobless from foreign countries during the pandemic.

“Norka itself says that some 5,50,000 people have returned to Kerala from foreign countries citing job loss between May 2020 and January 2021. But the state government has ignored the returnees’ woes in the 2021-22 state budget,” he said.

“This budget hasn’t set aside a fund for Norka or allocated funds for those seeking fresh foreign employment programmes and rehabilitation plans. Thomas Isaac, the state Finance Minister, has blamed the Union government for not addressing the issue of rehabilitation of expatriate returnees seriously,” Ignatius said.

The Kerala budget document reveals that US$ 1.3 crore has been allocated to provide jobs for non-resident Keralites affected by the COVID-19 crisis. However, it is unclear how it will be spent and what are the plans.

Extent of government support

However, talking to TNM, K Harikrishnan Namboothiri, Norka CEO, said that for those who have returned, a Skill Portal has been set up where the returnees can upload their skills.

“Some 52 companies have been roped in by Norka for this Skill Portal. They will do a job-skill match and provide jobs,” Harikrishnan said, adding that they have also tied up with 16 banks to provide loans for returnees to rebuild their lives as part of rehabilitation programmes.

“Through us, banks can provide loans up to Rs 30 lakh. We will provide subsidies worth US$ 41,000. If the repayment is regular, then there are rebates in interest too. We are now popularising the schemes at district levels by convening workshops and meetings with returnees. However, COVID-19 restrictions have hampered the efforts,” Harikrishnan said. He added that Norka has also disbursed US$ 68 for some 1,15,000 people from Kerala who couldn’t go back to foreign countries since January due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This totals up to US$ 7.8 million.

Unfortunately, returnee migrants and migrant rights activists said that they “haven’t heard much” about the Norka plans.

“I’m looking for money to buy a bigger boat. But I haven’t heard that Norka is giving a loan. Even the social activists whom I contact are unaware of loans provided by Norka,” Wilson said.

When I briefed Wilson and his friends about the Skill Portal, they asked me how low-skilled people like them are going to benefit from the portal.

“Where will our skills match? Who is going to hire us?” Wilson asked.

Ignatius said that it is really hard for many low-skilled returnee migrants to survive upon return.

Meanwhile, talking to TNM, Bheem Reddy Mandha, President of the Emigrants Welfare Forum, said that rehabilitation of returnee migrants is technically the responsibility of the state government but he believes that the Union government should lead the efforts.

“Many other countries – like Bangladesh, Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka – see migration and rehabilitation of returnee migrants as a central subject. Unfortunately, India gives this responsibility to states. Eventually, some states do and some don’t. Telangana doesn’t have any plans like Kerala,” Reddy said, adding that there are many fair practices in other countries that can be replicated by India for the welfare of returnee migrants.

What other countries are doing

Following the COVID-19 crisis, the Philippines government initially allocated US$ 52 million for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), including a one-time emergency cash aid of US$ 200 for each worker displaced by the pandemic under the Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong programme.

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration also launched project EASE, which provides educational assistance worth US$ 8 million for college-level dependents of OFWs affected by COVID-19.

In August, the government signed into law the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, providing a recovery package worth US$ 3.5 billion. Of this, US$ 17 million was for the repatriation of OFWs, medical assistance, and shipment of the remains of those who die of COVID-19. The government also rolled out several job generation schemes for the returnees.

In 2020, remittances from Filipinos abroad hit US$ 29.988 billion, down 0.9% year on year.

Shakirul Islam, chairman of OKUP, a community-based migrant workers’ organisation in Bangladesh, told TNM that the Bangladesh government has allocated US$ 8 crore as incentives for reintegration loans for returnee migrant workers.

“Additionally, the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and Overseas Employment also declared the inclusion of migrant workers and their families in the list of beneficiaries for emergency support,” Shakirul said, adding that the government provided compensation for undocumented workers who died of COVID-19 too.

International remittances normally represent around 7% of Bangladesh’s GDP. Ten million migrants from Bangladesh had sent home close to US$ 18 billion in 2019.

Meanwhile, Sujeewa Lal Dahanayake, a migrant rights activist in Sri Lanka, told TNM that the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) initiated data collection from returning migrant workers to identify their expectations for employment.

“A sample of this survey shows that 23% preferred to be re-employed in Sri Lanka, 8% preferred to start a self-employment activity in Sri Lanka, while 35% preferred foreign employment. To meet these needs, the authorities are trying to work with the private sector to provide them employment opportunities by matching their skills with the labour demand in the country,” Sujeewa said.

“For those interested in self-employment, the SLBFE is also aiming to provide in-kind assistance for up to US$ 130 per returnee to support their start-ups,” Sujeewa added.

Lip service won’t help

Talking to TNM, Hubertson Tom Wilson, a migrant rights lawyer, said lip service by both state and Union governments is not going to provide real help for migrants.

“India still manages migration with the 1983 Emigration Act. And it doesn’t have a Migration Policy. We shouldn’t delay in updating the Emigration Act and prepare a Migration Policy too, which will have credible reintegration plans for returnee migrants,” Hubertson said.

“We cannot simply sit idle and ignore the reintegration and rehabilitation process. In the Philippines, migrants are recognised and called modern-day heroes. Migrants support our economy a lot. So, when they return empty-handed due to unexpected pandemic outbreaks or any other crisis, we shouldn’t let them down. We should be prepared to receive, accommodate and provide ways to rehabilitate them as they are our heroes,” Hubertson added.

Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist living in Kerala. This story was reported under NFI Fellowships for Independent Journalists.

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