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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 6, New Delhi, January 23, 2021

Rethinking Migration: Rationale and Risks to Mobility in times of Pandemic | Nupur Pattanaik

Saturday 6 February 2021

by Nupur Pattanaik *

The Covid-19 catastrophe has disrupted the entire global economy. Uncertainty, Inhumane conditions, Unprecedented Forced Reverse Migration, Lockdown of the country, migrants both national and international are encountering a crisis of wage theft and joblessness, inability to send remittances home have resulted in crime, poverty and acute disorganization and violence. As the solitary isolation and lockdown has escalated their susceptibility to desperation for employment, compromising living conditions and situating them into more forms of exponential vulnerability like bonded labour and slavery. The debrief of labour security in these concurrent times is a major concern where the workers are having a rethought to migrate or not, as the widespread market failure has led to a crisis in domestic migration. The Pandemic as a reality check on the policies, mirrored the concept of “Food and Freedom”, by Amartya Sen, which entails it’s a human right to adequate food and freedom from hunger which is quite apposite in this epoch of universal catastrophe and the exigency of a creative rethink on the issues and concerns of migrants.

Migration has been there since the inception of human beings, people migrate for survival and livelihood. The occurring pandemic and the nation-wide locking of the country has created a multiplicity of crisis irrespective of caste, class, faith, gender and other identities. The deadly virus has affected the economy with repercussions on the informal labour economy and the women, children and the elderly are no exception within this arena of vulnerability. The Covid-19 pandemic has put several questions on the public discourse about the risks and reasons in the migration rhetoric. The pandemic has created a fear among the migrant workers with a challenge to their health and livelihood issues, with quasi quarantine measures, limited knowledge and stigmatisation has led to several questions on the reason and upcoming risks for people on the move. The prolonged catastrophic pandemic and lockdown has enormously affected the mass of migrants, and endangered them and their movement has become a question of rethinking of the social security manoeuvres, the gigantic joblessness with no signs of an effective vaccine and the threat to the pandemic has challenged their decision to migrate and this hugely affects their potency and portability.

Pivot or Perish

The onset of Covid-19 has created an atmosphere of crisis, several questions about the pandemic which goes unanswered to the migrants, efficacy of social distancing, means to prevent oneself from the catastrophe is lacking among the migrants. They have been launched into a do or die situation, with several migrants testing positive for the pandemic and threats to their livelihood has become the major debate which needs to be discussed. Moving in small communities without any safety measures has amplified the menaces among them. According to the estimation by The World Bank globally there has been a decline in 20% of remittances dispatched to lower and middle income countries in 2020. Indeed the Covid-19 pandemic has largely affected the migrant economic plights. Remittances are used for a multiple purposes daily needs, health education of children, family debts, etc. If employment is cut short, they shall find themselves in a very desperate situation as they will be unable to survive. Joblessness, homelessness, lack of income to return home, have all contributed, stroked and altered a downward mobility. Risks of detention, out of employment, deportation, trafficking, abuse, exploitation and several vulnerabilities and exposure to covid-19 without any immunizations has hard hitted the predicaments of the migrants. The pre-existing vulnerabilities have puzzled their situation to move or not .There is a kind of hindered mobility encountered among them, cost and logistic challenges, fatalities of contracting the virus are some of the migrant vulnerabilities. The anxiety generated due to the pandemic has created an attitude of xenophobia among the migrants which has resulted in a mass discrimination and landed them in a frantic situation. As they are restricted with scanty opportunity for long term employment which has depleted their savings, that forces them to return to work otherwise the lives of their family members may crumble and fall apart. While becoming returnees to work they might face the stigma of migrant status additional hardships of hate, prejudices and victimisations fearing the covid-calamity.

Migrants and the Move

The migrants are an important source of seasonal labour who contributed to the seasonal labour economy, the pandemic has triggered mobility restrictions, and framework of migrationary management measures with the outbreak of pandemic has limited their move. Due to the contagious nature of the disease it has led to enforced mobility restrictions and migrants are juxtaposed, countries and communities are experiencing widespread mobility crisis. The Agenda of 2030 on Sustainable development reflected that human mobility is integrally associated with sustainable development goals, due to the contagion of virus mobility is at stake which results in affecting human development. Around the world, the restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic has an impact on human movement by creating havoc in the mobility which has enormously impacted the irregularities in work and has endangered their living subsistence. The ILO report configures that 164 million people around the world manifest to the total global workforce. The fear to migrate and a lack of an effectual immigrant policy, unprecedented challenges, exclusion of refugees in the wake of covid, imposed limitations on mobility, child, women and elderly migrants are also the circumstantial victims and in the requisite of safeguard. Migration is an essential condition for the development of a nation, but Covid-disaster being the most brutal crisis since the World War-II has changed the perceptions of migration.

Rethinking the Post-Covid Migration

The unending covid dispatch has questioned the value of work as we enter the new normal of the era. There is an effective need of a migrant policy overhaul in the post-covid period; globalization, migratory status and health care should be reviewed. An alarming and functional requisite and necessity to reform the policies and programmes in the post-covid era need to adopt community-based approach countering the prejudices and stigmas, comprehensive anti-hate crime policies and safeguarding health and migrant volunteering should be the need of the times. Several mechanisms to address migrant vulnerabilities associated with women trafficking, slavery, migrant child care, and guarding the elderly migrant population, need for social security measures and social inclusion should be the prime objective, social mixing measures to be adopted by enhancing the role of NGOs and Civil society, reforming labour conditions and rethinking existing immigration processes and programmes to make the post covid era a safe haven for the migrant populace.

* (Author: Dr Nupur Pattanaik, Teaches at the Department of Sociology, Central University of Odisha, Koraput, Odisha)


1. OECD: Coronavirus disproportionately affects migrants

2. Ruchir Sharma. The great rethink: India backs off a lockdown strategy the elite cheered on, but the poor could not cope with (The Times of India, June 1, 2020)

3. International Organization for Migration. Issue Briefs

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