The Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) hosted a webinar on the topic “Gulf Migration and COVID-19” on July 3, 2020.The distinguished speakers were Ambassador KP Fabian, Professor at the Indian Society of International Law, New Delhi and Dr Ginu Zacharia Oommen, Member, Kerala Public Service Commission and an academic and political activist based in Thiruvananthapuram. The webinar was moderated by Dr Martin Patrick, Chief Economist at the Centre for Public Policy Research.

The discussion focused on the nuances of migrating to the Gulf and the policy issues in resettlement, reintegration and rehabilitation of the returnees. Addressing the lack of data on migrants, Ambassador Fabian suggested developing an app for migrants to register their details upon arrival in the host country or prior to leaving their home country. This information can be with the respective embassies as well as the External Affairs and Labour ministries. He further noted that the Gulf embassies should do better considering the excess consular revenue in their hands.

Dr Zachariah highlighted that the India–Gulf relation, regardless of COVID-19, is ‘strategic’ and goes beyond the ambit of just remittances and migration. This relation is driven by energy, security, oil and trade. With the South Asia-Gulf migratory corridor being the largest in the world, we understand that the attraction towards the Gulf is not one-sided, rather it is a preferred migration. The Arabs are unwilling to welcome other Arabs as migrants because of their political associations; on the contrary, the stereotypes surrounding the Indian migrant workforce that they are ‘politically neutral, hardworking and submissive’ make them the ideal workforce.

Reflecting on the Vande Bharat Mission, the speakers felt that the flight tickets for the returning migrant workers should have been free of cost as many of them were rendered unemployed. Given the context, the tickets became an additional financial burden on them. Talking from his experience with the Indian community in this region, Ambassador Fabian said that the mission could have been organised in cooperation with the community instead of asking the workers to pay for the ticket. Few of the Gulf countries like Kuwait had offered to fly out our community, the Government of India should have considered this option. The speakers also emphasised the need to increase the level of transparency in the mission for people to reach out to the right officials.

Unfortunately, India—having the largest diaspora—is yet to formulate a concrete migration policy. The speakers underscored the need to prepare a strategic package—a comprehensive migrant governance and management system. There are several bilateral and multilateral agreements on paper, which are not yet translated to on-ground rights and protection of the workforce.

Kerala is faced with a task to constructively utilise the skills of Gulf returnees. On this regard, Dr Zachariah stated that ‘dignity of labour’ is the main obstacle the government will have to overcome in rehabilitating them. The taboo that the Kerala population associates with each job is going to create a crisis in the post-COVID-19 world. He advised on building a cooperative system as existing in several countries in the West. A worker-owned cooperative can be established for customers to directly reach out for services.

Dr Martin Patrick concluded the session by reiterating that the State government has been preparing to rehabilitate the returning migrants, but the pandemic has magnified this into an issue that needs an urgent address. He hopes that the Dream Kerala project will include awareness programmes for the general public and counselling sessions for the returnees.

The report is prepared by Angela Cecily Joseph, Research Associate, CPPR-Centre for Comparative Studies.

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