Migrants labourers have been among the worst hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic . Most Indian migrants in the GCC countries are at the bottom of the pyramid in their host countries. Infected in large numbers, and with limited access to healthcare, that is a humanitarian crisis that is developing.
S. Irudaya Rajan is Professor at the Centre of Development Studies (CDS) Thiruvananthapuram and Member of the Kerala Govt. Expert Committee on COVID-19. Ginu Zacharaia Oommen is a Member of the Kerala Public Service Commission, formerly Visiting Professor at the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’homme (FMSH), Paris. Both are experts on migration and they jointly edited Asianization of Migrant Workers in the Gulf Countries (Springer) recently.
We know about the plight of migrant labourers in India. How are Indian migrants in GCC countries coping with the pandemic?
Their plight is no less desperate. Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to the PM on the issue. In the wake of the COVID-19 spread, the situation of Indian immigrants is very precarious. Nurses, small businessmen, labourers have been infected in significant numbers and there is no care for them. In Kuwait, Indian localities such as Jleeb Al Shuwaikh and Mahboula have been quarantined; currently 530 of its 993 confirmed cases are Indians. In Dubai, more than 500 Indians have been infected, particularly from Al Raz area. Similar situation in Qatar. These low and semi-skilled labourers have multiple ailments like diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol and even kidney, liver problems and cancer. Since medicines are very expensive in Gulf countries, migrants often procure their medication from India and stockpile for three to four months. Worryingly, there are reports these stocks have been used up and there is now an acute shortage. The Gulf countries lack broad-based healthcare facilities to accommodate a high number of patients. Indian associations have appealed to the Indian missions, particularly in Dubai, to hire and convert Indian schools into isolation wards. Before the situation worsens, the Indian government should evacuate on a priority basis those immigrants without visa documents, dependants who are mostly elderly, women, children and unemployed persons.
Do their living conditions allow social distancing?
Most of them are single men living in congested labour camps — using common toilets, rooms etc. One flat houses nearly 8 to 10 people using bunk beds, in what is commonly known as a “bed space”. Therefore, if anyone is infected, it will spread fast. At present, there are nearly 8 million Indian immigrants in GCC, of which nearly 2.1 million are from Kerala itself. The immediate task is to chart out a strategy that will, initially, envisage a safe evacuation of emigrants back to India and their rehabilitation back in the home society. Other States with high emigrant populations in the region are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Punjab.
Will the current pandemic change Kerala’s approach to receiving labour from outside the State?
Some estimates put inter-State migrants in Kerala at about 30 lakhs while 21 lakh Malayalis work outside. However, we call them replacement migrants — Keralite plumbers in Dubai being replaced by plumbers from Odisha, for instance. The mass exodus of Keralites over the years has led to a situation where Kerala needs migrants from other parts of the country. Kerala is doing a good job during the crisis in providing accommodation, medication and food for these migrants. While the Kerala migrants are struggling for their safety and survival in Gulf, in sharp contrast, in Kerala the internal migrants have been protected and guarded in the most respectful manner — how will this play out into the future is now unpredictable.
Is there increasing resentment against immigrant labourers in Kerala?
Some rare incidents of protests in guest workers’ pockets such as Perumbavoor and Payipad have also become a point of discussion in the State. In the post-pandemic grim scenario, if there is a reverse migration of the Kerala migrants that might also have an impact on the prospects of internal migrants in Kerala. We expect some guest workers leave Kerala when the lockdown is eased, though it is not sure how many will leave immediately. It also remains to be seen whether the workers who had left before will return. Kerala surely knows these migrants are strong building blocks of its society.