TACOMA, Washington — Human mobility has been severely limited due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Notably, it has forced many migrants to return to their home countries, impacting migration dynamics around the globe and creating a reverse migration paradox amid COVID-19.
Risks Involved with Reverse Migration During COVID-19
The dramatic economic downturn resulting from the pandemic has induced dramatic job loss as well as a fear of being stranded overseas. For many migrant workers, returning to their country of origin is the only viable survival strategy. However, rapidly changing circumstances due to the pandemic and vast amounts of uncertainty have made reverse migration during COVID-19 a complicated paradox. Yet, there are many risks involved in staying abroad and returning home.
Among other factors, returning home may include:
- Loss of income and remittances
- The return to unstable or worsening economic conditions in their home country
- Indeterminate length of unemployment
- Limited re-migration possibilities
- Increased vulnerability to social and financial instability
- Anti-immigration sentiment
- Stigmatization as virus importers
Risks of Staying Abroad
Lower socioeconomic groups often contain an overrepresentation of migrants and other minority groups. These groups typically work in temporary or informal jobs and receive limited access to health care services. Furthermore, in places with minimal social protection, these migrants are especially vulnerable.
During crises like COVID-19, undocumented immigrants understandably steer clear of hospitals to avoid identification and reporting. However, if they contract the virus, they often present late with more advanced, and thus more deadly infections. Additionally, COVID-19 lockdown measures, including reduced mobility and layoffs, have made starvation and homelessness even more acute risks for migrants. These conditions have made staying in a host country unfavorable for migrant workers.
While migrants in lower-paying jobs are typically some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19’s spread, they are also crucial members of the novel coronavirus response. Migrants often work in critical essential service sectors that are in high demand during the pandemic and other crises. Seven of the 20 countries most affected by COVID-19 largely depend on migrant workers in essential healthcare services. In the United States, approximately 69% of all foreign-born workers occupy critical infrastructure sectors.
However, emergency policies to alleviate pandemic pressures often do not include migrants. Therefore, these migrants are left with few options to protect their health and safety. Reverse migration is thus a viable survival strategy.
Effects of Reverse Migration
There are many ripple effects of reverse migration during COVID-19, both for the countries of destination and origin. The countries to which these workers return to face increased health vulnerabilities with more potentially infected people arriving in their country. Additionally, socioeconomic pressures increase with the loss of remittances from migrant workers who have returned home. Tensions over already scarce resources also have arisen or become more acute with the influx of return migrants. Moreover, the countries in which migrants have left lose valuable workers in essential sectors, particularly in health services.
Cases of Reverse Migration During COVID-19
For Nepalese migrants workers, many do not have the option to return to their home country. Officials enacted a ban on citizens returning home on March 24. Malaysia and the four Gulf states alone are home to some 1.5 million Nepalis, many of whom are without work due to COVID-19 lockdowns. When Nepal announced a relaxation of the lockdown for June 2, 400,000 migrants were expected to return home, providing an immediate intensification of resource scarcity within the country, particularly in the case of the already limited availability of health services.
Over the past several years in Venezuela, some 4.5 million have left the country due to intense political and economic crises. More than 1.5 million of these migrants have fled to Colombia. While there, many are without regular status. This means that they occupy precarious jobs, lack access to the health system and do not receive social protection. As a result of COVID-19 induced lockdowns, this informal work was nowhere to be found. Confronted by eviction, many migrants have chosen the dangerous journey back to Venezuela. Without flights or access to public transportation due to coronavirus concerns, the return migration is risky, with threats from armed groups and encounters with human traffickers not uncommon. Once in Venezuela, mandatory quarantine facilities have been overcrowded, dirty and lack adequate food and water.
For Senegalese migrants hoping to return home, stigmatization has been the biggest hurdle. When the Senegalese government banned repatriation in April 2020, Sengalese migrants were left with few options. Many returning migrants who could afford to fly were unable to travel by air due to flight suspensions in March. Others chose to travel through Morocco and Mauritania by road. However, Senegal and Mauritania closed their borders on March 21. Some returnees then paid fishermen to shuttle them back to Senegal via boat. Nevertheless, many of these boats have been denied docking and entry due to the increasing fear that returning migrants carry the virus. Newspapers have then accused these migrants of sneaking into the country. Neighbors of returnees have also threatened to report them to police if they did not immediately isolate.
As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to be felt across the global economy, reverse migration will likely only increase. Governments need to prepare rigorous crisis plans that actively include migrants, particularly when it comes to granting them access to health care or entitlements. Migrants have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Nevertheless, these workers provide essential services to their host countries, and by providing migrant workers with early detection and treatment options, nations can reduce the transmission of COVID-19.