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In pandemic year, 15 lakh expats returned to Kerala, 10.4 lakh of them having lost jobs abroad

According to Airports Authority of India (AAI) data on international traffic from four international airports in Kerala, 27 lakh international passengers have flown out of Kerala in 12 months since May 2020.

Written by Shaju Philip | Thiruvananthapuram |
Updated: July 5, 2021 4:01:02 pm
Returning migrants at Kochi airport last year. (PTI/File)

Nearly 15 lakh people flew in from across the world to Kerala in 13 months since the first week of May 2020, with 10.45 lakh of them stating “loss of job’’ as the reason for their return, according to government data as on June 18.

However, there is no data on how many of these expats have migrated back, or returned to their overseas destinations.

According to Airports Authority of India (AAI) data on international traffic from four international airports in Kerala, 27 lakh international passengers have flown out of Kerala in 12 months since May 2020.

Regarding the returnees, data compiled by the Department of Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) says 14,63,176 people returned in this period. Of them, 10,45,288 — or over 70 per cent — reported having lost their jobs abroad.

Another 2.90 lakh gave visa expiry or other reasons for their return, while the remaining returnees are children, senior citizens or pregnant women, according to NORKA data.

With at least 20 lakh people from Kerala working aboard, remittance from these expatriates, particularly from West Asian countries, has been the backbone of the state economy for a long.

While 8.40 lakh expats returned between early-May and December 31, 2020, the figure nearly doubled in the next less than six months, settling at 14.63 lakh by June 18. Expatriates from four West Asian nations — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman — accounted for 96 per cent of returnees, with 8.67 lakh people from UAE alone.

Only 55,960 people returned to Kerala from other countries during this period, NORKA data shows.

According to AAI figures, 27.20 lakh passengers flew from the state’s four international airports — Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode and Kannur — between May 2020 and April this year.

While this would certainly include some passengers from other states, or those who had had to cancel their travel previously and flew out on a later date, it does indicate that a large section of returning expatriates might have gone back from Kerala, contrary to the popular perception, experts say.

Ajith Kolassery, recruitment manager at NORKA, said the government has not tracked expats to ascertain how many of those returnees have gone back overseas in the last one year.

On the AAI data, he said, “This figure of outbound international passengers from Kerala is surprising, as there was no pilgrimage or flow of foreign tourists during the period. Our presumption is that a major chunk of those who returned (to Kerala) in the wake of Covid-19 have returned (abroad).”

Kolassery said out of 27 lakh outbound international passengers, a large number would be transit passengers — those who got stranded in Kerala, or visitors or frequent business travellers. “But even after setting apart a few lakhs for these types of passengers, we have to assume that a good number of our expatriates who came back in the wake of Covid-19 have returned. In any normal year, Kerala has 5 to 6 lakh fresh cases of overseas migration. That would have happened as usual last year also,” he said.

Significantly, a source in NORKA said although 10.45 lakh claimed to have lost their job, only about 1.70 lakh returnees have so far applied for the relief of Rs 5,000 each paid to returnees who had lost jobs abroad. “So far, we have given that aid to 1.30 lakh, and a few more thousand people would be given after verification,’’ a source said.

While pointing at the lack of data, Prof S Irudaya Rajan, Chairman, The International Institute of Migration and Development, Kerala, said, “Going by my research on international migration during previous instances of global crises, I will say that at least 30 percent of these people (who came to Kerala) would have returned within the last one year itself. The data on outbound international passengers could substantiate that assumption.”

He added: “I would say at least 5 lakh migrants would have gone back. Besides, more would fly back when travel restrictions abroad are lifted.”

Rajan said he has requested the state government to conduct a survey on returnees during the pandemic.

According to Rajan’s estimates, the state is unlikely to see any sharp decline in remittance, unlike predictions.

In 2018, remittance to Kerala from abroad was approximately Rs 85,000 crore. “It should have reached Rs 1 lakh crore last year. There are several variables — such as crisis and calamities in the homeland — that impact (decrease or increase) remittance,” he said.

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