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Movement of peoples in South Asia calls for building solidarities, collective action

Shared-destiny of migrants in the region has become all the more prominent during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The failure of state mechanisms to provide a modicum of income support, social security benefits and healthcare to migrants was glaring.

Written by Babu P. Remesh |
September 10, 2020 4:05:28 am
migration, south asian migrants, Migrants during Covid-19 lockdown, Coronavirus impact on migrants, labour migration, women migration, indian express opinionA woman carries monthly ration from a ration distribution center at Aston village, Madhya Pradesh. (Bloomberg Photo: Dhiraj Singh)

Labour migration is a central phenomenon in South Asia, where a large number of citizens of various countries in the region (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan) are continuously on the move, essentially in search of a living. While a good chunk of these job seekers move within their countries, some of them travel across borders.

The countries in South Asia have many commonalities in their migration profiles. Internal migration is a striking feature for all South Asian countries. In recent decades, intensified poverty and widening inequalities have been propelling large-scale urban-bound migration from rural areas. Though employment prospects and higher wages boost such migration, the most palpable driving force is the deepening employment-crisis in rural labour markets. The recent spike in rural distress throughout the region is destabilising the erstwhile rhythms of seasonality in rural-urban migration. Landlessness, debt-bondages and farmer suicides have increased considerably. In some countries, socio-political tensions, climate change and resource-depletion have compounded the agrarian crisis.

Familial/societal norms based on deep-rooted patriarchal values shape the patterns and trends of women’s migration. The governance frameworks of migration in South Asian countries are also influenced by gendered notions. The controls imposed on women’s migration range from banning migration for certain categories of employment to keeping job-specific age-restrictions for women. Even in countries like Sri Lanka, where women migrants outnumber their male counterparts in the international migration stream, the situation is not different. The recently introduced Family Background Report (FBR) system in Sri Lanka stipulates that the women obtain clearance from a local official. Due to restrictive practices, women’s migration (especially international migration) is considerably low in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. In other countries (Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) such restrictions are found prompting employment-aspiring women to take illegal routes. Often, these undocumented migrants fall prey to pernicious practices of illegal recruiters, including trafficking and sexual abuse.

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GCC countries are the most prominent migrant destinations for most South Asian countries, with the exception of Maldives and Bhutan. In the Gulf countries, migrants from different parts of South Asia are found competing for jobs by mutually under-cutting wages and accepting deplorable working and living conditions. In many other destinations (for example, Jordan, Singapore), workers from different South Asian countries share work-conditions and worries.

Inadequate support from the state to facilitate informed and rights-based migration is yet another feature of South Asian countries. Most of these countries do not even have reliable data on migrants. Inadequate social security systems, absence of effective protective legislations and regulatory systems are also common features.

Shared-destiny of migrants in the region has become all the more prominent during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The failure of state mechanisms to provide a modicum of income support, social security benefits and healthcare to migrants was glaring.

Opinion | Migrants’ vulnerability is newly visible, but not new

Large scale migrant-receiving countries in the region like India, Pakistan and the Maldives can ensure that immigrants from their South Asian neighbours are provided fair conditions at work. Ensuring dignity to intra-regional migrants also requires considerable efforts in terms of establishing peace within the region and finding amiable solutions on long-standing disputes around legality and citizenship of cross-border migrants within South Asia.

These countries could collectively negotiate with major migrant-receivers like the GCC countries. For this, there is a need for reviving larger solidarities in the line of SAARC. Strengthening of protective frameworks, including labour laws, and signing/honouring of relevant international labour conventions and guidelines on migration are equally important.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 10 under the title “We The Migrants.” The writer is Dean, School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi and lead author of the recently released ‘SAAPE South Asia Migration Report, 2020’.

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