Uncertainty of return of migrant workers in COVID-19 pandemic

Reimeingam Marchang
ILO (2020) has said that the novel Covid-19 pandemic has increasingly resulted to job losses that risk losing livelihoods. The World Bank (2020) has added that the economic uncertainty induced by the pandemic is massive for the migrants because of lockdowns, travel restrictions and bans, and social distancing that have brought global economic activities to a near standstill. People are increasingly stranded because of it. In India, stranded migrants in particular are exposed to precarious livelihood. World Bank (2020) has cautioned that the pandemic crisis could aggravate xenophobic that amounts to discriminatory treatment of migrants. In India, according to the Ministry of health and Family Welfare, migrants face harassment and negative reactions of the local community. Indeed, there have been many such instances of harassments and discrimination by calling Corona, eviction from rented house, disallowing to access basic public services such as shops etc, to the North East people in many mainland states of India.
The nation lockdown imposed by the Indian government to contain the infamous Covid-19 pandemic has raised displacement, uncertainty, insecurity and suffering for livelihood among the migrants. The migrant workers especially daily labour including agricultural workers, causal labour, construction workers and micro, small and medium enterprises workers among other vulnerable workers in India experienced the brunt of the pandemic. Lockdown has caused suffering from economic hardship due to non-receipt of wage, travel restriction, compulsory quarantine, inability to travel to origin of migration in times of dismisses of family member, and so on.
The infamous Covid-19 pandemic that necessitated lockdown to contain it has caused lots of crises to the migrant workers affecting livelihood. Ultimately, among these migrants the most vulnerable group was low paid informal sector workers. They are suffering from job lost and insecurity and near future income uncertainty. The uncertainty is greater in urban centres where the cost of living such as house rent, transportation and food are dearer and regular income is needed to meet it. Lockdown and travel restrictions to maintain social distancing and abrupt stoppage of economic activities has induced lots such uncertainty and insecurity. Vulnerable migrant labours, and even students, have extremely suffered struggling for sustenance that has obligated them to make a decision for either to stay back at their migration destination and continue to suffer from economic hardship and depending on humanity service provision of free daily essential goods such as rice, edible oil, pulses among others by various government and other agencies or to return back to their origin of migration assuming that at least some opportunity may exist for livelihood.
The world’s estimated migrant workers, according to ILO, were 164 million people in 2017. The Census of India 2011 recorded 3.8% of India’s 1.21 billion people as migrant workers. Close to 76 thousand people from Manipur lived outside the state of Manipur in India in 2011. Out of which, a substantial share of 22% engaged as workers in various economic activities in different states of India. Currently, the figure of migrants from Manipur must have considerably increased. As such, making an arrangement to bring back the natives of Manipur is a herculean task in times of lockdown due to travel restriction and social distancing norms. Bringing back of these migrants is the sole onus of the Manipur government, but not to politicize and not to use as a tool of political campaign, with the huge financial assistance being received from the government of India since the Manipur government previously has failed to facilitate and provide a secure livelihood means and job by developing industries for these migrants. 
Migrants who have family with children studying at migration destination, stable job including workers working from home, own establishment or business among others may likely choose to stay back. Conversely, vulnerable migrant labours such as agricultural labour, daily wagers, contractual workers with low income and job insecurity may tend to decide to return back to their origin due to job lost or the potential of having a higher tendency of job lost. Job and income lost and the uncertainty of getting back the job in a while due to continued lockdown and restrictions in opening up the businesses and establishments and uncertainty to resume for work is causing migrants to return at their native place.  Concurrently, many harassment for rent is soaring, disregarding government’s direction to landlords to defer rent demand during lockdown period. Job lost and or non-receipt of salary because of lockdown stagnating businesses has incapacitated timely rent payment. The combined economic hardship and suffering of job lost and inability to pay rent and sustain livelihood is a primary reason for returning at place of origin.
The pandemic crisis has taught many lessons such as maintaining social distancing, health hygiene, use of mask, economic preparation for unprepared circumstances, possibility of working from home for selected job, technology innovations and usage in changing society and economy, and most importantly humanity to mankind among others. Government is giving importance to save and secure live as well as ensure delivering means of livelihood. Securing live is prioritised to delivering livelihood at the moment. Migrants attempt to overcome their livelihood uncertainty by returning home. However, as per UNESCO (2020), migrants are exposed to a greater risk of contamination of the virus in place of transit or destination. Therefore, it is imperative to take extra precautionary measure for the return migrants during their entire transit to reach home in order to ensure that the Covid-19 pandemic is not imported nor spread and to contain it.  
During the pandemic crisis, migrant workers has prudently adopted various strategies for livelihood and sustain their live by using previous savings, relying on free essential goods provisions distributed by various agencies or miserably returning to their origin of migration to overcome the economic hardship and livelihood uncertainty. In all likelihood, migrants choose to return at their origin rather than suffering from job uncertainty, starvation and inability to pay rent. Migrants returning to their origin have led to a shortage of labour supply at destination of migration. It thereby will affect the economic activity and output in such destination. But, expectedly, the larger issue of severe unemployment problems is on the card when many migrant returns and start seeking for job. Government may need to secure and deliver livelihood scheme, similar to MGNREGA for rural people, to the return migrants in urban areas who are willing to reckon on it.
The author can be reached at [email protected]