Migration governance during the pandemic: Marginalising the already marginalised?

Parul Srivastava

The writer is a researcher, pursuing her PhD from the Department of History, University of Hyderabad, India. She can be reached at 17shph05@uohyd.ac.in or via Twitter on @paroollll

 The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused turmoil all across the globe. Nearly every country is dealing with a never-seen-before situation, at least since the Spanish Flu of 1918 which resulted in the death of approximately 50 million people worldwide. Today, USA has the largest number of COVID positive cases in the world, followed by Brazil and India. We have witnessed the migrant crisis in India since the onset of lockdown and how it got from bad to worse and therefore, in such a situation, it becomes imperative to ponder over global and regional migration while focusing on the pandemic induced migrations and the vulnerable situation that the migrants are left in.

Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism (GRFDT) along with two important organisations namely Migrant Forum Asia (MFA), and Cross Regional Center for Refugees and Migrants (CCRM) organized a rather beneficial and tremendously insightful discussion on “Global and Regional Migration Governance During COVID-19 Pandemic” on July 7th 2020. This session was moderated by Shabari Nair, a Labour Migration Specialist for South Asia, based in the International Labour Organization in New Delhi. This 11th GRFDT virtual panel was attended by policy makers, practitioners and government officials from various numerous countries.

Nicola Piper, Director of Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre in Australia spoke about the global level of governance of labour migrations. Although we have come a long way in terms of understanding of what migration entails, in political and institutional terms we still have a dysfunction at global migration systems and this has become more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Talking about the three aspects of the global migration governance, she spoke about the ‘what/how/by whom. Migration management trumps over the rights based approach to migration and this is reflected in the priority given to other types of migrations as opposed to what happens at the workplace. She stressed on the gaps that arises between rights on paper and rights in practice and this is highly relevant in the current pandemic wherein there are many migrants, undocumented workers who’re working on contract/ temporarily in essential services and key sectors of the economy but they still don’t have residential rights, have little or no access to social security. This pandemic has exposed the fundamental flaws which exist in many bilateral agreements and memorandum of understanding (MoU).

Shahidul Haque, former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh broadly talked about how this pandemic is reshaping migration and where is it making an impact: remittance, labour flow, return and human rights. He emphasised that inter- State relations will change, international cooperation will change an hence, migration will change which will result in a change of world order. He talked about four new factors that will unfold (which he has termed as ‘New Migration order’) namely new economic landscape, development paradigm, power shift and environmental factors. These four forces were functioning but the pandemic has exposed some weaknesses and accelerated few changes in the world of migration and mobility.

This is the first time that the world is facing a migration crisis without the migrants being major stakeholders because this migration crisis is the result of a pandemic. Another issue that this pandemic has created is the problem of ‘return’ which has resulted due to the fact that around 400 million migrant workers have lost their jobs and hence, they will have to return to their home countries. Interestingly, he talked about the ‘trapped population’ which has lost its jobs but is unable to return to their native countries and are therefore on the streets in a foreign country.

Pietro Mona, Ambassador for Development, Forced Displacement and Migration (Government of Switzerland) believes that COVID has highlighted the vulnerabilities as well as the weaknesses of the current system at local, national and global levels. This pandemic which is now turning into a micro- economic crisis at the global level has had a great impact on the field of migrations. For a lot of challenges that we are seeing today, there are possible solutions or at least an ideas on how to approach them. The real question of the hour is do we have the political will, the instruments, the actors that can implement what has been discussed so far.

There is also a dire need to focus on the issue of migration is connected with other issues like gender, education, to name a few and find inclusive solutions. One very crucial point that Pietro Mona made was that proposing ‘us’ and ‘them’ creates barriers and we need to understand that migrants are very much a part of our society. Horizontal adaptation/ expanding the government structure horizontally which means that all partners should be included at the same table and vertical expansion is also of equal importance which involves the issues of migration with other overarching relevant issues that are interconnected.

William Gois from the Migrant Forum in Asia from Philippines talked about how the transmission isn’t as smooth and that there is a fault line between regional and global. This disconnect is also present between capitals and other places which isn’t just a bureaucratic process but also a politically affected process. However, migration for politicians isn’t a vote worthy topic which is why they wouldn’t pick it up from a human right perspective as it won’t be received well by the majority.

The current discourse on migration has become extremely polarised, India being a classic example of it which involves prioritising oneself and othering the other. The pandemic has put migrant workers in an extremely difficult position. Otherwise hailed as ‘heroes’, they’re now unable to return back to their communities due to fear of community spread (in case they are carriers of the COVID-19 virus). A new political will has to be generated which would ultimately bring people out of situations of crisis such as the ongoing pandemic. Migrants live within the State’s jurisdiction and hence it is the State’s responsibility to protect every human being living in it’s jurisdiction without any discrimination.

Roula Hamati, from the Cross Regional Center for Refuges and Migrant in Lebanon questioned as to how do global frameworks translate at the national and regional level. There are a number of obstacles when we talk about translating them at the ground level and she spoke about it in the Arab context as to how countries that receive refugees have not really ratified the refugee convention.

Charles Obila from IGAD, a membership of 8 of 55 States of Africa. Migration is a means to survival as one cannot live without the options of migrating. For certain African countries, Migration is very dynamic in nature as they cannot really differentiate between refugees and migrants and they have mixed migrations where people belonging to various categories move together, using similar means. This is mostly because they’re all looking for similar things- livelihood and employment opportunities and hence, migration is happening towards the gulf countries, European union as well as Southern African countries. Obila mentioned quite interestingly that the most resilient migrants and refugees are in the urban areas as they are the ones who are able to find employment with limited support and are able to support/ provide for their families.

Migrant returns and deportations was happening from Southern African countries and the Gulf countries and this led to a growth of discussions on how to co-ordinate better and also deal with stranded migrants who’re out of employments due to this pandemic. This has further led to a reverse flow of migration where people are looking forward to moving back to rural areas from urban spaces. The political leadership of IGAD countries came together and took a decision of developing regional health response strategy and one unique thing that was specifically mentioned was the integration of vulnerable population including the migrants and the refugees in the health responses. There is a need of multilateralism or international cooperation especially in the recovery and post recovery stages.

Professor Andrew Geddes, Director of Migration Policy Centre in Italy spoke about the governance in Europe buy concentrating on four things, namely crisis, policy, politics and the future. Based on previous crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic would not lead to major changes in the EU and European migration and asylum crisis. Attitudes towards migration are becoming more favourable as opposed to how such issues have been politicized and presented.


The regional negotiations are very important for the regions so we should have a SAARC negotiation with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries where we are sending our people to. It becomes essential for the sending countries, civil society groups, trade unions, intellectual groups to participate in discussions concerning the migrations that have been induced by the ongoing pandemic. Multilateralism is really the way forward and the dialogue and discourse needs to become very empathetic and the stereotypes that were being practised for so long need to be recognized. Professor Binod Khadria, former faculty at JNU concluded by highlighting EAA (Equitable adversary analysis) wherein one needs to put themselves in the shoes of the adversary and then try to look at the issue from the other side because one cannot pretend that migration is just like an exchange of commodities or like some kind of a trade because it’s not so. It’s a flow of human beings and hence, empathy becomes of primary value here and it is something that COVID-19 is constantly reminding us of.

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