Migrant Forum in Asia
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Policy Document No. 3: Between Peril and a Pandemic: Accountable Actions and Recognizing Responsibility

The current pandemic has caused wide-reaching changes in the economies and society of both countries of origin and destination. As governments slowly come to terms with lockdown measures through adaptive and dynamic policymaking, they are looking not only at the near future to address the immediate public health emergency and provide relief to the affected populations; they also look towards strategic directions in the long term wherein the “new normal” is increasingly characterized by economic crises, global pandemics, adverse climate change impacts, social upheavals or other large-scale disruptions. In all this, the issues of migrant labour become critical, both for the destination and origin countries. It is imperative that countries on both ends of the migration corridor recognize their interdependence on mobility of labour and on effective collaboration on migration governance particularly during times of crises.

Initial responses of countries of origin attempted to ensure that their nationals are able to remain in safe conditions abroad. Due to concerted efforts by governments of countries of destination, community leaders and civil society, countries of origin attempted to bring back their nationals. However, as the outbreak worsened across countries of origin and governments were forced to impose lockdowns, migrant workers were asked to follow quarantine measures and remain in the country of destination. GCC countries have offered to extend the visas of migrant workers and that they would be allowed to return to their home countries – although the responses varied across countries, depending on the context and situation of each, particularly the medical infrastructure, and their COVID containment strategies and protocols.

The situation of migrant workers in precarious conditions at work and stay in countries of destination would be further exacerbated by such crises. For instance, civil society members report arbitrary termination, forced leave without pay, wage cuts, as well as inadequate facilities at overcrowded accommodations and difficulties in securing food and essential items, making it difficult to follow health and safety protocols. The United Nations, particularly the ILO and UN Women, have also stressed that based on experience in past epidemics (e.g. SARS, Zika and Ebola), women face increased risks, including to violence, and that there are differentiated impacts on men and women migrants during pandemics and public crises. Domestic workers, health workers, care givers, and workers in services, hotels and factories – where women migrant workers are predominant or significant – face increased risk or suffer more due to greater exposure, lack of information, limited or absence of social protection, or lack or denial of access to services or remedies. Under such difficult and even life threating situations, migrant workers would understandably prefer to return to their home country. Countries of destination would also be grappling with labour market forces and attempt to repatriate migrant workers, with countries of origin contemplating upon reintegration of said returnees.

We, as MFA members and partners, would like to remind states of their obligations in contingencies and return/reintegration processes, while emphasising the perils of repatriation measures for current migrant workers in the region. In this process of return and reintegration, labour, health and immigration authorities at CODs and COOs (through their Missions) must guarantee and verify that no worker be deported without receiving their compensations, pending dues, testing and treatment for nCov, identity and labour documentation and other necessary labour-related matters etc. We further call upon countries of origin and destination to adopt a rights-based approach to wages, social protection, absence from work, and termination – with Missions of COOs being a primary stakeholder and ensuring complete compliance with international labour standards.

The WHO has published guidelines for countries that have decided to ‘repatriate their nationals from Wuhan City, Hubei province’. MFA members and partners have provided their inputs on the WHO guidelines. Please click the link below to download the full policy document.

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MFA is a regional network of non-government organizations (NGOs), associations and trade unions of migrant workers, and individual advocates in Asia who are committed to protect and promote the rights and welfare of migrant workers.

It is guided by a vision of an alternative world system based on respect for human rights and dignity, social justice, and gender equity, particularly for migrant workers.

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