The United Nations reported that due to the pandemic, thousands of migrant workers worldwide are stranded away from their homes. While some are blocked from crossing borders, others are facing high risks of infections in their workplaces, including in places such as Kashmir, Jamaica, Singapore, Andaman Islands, Australia, the Maldives and many others. For communities facing the collapse of tourism-driven economies, this can add an extra strain on resources.
Each situation has its particular nuances, and there are cases of people both stranded on islands or away from their home islands. In some cases, they may be stuck in cramped and congested quarters, preventing them from observing social distancing protocols and consequently making their vulnerability to COVID-19 infections much higher. For instance, migrant workers make up 25% of the total population of the Maldives. There have been accusations of workers having their documentation removed by employers, a situation that limits migrant workers from accessing quality health care. Other issues have been reported in Pacific and Caribbean countries.
Furthermore, some island communities have a significant chunk of their labor force working abroad in countries that are hard hit by the pandemic – translating into layoffs and deportations. This is a huge toll on many of the island economies that depend, largely in part, on remittances sent from abroad. In a new report, the World Bank estimates that remittance flows to the Pacific and East Asia would drop by 13% from the shocks of the pandemic. Half of the 10 most remittance-dependent economies in the world are Pacific Island countries. In Tonga, over one-third of its GDP comes from remittance inflows.
Some governments are taking steps to support migrant workers. The Maldives has established a dedicated clinic for domestic migrant workers on Hulhumale island. The clinic doesn’t require migrants to present work permits or documentation before they’re examined. However, in New Zealand, the government has been criticized for failing to address the needs of Pacific Island workers stranded without jobs.
For the displaced island workers returning from countries that are hard hit by the pandemic, a different solution is needed. Kanni Wignaraja, head of UNDP in Asia-Pacific suggests that returnees could set up “new lines of business and small and medium scale enterprises”. She urged island authorities not to see returning migrants as a burden, but instead include them in public works programmes and any stimulus spending.
Another proposal suggests that Australian and New Zealand governments could allow seasonal workers from the Pacific to travel in order to meet the high demand from farmers to harvest fruit and vegetables. If initiated, this proposal could help employ many of the Pacific island nations’ workers who had to return from these places because of COVID19. However, this plan would require a “bubble” for travel between these larger countries and their smaller neighbours, which would need a much deeper policy alignment on public health.