Sumita Roy Dutta

From ruptures to fault lines: tracing the global impact of COVID-19 on migrants and rural development

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Migrants are the quintessential global citizens, leaving their places of birth and moving across borders in search of new livelihoods and opportunities. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that in 2019 there were 272 million international migrants.

Ruptures caused by COVID-19 have exposed major fault lines and inequities in the system of global movement. Labor markets have ground to a halt and people have returned to their countries of origin. The pandemic has proven to be particularly challenging for farming households that view migration and the remittances it generates as a way to increase their income, sustain their livelihoods and mitigate risks.

How migrants and their families are navigating the disruptions caused by the pandemic is discussed in two recent studies by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Both studies show that the pandemic has disturbed the logistics of migration, introduced new stigmas for migrant workers, and exposed the pre-existing disparities and precarities that migrants experience.

Between a rock and a hard place: early experience of migration challenges under the COVID-19 pandemic, a working paper under the AGRUMIG project, traces early COVID-19 impacts on migrants from seven countries, including China, Ethiopia, Morocco and Thailand. The other study, On the Coattails of globalization: migration, migrants and COVID-19 in Asia, examines the changing aspirations of migrants from Laos and Myanmar working in Thailand and Singapore.

Ruptures in the logistics of migration

The pandemic shock has sharpened the focus on the intrinsic precarity of many migrants' experiences while underlining the critical role they play in international development. Remittances sent by migrants in 2019 - an estimated US$ 548 million - were the highest on record. But a projected decline of 14% by 2021 represents a drastic shift, with serious implications for families in countries and communities of origin.

The implications, though, will vary according to migrant status. In Southeast Asia, migrants to Singapore who migrated 'legally' were considerably better off than informal migrants to Thailand, in terms of their ability to retain their jobs, salaries and paid accommodation. Singapore's policy of paying migrant workers basic salaries and providing food, accommodation and medical care while ensuring rapid testing and isolation meant migrant respondents largely planned to continue working in Singapore. In contrast, informal migrants from Laos and Myanmar working in construction, shops, factories and domestic settings in Thailand lacked work contracts, industry standards and termination conditions.

Additional risks for these migrants included an inability to negotiate salaries and working conditions, and little or no access to state health facilities. During COVID-19, the porous borders and flexible work options that many informal migrants took advantage of disappeared altogether. Workers lost jobs overnight, received no redundancy payments, yet still owed rent, water and electricity bills, and had to pay any medical expenses incurred.

Households dependent on these informal workers could experience real hardship as a result. In many developing countries remittances can account for up to 60% of household income, and in rural areas they enable families to purchase seeds and other critical inputs to maintain or enhance agricultural production. Without this additional source of income many families will experience higher rates of poverty and financial insecurity.

New migration pathways and alternative livelihoods

On the Coattails of globalization demonstrates how migrants are adapting to new border restrictions and the loss of job opportunities and creating alternative livelihood pathways in response. These include opting to migrate 'better,' using legal pathways to secure labor rights, and returning to farming in their countries of origin.

Returning migrants have also taken up farming in response to rising household food insecurity. "As we all face the difficulties related to COVID-19, producing our own food is something that we need to do to ensure the whole family's food security in this time of crisis," said one migrant in Laos.

Conversely, this same study also found that many migrant returnees could no longer support themselves after losing their jobs and were forced to rely on already struggling households for food and other support. This dependency reversal, and additional strain on income and food security, is a source of shame for some who have gone from being assets to liabilities for their families.

The study found that some migrants also face another form of stigma in the form of social exclusion as national governments quarantine potentially infected returnees and local communities keep them at arms' length. The AGRUMIG paper also finds that for international migrants a new 'health nationalism' may emerge with the implication that 'outsiders' such as migrants bring possible exposure to the virus.

Migrant futures in a post-pandemic world

COVID-19 has transformed the world. For migrants, the pandemic has exposed existing precarities as well as introduced new challenges that may persist into the future. Some have responded by exploring alternative livelihoods, including a return to agriculture. The AGRUMIG study finds, however, that while the pandemic has disrupted normal pathways to migration, the structural conditions that lead to migration - inequalities, low employment, youth aspirations - remain strong.

The rupture remains, therefore, in the logistics rather than the economic calculations that drive movement, and this suggests that migration will bounce back in time - despite the additional risks and the increased control, scrutiny and stigmatization that many migrants will face in a post-pandemic world.

'On the coattails of migration' was conducted under the auspices of the Transboundary Environmental Commons in Southeast Asia (TECSEA) project. Read the full article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

'Between a rock and a hard place' was produced under the AGRUMIG project, which examines out-migration processes, particularly in 'sending communities', to stimulate growth in rural areas. Read the full working paper here.

Research for the working paper was carried out as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and supported by Funders contributing to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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