'A national coordination mechanism at all relevant levels needs to be put in place'

As economies around the world grapple with the devastating fallouts of the novel coronavirus, the migrant population has emerged as one of the worst affected by the pandemic. The deadly disease has not only exacerbated the risks being faced by an already vulnerable group, it has arguably even reversed some of the earlier gains in terms of ensuring their basic human rights. As the International Migrants Day is being observed around the world on December 18, International Organisation for Migration’s Chief of Mission for Nepal Lorena Lando shared with The Himalayan Times her assessment of the situation facing Nepali migrants, existing gaps in support activities, among other issues. Excerpts:

How has the migration landscape changed due to the coronavirus pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic has had a substantial effect on global migration and mobility. According to a report by the IOM, between November 2 and 23, 2020, globally a total of 224 countries, territories or areas have issued travel-related measures.

As the pandemic’s effects continue to vary widely across world regions, migrants encounter diverse challenges depending on the policy and epidemiological contexts in their sending, transit, and receiving areas. Regulations and measures are evolving rapidly, and mobile populations often lack timely, accurate information about these changes. Migrants and their families are also facing frequently challenging socioeconomic situations and have been especially impacted by the global economic downturn generated by the pandemic, which has in turn reduced remittances and heightened food insecurity.

Furthermore, in crisis contexts, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing gaps in access to basic services and protection challenges, particularly for the most vulnerable groups, and has often generated stigma and discrimination against migrants.

What is your assessment of the situation of Nepali migrants at present?

Evidence shows that many of the risks and impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting migrants. The pandemic has certainly pushed already vulnerable migrants and their families further into precarious situations.

Among those returning, many are arriving empty-handed, having spent their savings while waiting to safely return home, some forced to take loans with high interest rates, and some have been unable to be paid their wages from employers.

The majority are returning with a few personal belongings and prospects of falling further into debt and poverty.

This will pose a risk to further exacerbate the unemployment situation of Nepal which is already unable to provide job opportunities to approximately 500,000 youth that enter the labour market every year.

Other challenges migrants face include discrimination in treatment, wage cuts, layoffs, job loss, being stranded, forced returns or collective expulsions. Major reasons of return of migrant workers can range from completion of contract period, job loss, voluntary return, amnesty granted by destination countries to the undocumented migrants, among others.

Undocumented migrant workers are some of the most vulnerable in this pandemic. They often work in the informal sector, in restaurants, shops or as domestic workers without labour permits. Due to lockdowns these jobs ceased to exist and may have fallen under further exploitation due to their precarious situation.

Many women domestic workers have experienced certain vulnerabilities due to the pre-existing conditions on restrictions of movement, excessive working hours, delay or withholding of wages and in some cases physical abuse — all that have been reportedly exacerbated under the given situation.

Also, some migrant women have returned with unwanted pregnancies and/or as single mothers with young children. In these cases, there are far-reaching consequences for both the women and children including social exclusion, discrimination and lack of access to legal identity for the child to receive appropriate protection, access to mental health and psychosocial support, and access basic health services and continuity of care.

The pandemic has severely affected Nepal’s migration, which has been for many years a substantial pillar of the national and household economies. As you are aware, in 2018-19 the contribution of remittances to Nepal's GDP was equivalent to 25.4 per cent (IOM, 2019).

Though the number of returnees from foreign countries did not go as high as estimated at the beginning of the pandemic — as of December 13, over 175,000 Nepalis have flown back home since the government relaxed the restrictions on international flights, according to available data by COVID-19 Crisis Management Committee. In addition to that media reports estimate that around 900,000 Nepali migrant workers returned from neighbouring India since the start of the pandemic.

Lower number of returns than the predictions in the initial stage is attributed to job retention of those working at essential service sectors and migrants chose to continue to work rather than coming home, not to forget that many may have also the loans they have taken to migrate as Employer Pays model is yet to be implemented in its true spirit.

Similarly, remittances inflow did not go down as initially estimated by Nepal Rastra Bank and World Bank. Nepal’s central bank is confident that the country will not see negative growth in remittance earning in 2020. It is believed the positive sign is attributed to diversion of remittance from informal to formal channels and sending in cash instead of goods.

Has the pandemic affected IOM’s activities?

If so, how? IOM’s activities have certainly been affected by the pandemic, as also all other sectors. Nevertheless, IOM has, in coordination with government agencies and partner agencies, managed to continue its essential tasks on ensuring that migrants are not deprived of their fundamental rights in the name of the pandemic.

IOM continued its direct assistance to migrants in need, surveys and assessments to produce migration and COVID-related reliable data and facts to feed into policy and decision making, distribution of virus preventive kits and conducting capacity building training for government officials and civil society organisations (CSOs), fully complying with WHO standards to contain the spread of COVID-19 virus.

Among other activities, the IOM teams deployed in the field for population mobility mapping exercise met over 600 informants in-person during the lockdown period, as well provided grants supports for micro enterprise and self-employment to most vulnerable migrants.

Could you elaborate on the support extended by the IOM for the benefit of migrants during the pandemic?

IOM in Nepal is working with the government and partners to ensure that migrants and their families, whether in regular or irregular situations, as well as returnees, are included in all aspects of COVID-19 preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. IOM has been advocating for assurance of migrants' rights and protection during the pandemic through various mediums. It is a joint responsibility of host and home governments and the employing company to ensure migrants’ safety and well-being irrespective of their migratory situation.

IOM has supported the distribution of safety gears such as masks, hand sanitisers and PPEs, and establishment of Health Desks at two points of entry (POEs) of Sudurpashchim Province. Further, IOM has provided for return assistance to vulnerable migrants in close coordination with the government and Nepali diplomatic missions in host countries, and given immediate cash assistance to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable migrants upon their arrival in the country. Psychosocial support as well as COVID-prevention training for government health officials and civil societies directly working for migrants are also IOM’s priority noting that initially majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nepal were returnees and stigma and discrimination against them were significantly prevailing.

Similarly, IOM has supported a number of surveys and assessments in the past several months in order to provide baseline data and information for the government and development partners, so further recovery efforts can be shaped as per actual needs.

For example, IOM’s population mobility mapping exercise in nine municipalities of three provinces — 1, Lumbini and Sudurpashchim — has come up with key findings that will be helpful in designing interventions to mitigate health risks pertaining to human mobility.

Other assessments include a rapid phone survey of all 753 municipalities of the country to understand health issues in relation to migration at local levels, and another rapid phone survey was conducted, in close cooperation with the National Planning Commission, among 3,000 migrant workers to understand the situation of Nepali migrant workers in relation to COVID-19, their economic plans and learn more about their skills.

Similarly, IOM supported feasibility assessment of 14 designated POEs for the return of migrants and also completed the assessment of 20 POEs from the perspective of the International Health Regulations.

Over the past several months, with its awareness-raising programmes IOM reached out to millions of migrants and their communities both residing abroad or at home with its culturally and linguistically tailored radio, TV, and social media messages on COVID-preventive measures, easing stigma, and emphasising everyone’s human rights irrespective of their migratory situation.

As part of IOM’s global contribution to the UN’s First Line of Defence against COVID-19, IOM Nepal has started providing health services, including testing for COVID-19 for UN staff.

During the monsoon, in August, despite the COVID challenges IOM conducted displacement tracking matrix (DTM) assessment of those affected by floods and landslides to map their needs and gaps.

What could be the additional measures that need to be put in place?

In order to address the migration challenges of Nepal, it would be key to create a national coordination mechanism at all relevant levels.

This will help ensure that all involved entities both from government, CSOs, and specialised agencies, work together to embrace the whole-of-government approach and whole-of-society approach as per the Global Compact for Migration guiding principles.

Migrant workers remain a key actor in the sustainable development of their host community as well for their community of origin.

Therefore, recognising their role in support of the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is key. Nepali migrants have been doing so for many years, as estimated over 3.4 million Nepali migrant workers are currently working in foreign countries including in India and over half of Nepali households have a family member either currently abroad or with a past migration experience abroad.

There is an urgent need to set up an integrated gender-responsive sustainable socio-economic reintegration package targeting migrant returnee communities for addressing protection concerns and creation of livelihood opportunities which will enable to minimise the risks of unsafe migration and human trafficking.

As the government of Nepal faces a challenge in reintegrating migrants returning home in the national labour market, this requires a comprehensive plan for creating employment opportunities, matching skills and interest of returnees to match the needs of the national economy. This work needs to take place both at the national level as well as in all provinces and communities.

Could you elaborate on the theme ‘Reimagining Human Mobility’ for this year’s International Migrants' Day? How is it relevant in Nepal’s case? Also, is there anything else you would like to add?

‘Reimagining Human Mobility’ indicates that with the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) by the vast majority of UN member states in December 2018, there is an effective tool for states to discuss how to best address the challenges to human mobility posed by crisis’ like COVID-19 without compromising the human rights of people and states’ sovereignty.

The actions we take today to support migrants will ensure we are better placed to respond to the challenges of tomorrow. The current global health crisis provides the opportunity to build more inclusive and resilient societies, where well-managed migration allows states and individuals to maximise the benefits of human mobility.

Finally, I would like to wish all Nepali brothers and sisters whether they are home or abroad, a Happy International Migrants Day.

Stay connected to your family and friends and stay safe.