Migrants are returning. The foreign ministry has announced that about 29,000 migrant workers will return on Thursday mostly, from the Middle East countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman and Kuwait, and also from the Maldives. Many of them are undocumented and were also in prisons at various places. Now the question is, how is the government planning to deal with this sensitive issue under the prevailing special circumstances?

It is good to hear the government’s statement that they are concerned about the rights of these migrant workers and have announced special support for them, including an allowance package so that they can start businesses. The government has also announced that special measures will be taken so that migrants are not victimised at any cost. We hope that what is said, will be implemented properly.

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Past experience has shown that migrant workers were victimised, discriminated against and even stigmatised in many ways both at the countries of origin and destinations. Keeping that in mind, the government needs to give special attention to the migrants who are returning under unusual circumstances.

The recent experience of March is evidence that migrants were stigmatised both by the authorities and the society in general. The returnees should be addressed properly when they arrive at the airport, as they all might need to undergo official or home quarantine. It requires proper planning and care to deal with them at the airport to avoid any kind of unwarranted situation.

Migrants generally go through a few stages like pre-decision, pre-departure, on-migration and reintegration. These concepts are common for all the migrants. However, reintegration is the last stage when migrants return home. Even though this is applicable to all migrants, in a special situation like this pandemic, the concept of reintegration is vital. It should comprise all the elements of reintegration which are economic, social and psychosocial. This is where the roles of the government and the civil society organisations are imperative in order to provide planned and adequate support. That should be kept in mind for these 29,000 migrants, or more, who will return during the COVID-19 situation.

The first thing that should be considered is psychosocial reintegration of the migrants. Out of those who are returning during this emergency, many may be depressed, demoralised and even traumatised. Firstly, in a sense they are failed migrants, either they were undocumented, might have passed a long time in prison, or have been deported by the countries of destinations. They need counseling. What is the plan for this counseling?

There are two parts. One is general counseling and another one is health counseling as they have to be quarantined for a period after their return. So, the team who will receive them at the airport should have that ability to provide them ‘quick’ counseling with dissemination of easy-to-understand information materials. The second thing is the need to develop a follow-up mechanism where NGOs can assist the government. A proper database should be maintained on these returnee migrant workers so that they can be reached once they return to their own community. It is expected that the government will develop this database, as they are planning to provide economic reintegration support.

When the migrants will return to their community, a challenge to continue reintegration support will arise, as these migrants are unlike other successful returnees. So a planned mechanism of social reintegration should be devised. For this special category of migrants, social reintegration does not only mean to further integrate them with their families and communities, but there should also be enough initiatives to ensure adequate health service delivery to them without any stigma and discrimination. In the recent lockdown, ‘red flags’ were hoisted on returnee migrants’ residences. The government should discourage any such initiative by the local authorities. Rather, information should be disseminated to the community that ‘migrants are not harmful, rather heroes’ and ‘help them to be quarantined in a proper way’ and provide them all support. Such information should be disseminated through the media and a community-based support system is expected to develop gradually as it is expected that many more migrants will also return soon.

Before the government provides any economic reintegration (loan) support to the migrants, a rapid process should be undertaken to assess the real needs and capacity of the migrants, so that they can properly utilise the monetary support.

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The government should also ensure that there is assessment of the reasons behind the return of these migrants as many of them were in an undocumented status. There is a complaint mechanism under the ministry of expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment and Bureau of Manpower and Employment and Training (BMET). Many of the migrants are not aware of this mechanism. They should be provided with this information and encouraged to lodge complaints, to find out if any fraudulence happened with them before and after migration. The government should take necessary initiative to address the complaints properly to support the returnee migrants.

Hassan Imam currently works as the managing director of DEVCOM, a research organisation. In the recent past, he has worked with BRAC as head of its migration programme and a consultant with IOM and ILO.