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Focus: GS-II International Relations

Why in news?

  • The Kerala High Court issued notice to the Central and State governments on a petition seeking to set up a mechanism to assist NRIs who had lost their jobs abroad and had returned to India, to seek due compensation.
  • It seeks the court’s intervention to reclaim unpaid salaries, residual arrears, retirement benefits, and even compensation for relatives of migrant workers, who had died since the outbreak of COVID-19.
  • This exposes the precarious conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.


  • The South Asia-Gulf migration corridor is among the largest in the world, with the South Asians accounting for nearly 15 million in the Gulf.
  • According to the World Bank, of the $140 billion total remittances to South Asia – India alone received $83 + billion (almost 60%).
  • Indians constitute the largest segment of the South Asian workforce, and a majority of the migrants are single men living in congested labour camps.

Living in misery

  • The South Asian labour force forms the backbone of the Gulf economies, but has had to go knocking on doors for food and other basic necessities.
  • In the initial days of the lockdown, the Kerala government was requested to send regular medicines for lifestyle diseases.
  • Since medicines are expensive in the GCC, migrants often procure them from India and stock up for a few months. However, the suspension of flights caused an acute shortage of medicines, and exposed the frail medical insurance system in the GCC for these workers.
  • The pandemic, the shutdown of companies, the tightening of borders, and the exploitative nature of the Kafala sponsorship system have all aggravated the miseries of South Asian migrant workers.
  • They have no safety net, social security protection, welfare mechanisms, or labour rights.
  • As the COVID-19 crisis and response unfolded in the Gulf countries, the most neglected segment turned out to be the migrant women domestic workers, whose untold miseries have increased in the present volatile situation.
  • The situation forced the Indian government to repatriate the NRIs through the Vande Bharat Mission, and India has repatriated over 7.88 lakh NRIs from various destinations.

Kafala system

  • The kafala system is an exploitative system used to monitor migrant laborers, working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors in Gulf Cooperation Council member states and a few neighbouring countries, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
  • The system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.
  • This practice has been criticised by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions.

Rehabilitate, reintegrate, and resettle

  • The countries of origin like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc., which have also been repatriating their citizens are now faced with the challenge of rehabilitating, reintegrating, and resettling these migrant workers.
  • The Indian government has announced ‘SWADES’ for skill mapping of citizens returning from abroad.
  • Kerala, the largest beneficiary of international migration, has announced ‘Dream Kerala’ to utilise the multifaceted resources of the migrants.
  • The past three major crises in the Gulf – the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the global economic crisis, and Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia – had not triggered a massive return migration.
  • However, now the movement for nationalisation of labour and the anti-migrant sentiment have peaked in the gulf, countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia have provided subsidies to private companies to prevent native lay-offs.

Conclusion: Current dilemma

  • Countries that are sending migrant workers abroad are caught between the promotion of migration, on the one hand, and the protection of migrant rights in increasingly hostile countries receiving migrants, on the other.
  • The need of the hour is a comprehensive migration management system for countries that send workers as well as those that receive them. No South Asian country except Sri Lanka has an adequate migration policy.
  • The pandemic has given us an opportunity to voice the rights of South Asian migrants and to bring the South Asia-Gulf migration corridor within the ambit of SAARC, the ILO, and UN conventions.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023