Given the impact on migration systems and the resulting livelihood insecurity, new governance uncertainties exist affecting migration. These uncertainties are a consequence of both the rupture in migration systems and possible changes in the decisions people take before migrating – regarding the net benefit for migrants versus the risks involved, and the duration migrants may consider leaving home for, and whether people will move at all beyond their home country, or rather choose internal migration, noting that the situation has changed in terms of international movement. Uncertainties surrounding governance responses created tensions between states and their mobile citizens whose mobility and linked livelihoods have been jeopardised by COVID-19 responses.
In line with other governments, Ethiopia’s initial response was to ban overcrowded public transport (halving numbers of passengers that could be carried locally and nationally),
as well as halting the movement of people across the country’s borders (Ethiopian Health Data, 2020), and imposing mandatory quarantine. The border closures immediately restricted the movement of migrants, leaving some trapped en route to and from their destinations (Rodríguez, 2020). Preventing the return of migrants may not be a governance strategy in many countries, but in the present circumstances, amidst the complicated and potentially serious economic circumstances in which countries find themselves, it has become a real option. The return of migrants in large numbers from abroad is potentially problematic because there are few jobs to return to and the increased insecurity due to this confirms that migration is now an essential part of national economic ‘strategies’, though perhaps not formally acknowledged.
Despite the job insecurity migrants face in their host countries, officials representing their home country may encourage them to stay and see how the situation develops. Kyrgyzstan officially stated, “There are offers of employment in the Moscow region and in other regions. The Russian economy is stronger and more stable than ours. After quarantine, the economic crisis will continue around the world. I have advised our countrymen to wait for the crisis here [to be over] and not to go anywhere” (Nurmatov, 2020). This admission that home economies can still not provide employment for large segments of the population was stark, and may also reflect the opinion in other countries with substantial out-migration populations. Along with this, the immediate effect of resource diversion has been a reduction in support for migration agencies. For instance, the Kyrgyzstan State Migration Service budget was reduced by over 18% between 2019 and 2020 as a result of the pandemic (AKIpress, 2020).
In China, the government’s strategy in response to the virus was termed ‘foreign defence importation and internal defence rebound’. This focused on the prevention and control of the virus spread in China, including tackling epidemic ‘hotspot’ clusters and promoting the resumption of production by sector and caring for overseas Chinese citizens. From the end of April there was a resumption in economic activity, including widespread support measures by the government to stimulate economic activity (e.g., consumption vouchers). For example, in early February, Hangzhou city in Zeijang province took the lead in the health code model to manage the entry of people into Hangzhou. Those planning to enter the city must apply online, and once their health information is reviewed, they are given a colour code (green, yellow, or red). Individuals with green codes can enter the city and those with yellow or red codes need to isolate. The idea of the health code is to achieve an efficient flow of people, enabling the resumption of production and other activities and avoiding excessive contact and gatherings. In practice, it is a governance response driven by emerging insecurities.
In Nepal, the response has been two-pronged: on the one hand using diplomatic channels to secure current migrant jobs in destination countries, and on the other helping to create a conducive environment for generating self-employment in commercial, agriculture and hospitality sectors, infrastructure projects, and under the Prime Minister’s Employment Programme, a 100-day informal employment scheme. There are also a number of initiatives that support the returnee migrants including: recognizing skills and providing soft loans of a million Nepalese rupees (USD 8908) toward business development; the Youth and Small Enterprise Self Employment Scheme targeting unemployed youth offering collateral-free loans of up to 200,000 Nepalese rupees (USD 1745) for enterprise establishment; the Returnee Migrants Entrepreneurship Award Program that recognizes their skills and contributions; and the Migrants, Agriculture and Land Management Program under which migrants access land via a ‘land bank’ for agriculture. One challenge, however, is the often-large gap between the kinds of skills acquired in more advanced economies and the migrants’ capacity to transfer these back to Nepal, where mechanization and industrialization is far more limited. Other challenges include the difficulty in obtaining loans due to a lack of collateral. Some note that many migrants will not necessarily wish to return to the agricultural sector, having changed their lifestyles whilst abroad.
In Morocco, the government, along with border closures, has decreed that any movement between different regions of the country would require a permit from local authorities. To avoid a crisis, the government first took measures to compensate workers who applied to the National Social Security Fund (CNSS). At the same time, a “Special Coronavirus Management Fund” was created for the poorest households, amounting to about 1 billion euros (11 billion dirhams). The government also provided short-term assistance through the “Tadamon (Solidarity) finance assistance initiative”, which reached 5.5 million households from economically vulnerable groups. Further, the Economic Watch Committee received at least 2 million complaints from poor households in rural areas and small towns about the unequal distribution of aid allocated to cope with the impacts of the pandemic.
In Thailand, authorities announced a lockdown in late March in Bangkok and adjacent provinces, resulting in an outflow of migrant workers who had arrived from Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar. The ILO estimates that at least 260,000 legal migrant workers have returned to their home countries, but this may include those who have returned unofficially (ILO, 2020). Responding to the large number of returnees due to the pandemic and the insecurity associated with this, the Ministry of Labour in Thailand intends to improve its database on overseas Thai migrants and informal workers, to improve monitoring and management during times of crisis. The Ministry also plans to expand the labour migrant quota under bilateral agreements with major destination countries such as Taiwan and South Korea and to reduce irregular migration, with a view to increasing the numbers of Thai migrants who can access social security and other benefits from Thailand and destination countries. This governance response is intended to reduce future migration insecurities and impacts on informal migrants. Overall, the Thai government has devolved responsibility for screening and regulating the home quarantine of returnees. Health volunteers monitor the health of returnees from abroad such as South Korea, China, Malaysia and Indonesia and from areas at high risk of infection within Thailand. Returnees must report to the village head of health volunteers to quarantine for 14 days at home or in community facilities. It seems that insecurities induced by the pandemic are prompting a devolved form of migration governance in some countries.
Governments are undertaking a range of measures to provide income support and stimulate employment domestically, mainly related to business entrepreneurship. It is likely that the larger impact on rural livelihoods – both from the pandemic and major response measures – is already being felt. Longer-term planning options of governments include a stronger focus on agriculture and agro-enterprises, including in China, Moldova, Morocco and Nepal.
The analysis shows migration decisions will likely involve numerous insecurities. There may be a reassessment of risk – particularly related to the likelihood of getting stranded en route back home or in host countries. Part of any calculus change may relate to the relative costs of migration, and how these are felt and responded to by different migration groups – from older men to younger women – and by those intermediaries responsible for facilitating movement. Despite the disruption in migration, there is every indication that structural conditions such as inequalities in access to assets, low employment, and import dependence have yet to change and that domestic labour markets in agriculture will resume once transport connections have been re-established. This might lead to continued migration, particularly in countries such as Ethiopia, Nepal, Moldova, Morocco, Thailand and Kyrgyzstan. Nepal has signalled such a policy through the reissuance of government labour permits from late June 2020. However, government responses are expected to involve new procedures to respond to migration governance insecurities and related risks.
Along with the varying governance responses, new notions of otherness in economic development have emerged. In other words, the perception that a migrant is from elsewhere may grow. Issues of ‘foreignness’ and coming from abroad have left some migrants stigmatized and unwelcome in their own countries due to fears of disease transmission, but also because some have returned without income thus facing further insecurities. At the same time, governments are likely to impose more severe conditions on migration, including closer tracking of who is moving where and how. The restrictions and banning of free movement are likely to be long-lasting but, when relaxed, will be accompanied by stronger control, including tracking and tracing measures utilizing digital innovations and smartphone use. This may have a significant impact on the future governance of migration, including health ‘passporting’ and other measures involving the stronger scrutiny of movements. This means that current insecurities are dictating new forms of migration governance.
Despite the pandemic, a large-scale change in migration flows is not anticipated. In 2020, the Nepali government restarted the issuance of labour permits, in anticipation of a resumption in travel to key countries. In Thailand, many unemployed internal workers who returned home as a result of the pandemic are looking for work opportunities abroad, particularly in South Korea. However, insecurities induced by the pandemic still remain, and the resumption of migration will accompany new governance requirements and procedures besides tightening the recently initiated procedures. For example, in Moldova, the government instituted new controls over the compulsory purchase of health insurance by returnee migrants. Previously, although this was a requirement, it was not enforced.
The links between migration and health may become stronger and feature more heavily in future migration governance decision making. Countries may have to establish systems that can prove their citizens travelling for work are ‘virus free’. One of the apparent challenges is the effect of the pandemic on stigmatizing migrants. This can be through negative association-building between movement and the epidemiology of COVID-19. As described for Morocco, there is a new discourse on ‘us’ (people living in their country, including foreigners) and ‘others’ (living abroad, including Moroccans) – the political border becoming a new ‘line in the sand’ for health identity. This form of insecurity is partly due to the lack of effective information about the pandemic and the questions surrounding it (Cohen, 2020).