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As part of its outreach programme, on 10 June 2020, the Middle East Institute (MEI@ND)  has launched a webinar series, MEI Speaks. Professor S. Irudaya Rajan of Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala delivered the maiden lecture on Return Migration from Gulf in the time of COVID- 19: Challenges and Opportunities. The was open for the public and was moderated by Md. Muddassir Quamar, Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Professor Rajan started with his concern about the obliviousness of policymakers regarding migrants and how the unfortunate events following the Covid-19  facilitated a nationwide discussion on migration and migrants. He underlined that the population of Indian migrants in the Gulf countries is much larger than usually presented by the government agencies at 8.5-9 million. He drew attention to the larger apathy towards return migrants except in Kerala where it is a perennial issue due to the history, number of migration and return migration from the Gulf. This makes the Governments in Kerala at least willing to consider and review policy suggestions.

Professor Rajan underlined the broader failure in addressing the growing distress among return migrants, which in some cases has forced the distressed person to commit suicide. The primary reason for such distress, according to him, is migrants returning empty-handed for the first time in the history of migration, similar to the current return migrants from Gulf and internal migration within India. He recommended that governments should introduce policies for the integration of return migrants and facilitate their seamless return without charging them for the travels but by providing them with loans, if necessary.

Professor Rajan further elucidated on the seriousness of return migration ensuing the pandemic and estimated that around 30 percent of Indian expatriates in the Gulf would return to India, mostly to Kerala, which would approximately 300,000 return migrants to that state. Although he advised waiting until December to reach a conclusion, as he estimates that the final wave of return migrants would come by the end of the year. Considering the previous years' returnee pattern, he underlined that, usually, 100,000 Gulf migrants return to Kerala every year, stressing that even after three generations, people return to their homes; some of them joining politics and social activism. This is primarily because irrespective of the duration of migration, the migrants cannot have Gulf citizenship.

He further mentioned that the worst of global emergencies would not discourage migration. The migrants will find newer countries to migrate if the Gulf countries come up with policies to discourage migrants from returning. He also mentioned the growing “parallel labour market” or “shadow labour market," which has resulted in around 10-20 percent of undocumented Indians; it will likely result in these undocumented Indians getting amnesty followed by their expulsion and this will add to the number of return migration.

The lecture was followed by an interactive Q&A session, which widened the horizon of the topic of discussion touching themes like women migration, the significance of migration issues worldwide and prospects of migration policy. In response, Professor Rajan pointed out the absence of data on women migration and shared his disappointment on the fixing of minimum age for women to 30 to get emigration clearance from the government to work in Gulf countries. He mentioned how Indian migrants successfully manoeuvre laws to immigrate and work in the Gulf, mostly to get themselves involved in 3Ds jobs; that is, dangerous, dirty and demeaning jobs.

Responding to questions from the audience from various parts of India as well as from Israel, Lebanon and the US, Professor Rajan stressed upon the nature of the current invisible enemy—Covid-19—and went on to the extent of calling it a third world war, which is bound to redefine the world we live in. According to him, the migrants would be the loser in the short term, but in the long term, they will be the victors. From the policy viewpoint, he suggested that India should promote migration, utilising its numerical strength, which makes it possible for India to supply labour to all the countries in the world. In fact, rather than being ashamed and complaining about brain drain, India should celebrate its unique place on the world labour market and must emphasize on brain gain by providing skill training to the migrants.

Finally, Honorary Director MEI@ND concluded the session and thanked all the guests and participants.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy