But remittances defied expectations and even increased in Pakistan by 17% and in Bangladesh by 18.4%, whereas India and Nepal saw marginal drops. There were many reasons including the shift from informal remittances, incentives by select governments, transfer of the last savings, end-of-service benefits of migrants, the counter-cyclical nature of remittances, and the engagement of migrants in essential sectors that were needed to keep societies functioning through the lockdowns.
Emigration again appeared to overwhelm health systems, leading to lockdowns, travel restrictions and pushing emigration back into the throes of uncertainty. Flights from India to Saudi Arabia were banned, and Indian migrants found their way to Nepal to fly out of Kathmandu airport despite the health risks. When flights from Nepal were then halted due to a surge in cases here, many transit migrants were left in a limbo and needed the authorities to intervene.
The virus knows no borders, and containment and coping mechanisms demanded cooperation across countries given our interdependence. The common elements of the migration story across countries raise an important question: what should cross-border collaboration across sending countries look like to ensure the safety and well-being of our migrant population overseas?
Platforms on regional migration governance do exist that have tried to bring together the collective voice of countries sending migrants. This includes the regional consultative Colombo Process which comprises 12 labour sending countries including in South Asia. The idea is that such collaboration would help optimise the benefits of labour migration while protecting migrants from exploitative practices in recruitment and employment.
Then there is the Abu Dhabi Dialogue that comprises both sending and receiving countries from Asia and the Middle East. These platforms have opened up consultations on migration priorities and brought the spotlight on issues facing migrants.
Many recommendations that come through these platforms have made their way to the global discourse on migration and been incorporated into documents like the Global Compact for Migration to represent the interests of sending countries. While causality is hard to draw, advocacy efforts via these platforms also have a role in destination countries committing to and working towards dismantling the Kafala system which benefits all nationalities.
But in terms of tangible interventions beyond scripted briefings and talkshops, there is also significant room for improvement. A few emerging good examples of practical interventions include the Comprehensive Information and Orientation Program piloted between Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ensure migrants are equipped with the right set of information throughout the migration cycle, and a joint skills project between Sri Lanka and UAE.
Separately, while the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established in 1985, it was only in 2014 that labor migration was recognised as a regional policy priority during the 18th Summit. The Kathmandu Declaration adopted during that summit included commitments to collaborate and cooperate on labor migration from South Asia.
But progress has stalled with the 19th SAARC Summit not held as originally scheduled in 2016 due to India-Pakistan tensions. This is a missed opportunity for regional cooperation on migration.
Ray Jureidini, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, says the frequent transfers of both ministers and bureaucratic staff of sending countries pose a challenge to sustained, collaborative dialogue across states.
“Even when Governments are willing to collaborate, it is difficult to achieve anything meaningful with frequent rotations of leadership as momentum is lost, history is forgotten and you have to start from scratch all the time,” he says.
Embassies located in the destination country in each other’s proximity are well placed to coordinate on common issues. But conversations with missions show that there is not much contact between labour attaches and counselors of different sending countries.
A few reported never having met fellow embassy staff from other sending countries. One Attache told me: “Somehow, this has not been a priority. With understaffed missions always fire-fighting and buried in paperwork, business that is not usual such as collaboration with other labour attaches and counselors takes a back seat.”
He says the embassies of other South Asian countries have also not initiatied such meetings, perhaps because they are all also bogged down by day to day activities. However, there is more interaction between ambassadors of countries sending migrant workers.
Sharmila Parajuli Dhakal, Ambassador of Nepal to Oman, says that when Nepal was Chair of the Colombo Process, the Nepal Embassy hosted a conference in 2018 on curbing human trafficking in Oman with representatives from both Abu Dhabi Dialogue, Colombo Process and the Oman government.
Non-government actors across countries have also engaged in collaborative initiatives. Organisations like the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) have brought together civil society players from multiple countries, Panos South Asia has organised a joint fellowship for journalists from the region reporting on migration issues, and migration features prominently in the work of South Asian Regional Trade Union Council (SARTUC), a regional federation of national level trade unions of South Asia.
After the onset of Covid-19, given the high incidence of migrants who were victims of wage theft, MFA has mobilised its cross-country members on a comprehensive global campaign calling for migrants to be adequately compensated for their work.