COVID-19 is placing migration in the spotlight as never before. Movements of people are viewed as the prime causes of spreading the diseases as the pandemic has directly affected migrants all over the world. Approximately 10 million Bangladeshis are working abroad; more than 5 million Bangladeshi in the Gulf countries and 2 million in South East Asia work in retail, restaurants and construction. As factories, shops and other sites have been closed, Bangladeshi migrants have lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of migrants started to return home and the Bangladeshi government struggled to handle the returnees without or with limited preparation. However, despite the challenges of remaining overseas, most overseas Bangladeshi workers remain in situ, unable to afford to return home. With no salary or savings, many are now facing abject poverty and hunger and are locked down in their accommodations.

“Stay at home, stay safe” is the global healthcare advice for our own protection and to minimize the spread of the pandemic. Yet, for Bangladeshi migrants living in the congested labour camps of Malaysia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, remaining ‘at home’ presents severe risks of infection. Bangladeshi migrants, anxious to earn every dollar they can from low-paying jobs, tend to live in shared rooms, sleeping on the floor shoulder to shoulder with others or even sharing beds to save on rent costs. A report in New York Times stated that 80% of Singapore's coronavirus cases can be traced to migrants living in dormitories. By the second week of May, over 5,000 Bangladeshi workers in Singapore were infected and a further 700 in Qatar. Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia account for 30% of the deaths in Saudi Arabia. Migrant workers' poor standard of living, poor immunity and lack of housing support from employers are the causes.

What of the response from destination state governments?

Singapore, no doubt conscious of the pandemic risks to the wider population, has thus far excelled in providing healthcare treatment to Bangladeshi migrants. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even tweeted his support for the recovery of one Bangladeshi worker. The same cannot, however, be said of Malaysia. Rather than providing healthcare, on 1 May - international workers’ day - the Malaysian authorities detained roughly 200 Bangladeshi workers for not having the right work permits.

A significant percentage of the migrant population living in Malaysia is undocumented and fear going to hospital in case they are detained. This leaves many Bangladeshi migrants unable to access healthcare when sick, which is a highly inappropriate pandemic response. A Malaysia-based migrant rights’ organisation spokesperson has claimed that two Bangladeshis die each day in Malaysia. And in the Gulf region, governments have been busy deporting undocumented Bangladeshi workers. In April, thousands of Bangladeshis who were in detention in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, the Maldives and Oman were deported. A further 29,000 Bangladeshi migrants will return home in next couple of weeks.

In response, the Bangladesh government has taken some initiatives which may well have longer-standing impacts that outlive the pandemic. The government recently announced loan support will be given to the returnee migrants for starting businesses. The government also instructed the foreign missions in 22 countries (particularly in the Gulf and Southeast Asian countries) to provide emergency food assistance to migrants who need this. The Bangladesh government also sent food parcels to their nationals in countries such as the Maldives and the UAE.

Arguably most significantly, the government of Bangladesh also launched a Healthcare Call Centre by using an IMO app for Bangladeshi migrants living in Saudi Arabia. Migrants can call those numbers and be connected to registered Bangladeshi expatriate doctors in Saudi Arabia. As of end May, at least 50 Bangladeshi expatriate doctors have joined this initiative. Last, but far from least, the Bangladeshi overseas communities, associations and fellow migrants have engaged, like many, in mutual aid and solidarity initiatives through sharing and providing food and cash support.

What of the financial impact?

Until this year, Bangladeshi migrants were remitting up to $16 billion annually. What this figure represents is the ability of millions of families and communities to support themselves; the difference between surviving and abject poverty. These huge amounts also support the Bangladesh government’s coffers and its ability to provide welfare programmes to the poor.

Unanswered as of yet is the question, what happens now? Already, COVID-19 has gravely affected remittance flows. By May, there was a 25% drop in remittances reported compared to last year. This is likely to be amplified as countries, such as those in the Gulf, continue to deport Bangladeshi migrants.

There is also an indication that leading destination countries may cancel visas awarded just before the pandemic. BAIRA, the recruiting agency association in Bangladesh, claims that over 150,000 visas – 100,000 for Saudi Arabia – were awarded pre-pandemic with workers now unable to travel to take up those jobs. Will those jobs still be there post-pandemic or are they gone for good? And what about those Bangladeshis who have already paid their recruitment fees of up to $7,000 for a job in one of these countries? Will they receive refunds? Saudi Arabia has agreed to refund fees paid for work permits and visas for migrants affected, but this a tiny amount compared with what they have paid.

The future of Bangladesh’s labour migration programme

In the long-term, COVID-19 has the potential to deeply damage the livelihoods of millions of families in Bangladesh. In addition to the dire situation for Bangladesh’s overseas migrants, an estimated further 2.3 million internal migrant workers have been and will continue to be deeply impacted by the crisis. Bangladesh’s internal income sources have also been hit as international garment buyers have cancelled orders and refused to pay for outstanding orders to a value of $3.17 billion. The situation for Bangladesh’s development strategy looks bleak.