The Impact of Covid-19 on Migrants and Migration in the Gulf States

By: Dr Georgia Cole

It is fitting that the Centre for Global Human Movement’s first Global Conversation on Covid-19 began with a discussion on the virus’ impact on migrants in the Gulf States. As Froilan Malit, Jr. outlined at the start of his talk, all but two states within the Gulf Cooperation Council, namely Oman and Saudi Arabia, have a larger number of migrants within their borders than nationals. Any effective and sustainable regional response to the virus must thus necessarily put migrants and migration at its centre. While political leverage is far from evenly distributed between governments in the Gulf and those in migrants’ home countries, a degree of interdependence means that governments in migrants’ countries of origin have also been enrolled in conversations about how to manage the virus’s impacts on public health, social protection, transnational remittances and international diplomacy.

Despite being optimistic that significant reforms within the past decade have improved certain workers’ rights in the Gulf States on paper, Mr Malit suggested that governments have largely failed to enforce these protections in practice. Under ‘normal’ conditions, migrant workers suffer from exploitative and unscrupulous recruitment practices, unsafe working conditions, poor health, over-working, and a lack of access to dispute resolution and justice mechanisms. Under lockdown, however, the main threat for migrants has come not from the dangers of their work environments but from the enormous difficulties experienced as a result of rising unemployment. Private companies throughout the Gulf States have been offered generous financial stimulus packages to support the retention of national employees, but they have not been given the same support to continue paying the salaries of low-skilled migrant workers. As few individuals within that latter category have financial savings to draw upon, they are now struggling to pay off debts (such as recruitment costs) within their destination countries,  to cover basic living costs such as rent and food, and to send remittances to family members at home who are also facing heightened precarity from lockdown policies. This has exacerbated trends that were nonetheless well-established before Covid-19, as my own work with forced migrants from the Horn of Africa in the Gulf states has also shown. Any shifts in the fortunes of these migrant populations have widespread and largely negative knock-on effects by rippling through the transnational networks of care that their remittances had previously helped sustain.

Faced with this dilemma, many migrants have opted to board repatriation flights, though this process has been far from straightforward, both logistically and politically. States from which large numbers of migrants originate, such as Pakistan and India, are currently dealing with large numbers of requests from nationals who wish to return, but they lack the capacity to facilitate those flights or the periods of quarantine that workers should undertake upon arrival. As a result, tensions have been rising between these sending states and governments in the Gulf, with countries such as the United Arab Emirates threatening to reduce future migrant quotas from states that will not take responsibility for repatriating their own citizens. There is also the very real threat that Gulf States will begin deporting migrant workers to their countries of origin in significant numbers if these states cannot or will not do so themselves, as has occurred with Ethiopian migrants being deported by Saudi authorities. Alongside the financial implications for the migrants and their dependents, such a move can only be seen as irresponsible in the context of trying to prevent outbreaks of Covid-19 in countries like Ethiopia where the healthcare system remains under-funded.

Mr Malit also referenced national groups who have shown little interest in repatriation because of the limited economic opportunities in their countries of origin. Very few Filipinos in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, have requested consular assistance to travel back home, having calculated that even part-time or sporadic work within the Gulf States is preferable to returning home empty-handed and having to accept employment in lower-paid occupations in the Philippines. A factor that was not addressed here, but where my particular interest lies, is what can and must be done to support those individuals who face unemployment or destitution in the GCC states but who are unwilling or unable to return to their countries of origin due to conflict or repression there. Deportation could expose these populations to serious and even life-threatening risks, and yet remaining in the Gulf is increasingly untenable without a reliable source of income. 

Because of the disproportionate emphasis on helping employers pay the salaries of the citizens on their books, there is an additional concern that virus-related economic stimulus packages in states like Saudi Arabia will expedite nationalisation policies that edge foreign workers out of particular sectors of the labour market. While low-paid and low-skilled workers are unlikely to be replaced by Gulf nationals, most of whom are unwilling to enter the labour market at that level of remuneration, those in more skilled occupations with higher wages may find that even in a partially recovered economic situation, their jobs are no longer available to them. This is clearly a scenario that migrants as well as governments in countries of origin should begin to plan for.

 Mr Malit also made note of  some of the more positive changes that might result from this period of adjustment. Migrant nurses and doctors have already seen their salaries doubled in Kuwait as states recognise that retention may be an issue if these professionals are offered more lucrative contracts in North America and Europe within post-Covid health systems. Thus, there is a possibility that migrant health workers will have a window of opportunity in the coming years to demand higher wages and more secure immigration statuses within the Gulf. In order to mitigate a major public health crisis, particularly in the densely populated ‘migrant-industrial camps’, to use Mr Malit’s words, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have allowed undocumented workers to access health services that they were previously barred from. While it is unlikely that this change will be enduring, Mr Malit suggested that it may shift public health discourse such that the health of migrants is seen as a major public good to be actively supported and maintained.

What came through perhaps most starkly in Mr Malit’s talk, however, was the degree of uncertainty that surrounds many of these issues. This is partially driven by the challenges of collating reliable and triangulated data in the context of opaque bureaucracies and decentralised migration systems. We know, for example, that remittances from the Gulf are being severely affected by Covid-19, but the sheer number of channels that this money moves through makes it hard to provide more specific data about the impact. Far less is known about how Covid-19 affects labour migration between the Horn of Africa and East Africa and the GCC States than between South Asian states and the Gulf, about which far more research has been conducted. There appears to be little access to information about the health of domestic workers, who are even more confined to employer’s homes during this time. And lastly, while faith-based groups and local charities have been able to help certain migrants during this time, there are large populations who will remain inaccessible during the Covid-19 crisis and throughout its aftermath until domestic reforms to protect their rights are both strengthened and enforced on the ground.


About the Author

Georgia Cole is a Research Fellow at the Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies at Newnham College. Her research in Uganda, Eritrea and the UK explores migration dynamics and diplomacy between the Horn of Africa and the Gulf States. It seeks to establish what role cities such as Riyadh and Dubai have played, and continue to play, in global systems of displacement and humanitarianism. She will soon (May 2020) be joining the University of Edinburgh to continue this work as a Chancellor’s Fellow. 

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