Forced to Return from the Gulf, Migrants in Kerala Are Wondering What Comes Next

A large number of workers based in the Gulf have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts believe the crisis is likely to get worse.

Kochi: On May 7, Kerala waited with bated breath for the first Vande Bharat repatriation flight from Abu Dhabi to land at the Cochin International Airport. At 10:57 pm, Air India touched down on the runway with 177 Malayalis. Television cameras zoomed into the arrival terminal exit to catch a glimpse of the first passenger to step out of those glass doors. What was his or her story? Terminated from his company or expiry of job visa? Pre-existing medical conditions or a wife who is pregnant? COVID-positive or not? Whatever be the reason, the expat has got to be relieved to return, for sure.

That was two months ago.

Today, his sense of relief has been replaced by something more sinister. The compulsory quarantine period is over; the voluntary self-isolation week is also complete. It’s not the likelihood of mortality that’s worrying him now. He’s faced with a deeper, disturbing fear – what next?

“We knew things were turning for the worse when my salary payment started to get delayed from February itself,” says Shelton Das, 36, who was working in the sales section of a prominent real estate company in Doha. “My wife, who is a nurse, also had February’s salary pending. Once COVID-19 struck, her clinic cut down her hours and days of work. It was an excuse to reduce her salary. My company terminated five of us within a week after that. We were stuck with two kids aged 4.5 and 1.5 years, my mother-in-law was also staying with us. We had already booked our tickets home for the summer in April. But that got cancelled without refund. The second time, friends and family back home wired the money to us. Even the vehicle I owned in Doha there was no time to sell, so I transferred the ownership to a friend of mine.”

Shelton is now living with his parents, older brother, his family and an unmarried younger brother, all in the same house. “Where can I go?” he asks. His wife’s family supported him during the quarantine phase by giving them a house to stay in. “But I can’t depend on either of our folks to support my family. I have to go back or re-migrate to some other country. I have no options here.”

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According to Irudaya Rajan, professor, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, it is not the first time that Malayali NRIs in the Gulf are being forced to return. “We had the Iraq-Kuwait invasion in the 1990s, the enforcement of the Nitaqat law in Saudi Arabia and the recessions in Dubai – all of which caused scores of Malayalis to return. Also, the concept of ‘return’ is a certainty for all Gulf Malayalis. Unlike in the West, these countries do not offer permanent resident status. So even if he has worked there for 30 to 40 years, he still has to return.”

And yet, the Gulf was and still is the Malayali’s preferred choice of destination. According to CDS’s research, nine out of ten Malayali immigrants are in the Gulf.

“The Gulf Malayali NRI had a status of his own,” says Rajan. He could demand bigger dowries and was pursued by banks and investors. His homecoming holidays came to be called the ‘NRI season’ back home. “Even though today he is not able to make as much money as someone 20 years ago, the Gulf-Kerala connect is an inseparable reality. It has even gone on to create generations of transnational families.”

But COVID-19 was sudden and unexpected. “For the first time in the history of migration, the Gulf Malayali has been forced to return with nothing.”

Dany Varghese, 30, was an authorised and licensed Competent Electrical Person (CEP) with a private company in Muscat for four years. By mid-March, his company gave him an ultimatum. “I could stay on and wait for things to improve but without a salary, meeting all expenses on my own. Or I could quit and go home.” Dany resigned from his job and booked his tickets. On May 17, he along with his wife and one-year-old son reached Kochi.

Dany has to pay around Rs 50,000 as interests on the loans he has taken against his house, motorbike and car. His wife is a qualified nurse with two years of experience but the hospitals she has approached so far in Trivandrum have told her there’s no vacancy. Dany hopes to take up teaching but there’s no clarity on when the colleges will open.

“My only hope is that my sister, who is a permanent resident in New Zealand, is willing to take us there eventually. They have opened their borders for nurses now. They will definitely have an opening for me too.”

Sicily Mathew, 30, was a staff nurse with the Ministry of Oman when she gave her three-month notice in January because she found it difficult to balance both work and time for her children at home. She had to work till March 31 and get her complete settlement. But COVID-19 struck in between. “I did get my money in full. But the tickets I booked in January got cancelled. We had to borrow to reissue with NORKA and the Indian Embassy. At least, we got safely home.”

Sicily, however, has one trump card. The Nursing Board in Ireland has offered her a job if she can enter the country before December 2020. “If I miss that deadline, I’ll have to write my exams again.”

“What we are seeing now is not the real return,” says Rajan, who has conducted eight Gulf migration surveys for the state government in the last 20 years. “This is only the premiere. Those who are arriving now are those who have decided to temporarily give up. They needed a break or they are on leave. Some also wanted to be with their families.”

The people who have lost it all, however, will return only by December. The actual hardship, he says, will begin then.

The idea of re-migration can stem from a sense of denial, says Dr Varghese Punnoose, head of department of psychiatry, Alappuzha Medical College. “Those above 50 years of age tend to be realistic but the young are stuck in wishful thinking – they have loans to pay, they are needy and cannot imagine settling for less than what they were used to. To escape the anxiety and the bleakness, they shut down and focus on re-migration.”

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As both these experts say, the returnees are still in the ‘honeymoon’ stage. They are happy to be back. Their families are relieved to see them alive and healthy. The state government has offered a moratorium on their loans for three months, along with cash remittances and a mention of loans for start-ups. This, however, is a fleeting phase, and disillusionment is soon likely to set in.

Varghese Punnoose claims that mental health professionals in Kerala must anticipate the risks to an expatriate’s emotional health. This sense of uncertainty can be a fertile ground for anxiety disorders and substance abuse. “If it’s a dichotomous situation wherein he is not sure of going back, it’s worse. That in itself is a conflict-generating situation that can be compounded by family pressure, money problems and new emigration rules.”

Women, especially, are bearing the brunt of keeping things sane at home for the sake of their families. “There is a cultural expectation on women to be less demanding, to get her family to pitch in, to silence her stress and tensions.”

Before COVID-19, a Gulf returnee without a job had only lost his economic value. Today, the same unemployed NRI is not only ‘worthless’ but ‘dangerous’ to his own family, friends and neighbours. “The very same people who used to celebrate his yearly visits now perceive him as a disease-carrying agent.” The stigma, says Dr Varghese, is cruel and unprecedented. “When I get referrals saying un-cooperative COVID patient, it usually means a substance-using expatriate whose emotional health is at risk.”

As of now, the mental health interventions are happening only during the quarantine phase, and this only means a counsellor chatting with them over the phone. Such interventions are superficial. Dr Varghese and his team are at the nascent stage of setting up a protocol for a Corona Isolation Invasion plan with both short-term (counselling/treating) and long-term (rehabilitating/relocating) interventions.

Says Isaac Plappallil, state president, Pravaasi Malayalee Welfare Association, “The situation in the Gulf is more terrifying. Our people are huddled together in cabins, the infected and the healthy sharing the same space. They are staying on in the hope that their companies will call them back or at least pay up their dues. Some are just waiting for that call from NORKA confirming their ticket home. Those who have got back to their previous jobs albeit with salary cuts are hardly eating three meals a day, let alone sending money home. Most of their families have no clue of the suffering they are going through.”

The state government has now relented on its stand to make a COVID-free certificate mandatory for passengers boarding flights to Kerala. PPE suits and compulsory adherence to antibody testing on arrival will do for now.

“It is an extremely bleak future that they are returning to,” says Plappallil. “The aftermath of this unspeakable tragedy will reveal itself only after six months. Re-migration is the only option because how much and how long can the Kerala Government support them?” asks Plappallil.

Subhash K.S., 32, returned with his pregnant wife from Qatar on May 13. “Once COVID-19 struck, my company said I can wait for things to improve, bearing all expenses on my own and without salary. I didn’t want to take the risk of being exposed to the disease, especially when my wife was pregnant. So my family back home wired me the money for our tickets and we returned.”

Subhash, an electrical engineer, has monthly interests of approximately Rs 13,000 to pay against his vehicle loan but is hopeful that he can stick it out for a few months. “My wife’s family and mine are so far supportive. Nobody has mentioned anything about our return yet.”

Ranjith Jose, 40, was a taxi driver working under commission in Dubai for the last four years. “I left because taxis were the first to shut down and I couldn’t afford to stay there without rent. Here, I can start a business venture with the help of my friends and cousins. Of course, I will make less money than before. But my wife and children will have to learn to live within my income. In any case, my visa expires only in 2022. I have plenty of time to plan my future.”

“This is not a full stop, it is a comma,” says Rajan. “I refuse to see the end of Gulf migration here. In less than a year, the Malayali will migrate again. He will learn new skills. He will adjust to lower pay scales and lower work profiles. Being excessively clannish, he will be funded and supported by other Malayali expatriates, religious organisations, family and friends.”

The short-term migrant may suffer. The long-term one will win. Here’s hoping that they all are winners.

Shwetha E. George is a post-graduate of ACJ (Bangalore) and a features writer on developmental issues specifically focused on Kerala.