Unemployment pushes Malayalee exodus to return to Gulf

A short stay in homeland for migrants from Kerala


March 9, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Unemployment pushes Malayalee exodus to return to Gulf

An estimated 50,000 Indians have already gone back to the Gulf countries, according to the Overseas Indian Affairs department (OIA)

Outbreak of coronavirus pandemic forced thousands of migrant workers from Kerala to return home mainly due to lockdowns and job losses. Several of them had hoped to find suitable jobs here in order to stay on in Kerala permanently but find themselves being forced to pack their bags again as they don’t find suitable jobs in India.

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Gijo Panchachikkal, 51, worked in Bahrain as a manager in a private automobile firm for over 10 years. However, in November 2020, Panchachikkal was forced to go back to Kerala as he lost his job due to the pandemic. Since then, he has been trying to run a business in Kerala by associating with a tyre dealership in his hometown of Changanassery in Kottayam.

Though he believes his savings from working for 10 years in the Gulf will come in handy, things will not be easy given as the state just does not have enough jobs on the offer. “Only when you start doing the paperwork that you realise how difficult things are. I am sure that I will return to Bahrain,” he says.

On the other hand, Seby Alappat, a former advertisement controller in a local newspaper in Doha, Qatar, who returned to his home in Thrissur after 15 years, is still exploring job opportunities in India but thinks that he might have to return in case he is unable to find a job within next few days. “I had planned that I will return to Kerala, find a job and settle here permanently but the current situation does not seem to favour my plan,” he explains.

Similar to Alappat, Chanson Alexander, 52, who also returned to Thrissur, after working in Saudi Arabia for about 25 years, says he had been planning to settle down in Kerala as he has found a new job. But it pays him less than what he earned earlier, and he is unable to give his family the standard of life they were used to.

Panchachikkal, Alappat and Alexander are but only three of the 870,000 expats from Kerala who came back to their homeland in 2020, from different Gulf countries, according to data published by the state government’s Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) department, with 567,000 citing job loss as the reason for their unwitting homecoming.

Migrants in a quandary situation

Keralite expats returned from the Gulf are indecisive about their future as the Covid-19 pandemic has disturbed travel schedules and seriously threatened job security. Those who were considering to return to their workplaces in the Gulf, are now on the horns of a dilemma as new strains of the coronavirus are being discovered across the globe and talks of newer restrictions and lockdowns do the rounds even as new cases surge in several Indian states.

According to experts, like all other countries, even the Gulf is slowly returning to normalcy and several Malayalees are reviewing plans to fly back to the Gulf but they are afraid of not just the virus, but also the mid-term effect of the pandemic on the Gulf economy.

“The number of available jobs is shrinking. As the Gulf is facing a severe economic crisis, it may not recruit migrants in the near future. Although many wish to return to their places of work now they fear that it might be a risky affair and they might not find a job as good as the ones they had before the pandemic,” Niti Thomas, a public policy expert from Kerala tells Media India Group.

“Moreover, the migrants who have returned to Kerala for breaks or holidays are stuck and are in danger of losing their livelihood. The prevailing situation halted large infrastructure projects in the Gulf and caused oil prices to fall drastically. This will hit Kerala’s economy and migrants’ livelihood the hardest,” she adds.

Homecoming as an opportunity

Thomas further says that Kerala may see these returning workers as an opportunity since their skill sets can be mobilised in sectors suffering from a shortage of human resources. Furthermore, enhancing the skills of returning migrants may also facilitate further international migration to new destinations or to the Gulf itself.

“However, this would require comprehensive research to examine the best possible ways for the economic integration of the returning NRKs. For quite some time in Kerala, return migration and integration policies have lost their relevance. This moment could be an opportunity to re-orient these policies to address the current needs,” she suggests.

She also mentions that the government of Kerala is doing its bit but it is one of the biggest migration back, hence really difficult to manage. NORKA-Roots CEO Harikrishnan Namboothiri K, during a press conference in January this year had also mentioned that the state government was forming rehabilitation programmes to provide self-employment opportunities for NRKs that have received a good response from returnees. He said under the rehabilitation scheme, the state provides loans between INR 200,000 and INR 300,000 for new businesses, by tying up with 15 public sector and cooperative banks.

Namboothiri also added that the government is expanding the scope of the support programme for foreign returnees to help them set up IT ventures and startups through mentoring, funding and market access initiatives.

However, Namboothiri admitted that a large number of NRI returnees is a big worry for the state, as remittances account for nearly a third of its economy and like the rest of the country, the state is struggling hard to create job opportunities for all those who returned home during the pandemic.

Pushed to return to the Gulf

While most continue to stay in an uncertain situation, some have started to return to the region signalling a return of normalcy. An estimated 50,000 Indians have already gone back, according to the Overseas Indian Affairs (OIA) of the ministry of external affairs (MEA).

Many others, like Panchachikkal and Alappat, either find their new line of work foreign and frustrating, or are still unemployed. For them, such jobs have become part of a quest to survive in India, till they finally return. “Even a minimum wage job is better than no job. Many of us are at the state’s doorsteps seeking help. The only ray of hope in our lives is that soon, we will be able to go back, although unwillingly,” says Alappat.

While a well-off returnee Gulf worker was typically welcomed by a row of cars and dozens of visitors at the airport, most, like Alappat, are finding it tough to even find jobs and are exhausting their savings.

“For those who have returned from the Gulf, each day is filled with several anxieties. Most of them will have to go back to their overseas jobs since the wide gap in income simply cannot be bridged. How long will families, who are used to a certain standard of living, adjust to a new, low-profile lifestyle,” asks policy expert Thomas.

Two things are happening currently, says Thomas. Many who returned adjusted without work; living primarily on their savings and hoping that they could go back abroad someday. Only the very poor, for their survival, entered the job market, she says. “They are becoming delivery boys, drivers, daily wagers something, just to pass the day,” Thomas adds.

Alappat, still unemployed, agrees with what Thomas says. “Since returning to the Gulf has become a big question mark, I am constantly trying to find a full-time job,” he says, “But if you ask me, honestly, I will have to return. I had a good job in the Gulf. I check with my friends from Qatar almost every day to see if it is a good time to return.”



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