Reintegration of migrant workers: Importance, commitments and planning

Image credit: Jason Beaubien/NPR
Image credit: Jason Beaubien/NPR

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International remittance has been playing a crucial role in the socio-economic development of Bangladesh for decades. It has also provided an effective cushioning for Bangladesh economy during several crisis periods. According to the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), remittance inflow to Bangladesh accounted for 6.6 per cent of its GDP in 2020, making it the eighth-largest remittance earner in the year. Remittances through formal channels in Bangladesh averaged US$1341.81 million from 2012 until 2021. According to Bangladesh Bank Data, among the top 20 remittance-sending countries, 12 are mostly migrant worker-prone countries. Thus, it can be indicated that migrant workers of Bangladesh have contributed a lot by sending remittances and also by strengthening our foreign-exchange reserves. However, it also indicates that migrant workers work at different destinations on a temporary basis and will return after completing their contracts. Safe migration not only specifies the regular and safe process of temporary overseas employment of migrant workers but also ensures safe return and reintegration to their home countries.

A complete labour-migration cycle (i.e., overseas employment) starts from pre-decision stage to safe return and reintegration in the home country. Bangladesh government has also acknowledged the importance of reintegration of migrant workers to ensure the full benefit of overseas employment. As a result, in 2018, the government enacted the 'Wage Earners' Welfare Board Act, 2018' which ensures the government's commitments to the reintegration process of migrant workers. Moreover, the 8th (2020-2025) Five Year Plan of the government has also committed to boost their efforts on reintegration in the '10 points agenda on overseas employment'.

On the other hand, in recent years, the concept of sustainable return and reintegration of migrant workers has gained popularity in policy and practices. More specifically, the development discourses of sustainable reintegration for migrant workers have created the attention of regional and global platforms of migration and development. The recent dialogues on 'Reintegration' acknowledge the process of reintegration as an integral part of the whole migration cycle. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 1990 (ICRMW) calls in Article 67(2) for inter-State cooperation as a means to "to promoting adequate economic conditions for [migrants] resettlement and to facilitating their durable social and cultural reintegration in the State of origin". The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for "[underlining] the right of migrants to return to their country of citizenship and recall[ing] that States must ensure that their re-turning nationals are duly received" (United Nations, 2015, p. 8). Moreover, the Objective 21 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration encourages States to: "cooperate in facilitating safe and dignified return and readmission, as well as sustainable reintegration" (UN General Assembly, 2018: 6).

Let's have an idea about the process of reintegration of migrant workers. The process of 'reintegration' can be understood from different definitions from different organisations. However, these definitions have addressed a common understanding of full participation of returned migrant workers. Reintegration of migrants can be defined as a process that facilitates the returnee to participate again in the social, cultural, economic and political life of his or her own country (Cassarino, 2014b, p. 184). According to the Statistics Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, return migrants are "persons returning to their country of citizenship after having been international migrants (whether short-term or long-term) in another country and who are intending to stay in their own country for at least a year" (UNDESA, Statistics Division, 1998, p. 94). The 2018 ILO guidelines on migration statistics state: "return international migrant workers are defined as all current residents of the country who were previously international migrant workers in another country or countries…. The minimum duration of labour attachment abroad for a person to be considered as a return international migrant worker [is] relatively short, such as 6 months" (ILO, 2018b, p. 15). According to IOM's definition, reintegration can be defined as the re-inclusion or re-incorporation of a person into a group or process, for example, of a migrant into the society of his or her country of origin or habitual residence (IOM, 2015, p.15). In addition, the importance of migrants' return and reintegration programmes is highlighted in global standards and conventions, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Recommendation No. 86 (Migration for Employment) to the ILO Convention No. 97. The UNHCR's 2004 Handbook for Repatriation and Reintegration Activities stated that "the 'end state' of reintegration is the universal enjoyment of full political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights" (UNHCR, 2004, p. 39).

The process of reintegration is a multidimensional concept and difficult to measure. The concept can be viewed from different levels including from the individual level to community, social and national level. Moreover, the unprecedented incidence of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the importance of safe return and reintegration to the surface of global discourses.

An effective reintegration process considers the varieties of perspectives including from individual level to national level.  The process needs to be mainstreamed into the national development planning to make it sustainable. This process needs to be addressed as a part of migration, specifically in negotiations between sending and receiving countries. Migrant workers are required to be sensitised in the initial stage of migration (i.e., pre-decision and pre-departure stages) about their reintegration plan. This process needs to be treated as a shared responsibility of both the employers and migrant workers. Finally, sufficient resources are also required to be allocated in the revenue budget of the government to ensure a sustainable reintegration programme for migrant workers.

However, the reintegration process will counter some challenges too. Due to multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral nature of the sustainable reintegration process, several structural, circumstantial, organisational and socio-economic challenges could emerge. The push factors of 'unemployment' and 'underemployment' could again play a role in economic reintegration. Due to prolonged physical absence in the local communities, returnee migrant workers may face difficulties to find employment or investment opportunities. Moreover, a long hardship period in the destination countries could create a lack of interest in training, skill development, and job search among returnee migrants.

On the other hand, limited institutional, organisational capacity and absence of grassroots level services for returnee migrants often create difficulties to reintegrate them. These difficulties could be further aggravated due to limited human and financial resources in existing institutions. The limited access to information on present labour market information or investment opportunities could further amplify the challenges.  

Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many labour migrants have faced job loss, wage theft by employers and early return to their own countries. The unexpected health threats due to the Covid-19 pandemic have put the migrant workers into such a vulnerable situation where the goal of decent work got jeopardised due to lockdown, mobility restrictions and lack of vaccinations at destinations.

Apart from the individual and institutional challenges, other existing factors in Bangladesh could hamper designing an effective reintegration programme. The lack of data on returnees and their patterns including their needs could be one of those factors. Moreover, lack of laws, policies and comprehensive framework including the absence of mainstreaming the process of reintegration into the national development plans would further create hindrance for adopting effective reintegration programme. Additionally, economic reintegration through skill matching and job placement would be a challenging process for Bangladesh due to inadequate employment opportunities and service providers. However, limited access to information at free or low cost could create potential involvements of informal intermediaries which would further deteriorate the market. Above all, very limited coverage of social protection for returnee migrant workers at national levels could also fail to address the most vulnerable.

To design a sustainable reintegration programme, we first need to acknowledge the different needs of different returnee migrant workers. The focus only on credit facilities for them may not be the only need of returnee migrants. While designing a reintegration programme, it needs to consider gender-sensitiveness, right based and evidence based approaches. Without addressing all aspects of reintegration, starting from individual psychosocial needs to social and economic reintegration, the programme will not be sustainable.

The reintegration process has also been considered recently as a process which needs to be initiated during the migration period in destinations. The World Bank in its Migration and Development Brief No. 28, identifies factors of return and reintegration including living and working conditions in the host countries along with the ability to secure jobs, have access to independent housing and the freedom to develop social contacts while abroad. The Brief also states that integration in the destination country would support towards sustainable reintegration (World Bank, 2017, p. 18).

From the above statements of several relevant organisations and experts on migration, we understand that the importance of reintegration needs to be disseminated to each outbound migrant worker during his/her pre-departure period. Without the inclusion of safe return and reintegration during negotiations and agreements between two countries (i.e. labour sending and labour receiving countries), the process of sustainable reintegration would not be possible. As a result, the benefit of overseas employment at micro levels/household levels would not be achieved fully. The designing of reintegration programme entails need assessment surveys by considering various needs of returnee migrant workers. The national social protection coverages should consider specific vulnerabilities of returnee migrant workers and should allocate resources accordingly. Mechanism of skill tapping of returnee migrant workers needs to be introduced to utilise their skills and knowledge. An effective reintegration programme would be designed in an inclusive manner for considering all migrant workers irrespective of sex, age, skills and migratory of return status. However, while designing a reintegration programme, the policy makers need to avoid any preferential treatment for returnee migrant workers. It should rather create a level playing ground for the returnees.

Rahnuma Salam Khan, Labour Migration Specialist, currently working at ILO.

(The opinions expressed in the op-ed are the author's own). [email protected]

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