Nowhere Citizens? Uncertainty and Anxiety of Return Migrants in India

    Dr. Sumeetha Mokkil Maruthur

    Economist, Christ University, Bangalore

    26. Jun.



    Key Words:

    nowhere people
    remittance decline

    Good jobs and economic growth


    ... decline of remittances to India due to COVID19

    I grew up in a small town called Kozhikode in Kerala, the southernmost state in India. During my childhood, I saw so many people migrate to the Gulf countries and how they created a new world for themselves and their dependents. Since most of them were a set of workers with little formal education, migration was their alleged route to paradise. Kozhikode is the third largest city in Kerala and has been a prominent historical centre of trade and commerce. The Muslim traders, with their connections with the Arab peninsula, have been a dominant presence in the local economy. Remittances began to flow steadily into the state’s economy thus boosting consumption of consumer goods, building huge mansions, and investment in gold-ushering in a consumer culture in Kerala. The tales of migrants’ toil and trouble across the borders was also rampant, but many patiently waited for visas and were triumphant when they made it to the destination. I saw shimmering outfits in our local shops, purdhas in latest designs, hypermarkets flaunting the Dubai air and Arab dishes making way to our eateries. Popular culture and cinema reflected the aspirations, hopes and struggles of these migrants.

    Abdu, a cook in my neighbourhood, got a job in Dubai, within a year he built a huge house back in Kerala, but after a few years he lost his job. It was a debt dependency cycle from which he had no escape. Shafeek, his elder brother had a very different experience from migration. He started his own business in Dubai and continues to stay there supporting more than ten dependents back home. He gets a royal welcome when he visits once in a year, with the entire household going to receive him at the airport. There are many houses and people whose futures and fortunes have been re-written as they migrate to an unknown land. Their hopes are pinned high, and this crisis period is stressful for them and their dependents as there are no choices back home for them. So popular is the migration story in Kerala that the adage that often goes is ‘When Gulf sneezes, Kerala catches a cold’.

    Coast line of Kerala

    The coast line of Kerala. Many households here depend on remittances from overseas.

    The World Migration Report 2020 shows that India has the largest number of international migrants in the world. Out of the total 272 million international migrants almost 6% are Indians, who migrate as students, workers and their dependents abroad. As the COVID-19 crisis has had a direct impact on the three important international migration corridors for the Indian workers in the Gulf, Europe and North America; any change in the labour market scenario will have widespread implications for the Indian economy. The first corridor (Gulf) will be affected the most as it has a majority of semi-skilled and low-skilled workers. The lockdown effect has lead to a temporary closure of businesses and most of the migrants are therefore jobless. As the declining demand for oil has forced Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries to resort to fiscal austerity measures, this automatically results in a reduction of foreign workers. World Bank estimates show that there would be a fall of 20% in remittances to the South Asian region and in particular to India. Remittances in India will fall by almost 23% according to the Bank’s estimates.

    Migrants are subject to discrimination in the labour market in many parts of the world, even in normal circumstances. Their place in the labour hierarchy is precarious as there is often an ‘othering’ of these workers. In such testing times most of them have lost their jobs, but are unable to return to India, as they have taken huge loans to pay agents for arranging migration. In the host country often such workers live in shared accommodation, which makes social distancing impossible. From the economic point of view, as the channels of sending money are now inaccessible to them, most of the dependents back home, find it difficult to make ends meet. Some employers have forced migrants to go on unpaid leave, some have resorted to cut down their monthly wages and others had to lay-off their migrant-employees. The high emigration sending states in India like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Haryana and Telengana are under huge pressure as they have to find jobs for the returnees. How much of a commitment the state has towards these workers, is yet to be analysed. The legal and political rights of these workers are often unaddressed by the system.


    The skyline of Dubai was built by millions of migrant workers; many of them coming from India. During COVID19 most of them were laid off.

    With the employment of migrants, the employers pursue two objectives first, a contribution to the production and capital accumulation, and, second, the guaranty of a flexible workforce that can be recruited and discarded without prior notice. The greatest labour subsidy is realised when the process of production is consciously separated from the process of reproduction and maintenance, i.e., when they take place in different social formations. A system of migrant labour is characterised by the institutional differentiation and physical separation of the processes of renewal and maintenance. This debate becomes more nuanced because unless separated by a specific set of political and legal institutions, the process of renewal and maintenance tend to coalesce. The political economy of migration is complicated. On the one hand, the free mobility of labour is seen as a threat by host countries, whereas on the other hand, they unequivocally welcome free capital mobility. Since migrants contribute to both the host country’s economy and their home country’s economy (via economic and social remittances), the responsibility of their lives and livelihoods has to be shared by both countries. Indian states are riddled in the crisis of internal migrants and most of them are ill equipped to deal with the challenge of providing livelihood opportunities to the return migrants from different parts of the world. Migrants are ‘nowhere citizens’, aliens in an unknown land and visitors in their own countries. The dream of making a fortune away from home is slowly fading for these hapless people. For most of them, migration is a survival strategy and perhaps the last option for a secure future.

    NOTE: the names of the people in this blog post have been changed, to protect their privacy.

    ‘When Gulf sneezes, Kerala catches a cold’

    Migrants are subject to discrimination in the labour market in many parts of the world, even in normal circumstances.


    This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.

    Sumeetha has a PhD in economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She completed her thesis on ‘Labour in a Globalised World: In Migration to the Gold Jewellery Making Industry in Kerala, India’ at the Centre for Development studies, Trivandrum. For the past ten years she has been working on migration and the labour process issues. Currently she teaches Economics at Christ University, Bangalore, India.


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    Dr. Sumeetha Mokkil Maruthur

    Economist, Christ University, Bangalore

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