A group of Rohingya men queueing for medical check-ups at a transit camp after nearly 300 Rohingya migrants came ashore on the beach in Lhokseumawe on the northern coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island, September 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Rahmat Mirza

The pandemic-induced economic crisis has hit Southeast Asia especially hard, with most regional economies expected to record negative growth and record recessions in 2020.

But while analysts weigh which industries will be harder than others, often overlooked is the impact on the region’s migrants, the hidden labor that fuels the usually dynamic region’s growth.

Some 9.9 million Southeast Asians worked outside of their home countries in the region in 2016, according to World Economic Forum data.

Those footloose workers, including from the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar, send home remittances that boost household incomes and fuel consumption in their home economies.

In 2019, Philippine migrant remittances hit $25.6 billion, accounting for 9.3% of gross domestic product (GDP). Remittances were worth US$77 billion in Southeast Asia last year. The World Bank reckons that global remittances will fall by at least one-fifth this year.

But the pandemic has sent many migrants home without work or incomes. Others have remained abroad trying to eke out a living while waiting so far vainly for a post-pandemic recovery, according to monitoring groups and reports.

Civil society organizations say migrants stuck abroad receive few government rescue handouts, while those who returned home often live under crippling debt while fighting for payments owed by their overseas employers.   

Migrant worker rights groups in Singapore have protested over draconian laws, including emergency government rules that allow employers to severely restrict the free movement of migrant workers, including by not allowing employees to leave dormitories without permission.

Migrant workers behind bars at a dormitory in Singapore. Image: AFP

Malaysia has likewise come under fire for rounding up foreign migrants as part of its coronavirus containment measures. When Al Jazeera reported on alleged abuses of the migrant community, authorities lodged sedition charges against its reporters and refused to renew the Australian nationals’ visas.

An International Labor Organization survey in July of returning Cambodian migrants from Thailand found a quarter went home because of coronavirus fears. The second most common reason was that they were asked to do so by family members.

But while more than two-thirds of respondents said they wanted to re-migrate, almost all saying they would do so after the pandemic is over, only 3% said they would return abroad that month. It’s not clear that they did, though, as Thailand keeps its borders closed to prevent a new viral wave.

The prolonged health crisis is already raising questions about whether migration will return to normal when the pandemic eventually ends, whenever that may be.

In late July, Thai authorities said that some migrants could return because of demand in some low-paying sectors, but limited the number to around 100,000. But with reports of a surging Covid outbreak in Myanmar, Thai authorities are now closely guarding the border to block a wave of so-called “health refugees.”

On the one hand, it isn’t difficult to imagine less migration and opportunities for migrants in the coming months and years as the global and regional economy stagger back to health.

One issue will be unemployment, now at almost historic rates across the region, especially in the informal sectors where most migrant workers are employed.

While it’s unlikely that Singaporeans will want to compete for the low-paying manual jobs typically occupied by migrant workers, some suggest unemployed Thais may vie for the same jobs traditionally done by Cambodian or Myanmar migrants.

Migrants are gathered outside their residences by health workers and police officers before they undergo Covid-19 screening test in Kuala Lumpur on May 17, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Mohd Firdaus

Another issue is how people view migrants as racial prejudices surge across the region amid perceptions foreign migrants carry the virus more than locals.

“Migrant workers are already facing discrimination in their destination countries and when they return home as suspected virus carriers,” says Guna Subramaniam, who leads Institute for Human Rights and Business’ Migrant Workers programme in Southeast Asia. “They may continue to experience such discrimination in the future.”

The Cambodian government is using the pandemic to revamp its immigration laws, while Vietnam’s communist government has ramped up its people-trafficking crackdowns, in part because Hanoi says that undocumented arrivals can be “super-spreaders.” 

There’s also the case of whether migrant workers, despite their traditionally low wages, will be too expensive to hire as employers are compelled to deploy new health safety standards by regional governments.

When the Thai government last month said it would allow more than 100,000 migrant workers to return, it conditioned their entry on meeting arduous requirements.

All returning migrants would need to show medical certificates, which are prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain in their home nations.

Returnees were also told they needed to quarantine for two weeks at state centers, which according to several reports costs at least 20,000 baht ($640), a prohibitive amount for most migrants.

Reports suggest that more scrupulous employers are paying these fees upfront but then deducting the costs from the wages of migrant workers. Employers have also been told they need to pay for new safety measures at workplaces.

Some migrant rights activists fear that employers will also take this additional financial outlay from the wages of migrants, or either not comply with safety standards, putting migrants at risk of infection.

Foreign migrants in Bangkok’s Yannawa district after a fire ravaged their shelter on 14 April 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Bangkok Post/Arnun Chonmahatrakool

Then there’s fear of another wave of the virus, which, if it leads to similar lockdown measures and border closures as the first, would leave returned migrants and employers in the same situation they found themselves in March, only with the additional financial outlay already spent.

Experts reckon that because poverty levels are rising again across the region because of the Covid-caused economic crisis, leading to unprecedented levels of unemployment, it will spur even more regional migration from poorer to richer nations.

The situation will be even more fraught than previously for migrants, experts and activists say.

Subramaniam, of the Institute for Human Rights and Business’ Migrant Workers program, thinks that intra-region migration will soar as a result.

But because the unemployment push factor will be met with a diminished demand for migrant workers, it will lead to “more undocumented workers, daily waged workers and more cases of desperate job seekers being exploited.”