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UN Agency Foresees Possible 'Crisis Within Crisis' as Migrant Workers Head Home

FILE - Indians load a motorcycle on the roof of a bus carrying migrant workers, who are leaving the capital during the COVID pandemic, in New Delhi, India, June 16, 2020.

The U.N. labor agency urged governments worldwide to provide social protection and economic support to migrant workers as tens of millions return home to unemployment and poverty because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As lockdowns lift, migrant workers are either repatriated to fragile economies or left stranded in host nations with limited means, while their families suffer financially owing to the loss of remittances, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) in a report released Wednesday.

According to the ILO, there are about 164 million migrant workers worldwide, nearly half of them women, accounting for 4.7 percent of the global labor force. Many are employed in sectors that are considered essential, such as health care, transport and agriculture.

“Women and men migrant workers and refugees, who are in the labor force, are amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder in a video statement. He said that migrant workers living in cramped housing or those in low-paid temporary employment face greater risks of exposure to the virus but often lack access to testing or treatment. Even those carrying out essential jobs in health care, agriculture and other sectors are often excluded from social protections and economic support, he said.

"This is a potential crisis within a crisis," said Manuela Tomei, director of the ILO's conditions of work and equality department.

In the report, ILO alludes to serious social and economic troubles. The report says that most of the migrants’ home countries have a limited scope of reintegration of workers and don’t have the system and policies for effective labor migration.

Nearly a million migrant workers have returned to South Asia alone, said Michelle Leighton, chief of the labor migration branch at the ILO. Ethiopia expects 200,000 to 500,000 migrants to return by the end of the year.

Leighton said that these workers often bring skills, talent and, in some cases, capital, which if harnessed correctly could start working in favor of their home economies.

“With the right policies, the return of these workers can be converted into a resource for recovery,” Leighton said.

The ILO suggests that the key to unlocking this potential rests in establishing “rights-based and orderly return and reintegration systems, access to social protection, and proper skills recognition.”