(By Ambassador Anil Trigunayat, former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta)
Covid 19 virus has brought the world to a stand still and overly defensive mode. Countries are cut off with one another with increasing restrictions on movement. Only stranded citizens or some special categories have been allowed to be repatriated or evacuated from abroad. Borders are sealed within countries and with the outside world. Economies are in recession, industry in shut down and the countries in lock down. Travel and Tourism have become things of the past at least in the short term. Airlines and other logistics are looking for lifelines and financial bail outs to stay afloat. Health care of citizens and handholding of the industry and economy are the primary concerns of the world leaders.
In this dire situation of isolation and social distancing some restrictive measures have been taken that might impact on the free movement of people to other countries for travel, tourism, or immigration. It might take much longer for the world to become a normal place.
On April 22, President Trump has signed an executive order “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak” declaring that “In the administration of our Nation’s immigration system, we must be mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in an environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor…..Furthermore, lawful permanent residents, once admitted, are granted “open-market” employment authorization documents, allowing them immediate eligibility to compete for almost any job, in any sector of the economy. There is no way to protect already disadvantaged and unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs from new lawful permanent residents by directing those new residents to particular economic sectors with a demonstrated need not met by the existing labor supply. Existing immigrant visa processing protections are inadequate for recovery from the COVID-19 outbreak. The vast majority of immigrant visa categories do not require employers to account for displacement of United States workers. While some employment-based visas contain a labor certification requirement, because visa issuance happens substantially after the certification is completed, the labor certification process cannot adequately capture the status of the labor market today. Moreover, introducing additional permanent residents when our healthcare resources are limited puts strain on the finite limits of our healthcare system at a time when we need to prioritize Americans and the existing immigrant population. In light of the above, I have determined that the entry, during the next 60 days, of certain aliens as immigrants would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” It does exclude the spouses of US citizens, Doctors and Nurses and Health care professionals in the context of Covid 19 and those Immigrant Investor E-5 visa programme. ALL US visas have already been temporarily suspended and may take much longer to be revived. Green Card applications have been put on hold. It may sound innocuous. But it is in keeping with President Trump’s election speeches during 2015-16 and his subsequent emphasis on “American first“ and even most recently announced special financial assistance to the US industries which will shift back their businesses to the country. It also tends to set an example that for all the US problems the immigrant work force is responsible forgetting in the process that USA is a nation of immigrants and whose contributions have been critical to it becoming a hyper power and the biggest economy in the world. Similar anti-immigrant rhetoric has become a common place of political parlance. in European countries where extreme political right wingers are gaining substantial mileage, it is a dangerous trend even if politically expedient in the short term.
India has a highly successful diaspora of over 30 million comprising Non Resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) who have acquitted themselves creditably in their host countries and the country of origin. Several have reached the pinnacles of success and are heading the biggest Multi-National Corporations in the West. They have done well in science, medicine, industry, agriculture and enterprise. In the Silicon Valley the Indian software professionals and companies have become a gold standard and contributed to US becoming the most advanced knowledge economy. They are the largest claimants of the H1B professional visas even though it has been a point of discussion between the Indian and US authorities time and again. Many have become successful politicians and Governors and, in some countries, even the Prime Ministers and Heads of State. It is a matter of pride that in the UK the Finance and Interior Ministers belong to this category. In the top ten industrialists in the UK there are several early Entrepreneurs of Indian Origin (EIO). In the Canadian Cabinet of PM Trudeau several accomplished Indians from the sub-continent have made a mark. Indian origin people in the US account for nearly 4 million about whom President Trump spoke glowingly during his February visit to India let alone the famous “Howdy Modi “ event in Houston Texas where he walked around the stadium with PM Modi for the cheering huge Indian crowds. NRIs and PIOs have become the hall mark of excellence and a reliable bridge between their adopted countries and India. The Brain drain of yore has converted into the “Brain trust” of modern times.
Likewise, in the West Asian region over nine million Indians have become the integral part of the exceptional development and progress especially of the oil rich gulf economies. They comprise of high-quality professionals, bankers, entrepreneurs, medical professionals including nurses and para medic staff and blue-collar workers.Their enterprise, loyalty and discipline are admired and respected by their local hosts. They have helped the Indian economy through foreign exchange remittances and most of it stays back in the country unlike from some other regions which are market driven deposits. They have been remitting over US $ 40-50 bn annually from the gulf region and India gets the highest remittances world wide. However, the general down turn in the gulf economies and low crude oil prices have had an impact on employment and remittances in recent years . With the Covid 19 pandemic combined with lower crude prices the economies are expected to contact by 25-30% and major projects might be deferred or a complete restructuring of their economic model might ensue in a changed global order. This obviously will have an adverse effect on the employability of expatriate work force in these countries. World Bank estimated that in view of deadly corona virus pandemic remittances to India are likely to drop by 23 percent from US$ 83 bn ( 2019) to US$ 64 bn this year. It will be largely due to fall in the wages of migrant workers. Retrenchments and repatriation in large number may follow which will have its socio-economic consequences on several sending states. In addition those industrialists and entrepreneurs who set up shops abroad might find it difficult to salvage their balance sheets without huge injection of capital and state support. This vicious cycle will have its own dynamic that is difficult to exactly define and predict at this stage.
Indian government has been the first responder to evacuate thousands of her citizens as well as from many other countries from the conflict and Covid zones. In the wake of Covid 19 and to express solidarity with the world, Prime Minister Modi initiated the digital diplomacy and video conferencing with our neighbours and many world leaders including G20 to galvanize global concert and effort. To ensure the welfare of Indian citizens he spoke to the Heads of State and Governments of the countries where larger numbers of the Indian diaspora are located and sincere assurances have been received from their leadership at the highest level. Embassies have been charged to extend all assistance to the community in distress.
By the end of Covid 19 Government interventions and role will be enhanced to mitigate, control the spread of virus and ensure healthy recovery of the maximum people and to salvage the economy. But this will also likely lead to greater restrictions on the border management and immigration controls will be severe especially in the developed world which has as such failed the high standards the rest of the world held them in this fight against the pandemic. Restrictions on movement will be unfortunate and must be dispensed with even by those who feel the rising unemployment in their countries has increased due to migrant workforce and not due to wrong policy choices and lack of factual determination on the part of political and industrial leadership. Unfortunately, UN and other international bodies have also disappointed in recent times. Recourse, therefore, lies in continued bilateral and multilateral engagement.