Reverse migration is something new that needs to be tackled effectively because this is not just an issue of economic constraint; it is likely to create many new social concerns, writes Shantanu Kumar Saha
PEOPLE move from one place to another for various reasons. The World Migration Report 2020 says that migration or displacement in recent time has been triggered by conflict and violence, severe economic and political instability as well as weather and climate-related hazards. The past quarter of the year, however, appears to have experienced a marked change in the form, pattern and style of migration because of COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global and national economies.
In Bangladesh, we usually observe a rising trend in urban migration. We know that one of the major reasons of this migration is financial. A study, Causes of Urban Migration in Bangladesh, based on the Urban Health Survey 2013 reported that 85.3 per cent of men moved to urban areas for work-related ventures and 64.8 per cent of women migrated for family purposes. However, the number of women coming to urban areas for work purposes is increasing, as findings of the report say. While people migrate to urban areas to escape from unemployment and the curse of poverty, what does happen when they fall in a similar situation in the places they have migrated to?
The shutdown and restrictions to contain the spread of COVID-19 have greatly affected the national economy. People of different income groups, not only the poor and the unprivileged, have been seriously affected by the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. It can be said that most businesses will take time to return to the normal state. For example, the restaurant business in the capital will face such a situation. As Dhaka does not have enough places for entertainment, it is quite obvious that the people of Dhaka like to go to restaurants for food as well as for some recreation.
On the other hand, restaurants are places of social gathering as well as business or casual meetings. The COVID-19 outbreak has drastically reduced the use of restaurants as places of recreation, social gathering, meeting and party, resulting in the retrenchment of many workers in the sector. Similar retrenchments have been reported in other sectors such as catering business, flower business, recreation-related jobs and, even, the education sector. Moreover, impact on one sector definitely impacts other related sectors.
Another vulnerable but important sector for the national economy is the apparel industry which employs more than four million people, mostly women. The industry also appears to have been affected by the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19. According to a report published by McKinsey and Company, the global consumption of clothing items has declined by 65 per cent because of this current pandemic. A BBC report on April 29 said that about two million Bangladeshi apparel workers would be at risk of job loss. In fact, retrenchment of workers is being reported in the sector even though the government has warned factory owners not to terminate the job of workers. According to various estimates, about two lakh apparel workers have lost their jobs. The poor and low-income people involved in other informal sectors appear to have been facing retrenchment too.
Where will all these people now go who have either completely or partially lost their income? After searching for other means of survival, chances of which are thin though, most of these people will be forced to return to their villages as has been the case for some time now, which is what we call a reverse migration. A large number of migrant workers are also reported to have headed back to their village homes after losing their jobs overseas. The question is whether our rural areas are ready to provide sustenance for all these people.
Urban migration has usually been an important issue for policy-makers as thousands of rural people come to urban centres in search of jobs every day. Experts have also been speaking of the decentralisation of industries to ease pressure on urban areas for years now. But there was always a lack of initiative and regulation in the development of rural areas which could have helped to develop a decentralised economy.
The ongoing reverse migration is something new that we need to tackle effectively because this reverse migration is not only an issue of economic constraint, it is, rather, likely to create many new social concerns. The people who return will face stress, anxiety and paranoia. A policy intervention, in such a situation, is what is needed to improve the rural economy so that it can accommodate all those who have been forced to leave city centres. It can be assumed that both economic and social investments such as an improvement in the agricultural sector, better health care and education opportunity, expanding income generating opportunities are needed to improve the situation.
Dr Shantanu Kumar Saha is an assistant professor-cum-research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Development, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.