Transnational mobilities of COVID discourse: The Question of Return

Published 13 May 2020 / By Laavanya Kathiravelu & Arokkiaraj Heller

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

'Return' for low wage migrants on temporary visas has always been a certainty, but the question of return amongst Indian migrants in Singapore and the Gulf during the COVID-19 pandemic casts a sharp light on issues of sovereignty, citizenship and deservedness.

Singapore’s capacity for handling the coronavirus was initially admired but this has had to be revised with the recent enormous spike in cases, making it the Southeast Asian country with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, though its death toll remains low. About 85 per cent or almost 13,000 cases are infections of low wage migrant men – the majority of whom live in purpose-built dormitories under crowded and often less than satisfactory living conditions.

Migrants in most Persian Gulf states are in similar living and working conditions, making social distancing and hygiene standards difficult to maintain. In cities like Dubai and Riyadh, migrants make up the majority of deaths and are cremated without any opportunity for their remains to be repatriated. Even bodies of migrants dying of non-virus related causes are caught in a situation where the Indian state and airport authorities are struggling to deal with the rapidly changing circumstances of international cargo regulations. Healthy foreigners, on the other hand, are being asked to leave the region which is facing a combination of slowing economic growth and sluggish oil prices. These circumstances intensify the precarity of migrants in the Gulf, who cannot access citizenship. For a small elite, the recent granting of long-term residencies or permanent residency status in countries like the UAE and Qatar means that they inhabit a privileged position allowing them to remain.

The precarity of low wage migrant situations has been made obvious with the spread of the coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands of migrants in the Gulf have to-date applied for amnesties to return to India. Living in purpose-built tents and shelters as employers will no longer house them, they have been lobbying the Indian government for aid. For weeks, there was little promise that these men would be repatriated, but now there appear to be large scale efforts underway by the Indian navy, air force and national airline contributing resources to bring back more than half a million Indians from the GCC countries – the largest ever evacuation that will have ever been undertaken by the Indian state.

Migration research has shown how important discourses on the receiving context are in shaping potential migrants’ choices to move. The city-states of Singapore and Dubai have both benefited from this, with images of gleaming skyscrapers and spotless streets conveying promises of modernity and prosperity in the collective imagination of migrant-sending communities[i]. Will the large-scale infection of migrant men in Singapore, Dubai and other receiving cities now alter imaginings of those spaces as desirable destinations?

In the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a key sending region to Singapore, WhatsApp messages of comedic sketches depict returnees from Singapore as undesirable, and to be shunned for fear that they bring the virus with them. These videos work satirically, as these men were previously embraced as successful returnees, having achieved social mobility and status through migration to places that were revered as progressive, powerful and prosperous[ii]. Once the bringers of wealth and modernity, now they are perceived instead as the carriers of disease and death. Reports of recently returned migrants and their household members being shunned by neighbours, and subject to surveillance have been common, paralleling trends of stigmatization of returned internal migrants. In one case, local authorities were alerted by neighbours as a recently returned migrant who was sheltering with his mother, was seen to be coughing, and visited his house urging family members to be tested.

For family of migrants abroad, return is not always desirable, even under pandemic circumstances. This is particularly the case when debts incurred for the move have not been paid off, and accessing stable work seems less possible upon return. In Singapore, migrants who have already been infected may be seen as preferable, as they may have developed an immunity to the virus. Indicating the importance of this group, the country’s Prime Minister spoke directly to the low wage migrant community and their families back home in a nationally televised address, reassuring families that their kin in Singapore will be well taken care of and continuously paid. Despite this, some migrants have already been laid off due to stoppages of construction projects and manufacturing, and those who have to stay behind in the city-state to help the police or local ministries with investigations, are in a particularly difficult bind – in a limbo where they are no longer being paid, but are also not free to return home.

For one migrant man in a Singaporean dormitory rife with coronavirus infections, it is clear that a return back to his home country is the best option. “Things are going to get worse” he says, foreshadowing possible further marginalization and discrimination of a community now seen as a potential threat to public health.


Laavanya Kathiravelu is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.

Arokkiaraj Heller is Post-Doc Fellow at Leibniz Science Campus, Eastern Europe - Global Area (EEGA) in Leipzig - Halle - Jena / Saxony, Germany.


[i] Kathiravelu, L. (2016). Migrant Dubai: Low wage workers and the construction of a Global City. London and New York: Palgrave.

[ii] Osella, C., & Osella, F. (2006). Once Upon a time in the West? Stories of migration and modernity from Kerala, South India. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12, 569-588.