The coronavirus pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges in the field of return and reintegration. COVID-19 response measures had stalled travel globally, hindered the implementation of return procedures and posed serious obstacles for delivery of reintegration assistance in the countries of origin.
For ERRIN, COVID-19 had a major impact on the number of returnees supported by the programme. We estimate that the number of voluntary returns assisted by ERRIN dropped by almost 80% between March and July 2020. This amounts to approximately 2900 people who could not travel back home. A number of new cases during the lockdown period was limited, with 600 new arrivals reported in March 2020.
Through the work of our field partners operating in 34 countries, we could closely monitor the developments and impact COVID-19 had on the reintegration assistance.
ERRIN partners in the field have remained largely operational during the pandemic, with most of the staff across the locations working from home. Some countries, such as Somalia, experienced minor disruptions, while others, like India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, were forced to temporarily suspend their operations. Direct support such as face to face meetings, airport pick-up and field visits remained suspended in most countries. Watch the video and learn about the specific challenges ERRIN partners had to encounter in different parts of the world through the stories below.
In India, COVID-19 affected the majority of reintegration activities, such as field visits, provision of in kind support, as well as work flows necessary to finalise the post-return procedures.
As the country came to a standstill in a nation-wide lockdown, Caritas India reports that economic slowdown has trapped migrants and returnees in a cycle of social tensions, having a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing. The returnees have also faced significant problems with developing and delivering all necessary documentation to qualify for reintegration support – many expressed serious concerns about meeting all the requirements before it was too late to receive the grants. In response, Caritas approached their European partners with a request to extend the deadlines for people whose reintegration plans got affected by COVID-19.
To sustain the programmes despite the lockdown, the team continued to provide psychosocial support to returnees through the phone, Whatsapp and video calls. This way, returnees could still benefit from basic counselling and business advice while developing their reintegration plans online.
Fondation Orient-Occident admits that its biggest challenge during the pandemic was related to the traditional ways of working widespread in the country, which forced the team to suspend all field operations. Reintegration support in Morocco shifted fully onto online services, as the staff kept on working on identifying the best kind of assistance and new reintegration plans. Weekly team meetings were put in place to review existing challenges, brainstorm on referrals and determine the next steps.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, next to the daily challenge of meeting the most immediate needs, fears related to food security and health, returnees have flagged their struggle with obtaining receipts or official agreements – such as rental agreements or official proofs of purchase – necessary to secure their reintegration plans.
“We managed to keep the support going through safe and contactless engagement with the beneficiaries. We were also in touch with the owners of the places where some returnees are living, or in contact with the landlords of the places they are renting for their business. We tried to find solutions for the problems for both parties,” say the team members.
Fondation Orient-Occident underlines that since the biggest challenge for Moroccan returnees is to secure the required documentation, providing cash in these exceptional circumstances would have made it easier for the returnees to carry on their reintegration journey. “Some extra assistance for returnees who are struggling during this period would have also made our job a little easier. It’s not easy to have returnees over the phone on a daily basis, expressing their difficulties, but not being able to do anything about it.”
At the very beginning of lockdown in Ukraine, Caritas completely suspended airport pick-ups and transfers. The team reports that as the majority of shops and enterprises remained closed, some returnees had no possibility to purchase necessary equipment to start their own business. Likewise, due to a shutdown of educational centres, the team had no possibility to continue vocational training sessions. All meetings and contact with returnees were conducted remotely via phone and online platforms. The team in Ukraine cooperated closely with Caritas International Belgium to work on solutions and exchange expertise on how to best support the beneficiaries during these challenging times.
Numerous returnees have lost any source of income, which had a massive impact on their daily lives and mental wellbeing. A lot of beneficiaries who worked before the pandemic are now struggling to find part-time jobs to make the ends meet. In an attempt to address the situation, Caritas Ukraine has tried to apply to state employment centers for additional funding and assistance; the governmental institutions were unable to positively respond to the query due to the overall economic situation in the country.
“Due to the loss of source of income, some returnees asked us about additional support to purchase food and sanitary supplies,” the team says. “Some of them also asked to cover their debts, for example, for utilities. We have applied to the European Partner Institutions to consider services like purchase of food and hygiene products as exceptional during the COVID-19 lockdown, which they took into consideration.”
European Technology and Training Centre (ETTC)
ETTC - Central and South Iraq
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a full lockdown in Kurdistan, forcing schools, markets, restaurants and other services to shut down. The region’s already fragile economy found itself on the brink of collapse, with many businesses going bankrupt and people losing their jobs. The living standards have decreased dramatically, forcing some people into poverty.
EETC admits that because of the uncertain future facing Kurdistan, they have found it increasingly difficult to work on sustainable business plans with the returnees who came back to the country right before the lockdown, making it challenging to accommodate future plans into the new reality, severely affected by the economic crisis. The core of reintegration assistance provided by ERRIN’s partners is largely based on direct, human contact and a safe personal space created upon the return. “We couldn’t hold person to person meetings with the returnees and therefore could not build the comfort we would normally create,” say the staff. Due to the obvious limitations imposed by lockdown measures, provision of goods and equipment for the new businesses had to be put on hold.
The biggest remaining difficulty for the returnees is inability to work and provide for their families. Design of sustainable business plans or finding a job proves real challenging, as both the private and public sectors have reduced employment opportunities, cutting costs. “We also saw some returnee businesses fail during this time due to the decreased demand for hospitality services,” ETTC says.
But EETC kept the work going: “Constant communication and counselling via online meetings and audio calls have been conducted with the returnees to keep a positive outlook throughout the quarantine period.” While maintaining a constant information flow on the COVID-19 with the European institutions and returnees, local counsellors did their best to encourage the returnees to remain patient and actively seek new solutions. “We also brainstormed with returnees on designing plans for businesses that would endure such challenging times, should the situation repeat itself in the future.” ETTC also made efforts to address the immediate needs of the returnees, including distribution of food boxes and providing medical assistance.
To avoid the detrimental impact of a similar health crisis in the future, EETC says that they wish they could provide interventions focused on returnees with underlying medical conditions, which make them particularly vulnerable to the virus. They would also like to distribute hygiene kits minimising their risk of exposure, secure more targeted help for the returnees directly affected by the crisis, as well as develop a dedicated food programme “to lessen the worries of having food on the table.”
Afghanistan Center for Excellence (ACE)* the service partner changed to IRARA Afghanistan as of August 2020
The ACE/IRARA team in Afghanistan says that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an unprecedented toll on the Afghan people, particularly affecting the returnees, among the most vulnerable groups in the society.
The team admits that although transforming face to face meetings to digital ones worked pretty well, allowing them to sustain the reintegration journeys, at the same time it has created a certain degree of nervousness among the returnees. To implement the reintegration plans, when and where possible, ACE/IRARA team continued to meet with returnees in the office, keeping the necessary distance and implementing all the necessary measures. Unfortunately, most Afghan provinces still witness a closure of public services and a spike in new cases. Some ACE staff were also tested positive for coronavirus as they had to travel to the office, facing sudden power cuts that made it impossible for them to work from home and attend to the most urgent cases.
ACE team managed to stay optimistic through the lockdown and keep the momentum going for the returnees. Economic and emotional impact of the pandemic remains their major concern, together with insecurities about how the operations will look like after all restrictions have been lifted.
Returnees have expressed serious concerns about making it through the COVID-19 pandemic. The prevalent one was of financial nature, as people were occupied by “thoughts on how to feed their families and children while there is no work available outside.” Health concerns have been another vital issue – access to health facilities in Afghanistan is already challenging with no financial resources. Moreover, purchasing basic sanitary products is not easy for people with little or zero income, while prices keep on spiking. Returnees also mentioned the challenges related to moving around – with suspended public transport operations, they have to rely on expensive private services.
Acquiring supporting documents related to returnees’ business, such as driver’s or business licenses, were virtually impossible to obtain during lockdown. No possibility to get an ID has also made it difficult for them to reintegrate into society, while social and cultural stigma following their return has continued to affect their mental health.
Next to securing the health and wellbeing of the staff and returnees, ACE strived to support the beneficiaries in the following ways: requested flexibility from the European Partner Institutions, asking to prolong the cases that were falling outside of the eligibility period; with support of the European partners, ACE advised returnees to include food and sanitary kits as part of their ERRIN package; waived some of the supporting documents that were virtually impossible to obtain during lockdown; revisited some of the business ideas developed before the pandemic and altered them in line with the current needs of the returnees; increased the amount of psychosocial support to keep the returnees “motivated and hopeful.”
The team in Afghanistan designed a mini project focused on providing immediate relief items to returnees – food baskets and cash assistance – approved by Germany. They say that such “emergency baskets” containing sanitary products, food and medical items could be an idea to be widely adopted in response to such challenges. As the pandemic deprived most of the returnees of opportunities to make money, “such emergency packages combined with other life saving items would help returnees until at least the measures are lifted and the pandemic is over.”
BRAC - Bangladesh
The very first cases identified in Bangladesh were some migrants who returned from Italy, which resulted in an increased wave of stigmatisation of returning migrants as “carriers” of COVID-19. The partners report that there was a lot of worry and uncertainty when the flights from Europe were shut down. Tensions around financial insecurity and an unsure future also came into play.
Throughout the pandemic, BRAC has provided returnees with ongoing remote support, “trying to ensure their physical safety and mental soundness.” New and old returnees who were most affected by the crisis were referred to other BRAC projects for emergency cash assistance. BRAC staff reports that they received multiple calls from returnees enquiring about a possibility to receive cash instead of in-kind assistance. Next to the people who returned just before the measures were put in place, most of the “old” returnees, who had already received in-kind assistance, were faced with a situation of making no income during the complete lockdown.
Some returnees managed to finalise their reintegration plans despite the pandemic, but could not submit them, as they it was impossible for them to obtain the required supporting documents, such us licences or rental agreements.
BRAC says that an establishment of a separate fund for emergency cash assistance within the programme, or allocating specific amounts for emergency supplies, such as food, would benefit the programme and its beneficiaries during emergency situations such as COVID-19.
ZAMZAM Foundation - Somalia
“The pandemic has affected our service delivery in a number of ways. As person to person meetings are banned, no meetings with returnees are taking place physically. This is a challenge to the ongoing process – for example, there have been no clear instructions regarding proof of payment, as returnees are not able to come to office and sign the documents,” says the staff of Zamzam Foundation. They also explain that the social isolation imposed complicates the process of reintegration and societal inclusion even more. As “all returnees have reported challenges related to sustaining their livelihoods in the time of pandemic,” a subsistence allowance to cover for housing, electricity and food could help them support people in the times of pandemic. Also, they suggest that reintegration packages distributed electronically could make the process much easier.
Weldo - Pakistan
After the office’s closure, WELDO had come up with a series or online solutions to maintain reintegration assistance. However, numerous returnees could not benefit from their packages, as they could not travel or secure the required legal documentation due to the closure of government offices. The lockdown has also affected field visits, aimed at assessing the feasibility of respective business plans. To meet this challenge, WELDO has activated additional staff in the field locations to provide necessary information and conduct market analysis to compile business plans without delays.
“For returnees who had already returned under the ERRIN program and had received their reintegration assistance and had their businesses shut down due to COVID-19, we would have loved to provide them assistance in setting up their online shops to sell their goods and also to set up an on phone goods delivery service,” says WELDO. They emphasise that a simple training or technical assistance for online stores would significantly benefit the beneficiaries, as shown by some existing cases: “Although Pakistan lags behind many countries in various sectors of the economy, even villages have access to internet and phone services – multiple returnees could have set up their online businesses and earned a living for themselves.”