With the ongoing debate on the impact of coronavirus on return and reintegration, we give voice to ERRIN returnees to talk about their experience in times of the global pandemic.
When reintegration services experience delays or get suspended, returness pay the highest price. In some countries, returning migrants were not likely to receive any reintegration assistance for as long as COVID-19 measures remained in place. However, ERRIN partners have continuously strived to provide assistance to returnees, and made all efforts to strengthen psychosocial wellbeing of people whose livelihoods got seriously affected by the pandemic. We have asked ERRIN returnees to tell us about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.
Aakash (*name changed)
Aakash (46) returned to Punjab from Europe in January 2019, after his second attempt to work and live in Belgium. While his first journey in the early 90s was motivated by religious and political reasons, over the last decade he continuously tried to support his family, working at construction sites across the country. Unable to legally prolong his stay, he decided to return to India, where he got referred to the ERRIN programme. Thanks to the reintegration support received, Aakash opened a grocery store that prospered pretty well, allowing him to provide for his wife and three children, until the pandemic stroke. He says that COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on his life and business. Due to the lockdown in India, he was unable to open his shop for numerous weeks, which caused the sales to drop by almost 40%.
Mahmood (*name changed)
When Mahmood (31) decided to leave Tangier, his job at a confectionery store did not allow him to make enough to provide for his extended family, three brothers and three sisters. “I wanted to improve my situation, I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. I didn’t know I would end up in Sweden. I just went step by step.”
Travelling through irregular routes, Mahmood spent some time in detention in Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia and Denmark before making it to Sweden. As he had no legal right to stay in Europe, he was returned to Morocco in October 2019.
Mahmood says that a reintegration grant from ERRIN helped him to start anew: “I received an important help, I bought a tricycle, so I could work little by little. But then the coronavirus arrived and it made everything very difficult.” He says that even though the market in the country is now more challenging than ever, he was glad to be able to work a little upon his return. “Now I’m not doing anything anymore but I still need to buy clothes and food for my family, how do I do that now? I’m always home, my health is not well. You know, when you start a new job, like me, because the tricycle was something new, you need some months to learn the job and get some clients, but me, I had to stop after 2 months already because of the lockdown.”
Asked whether the coronavirus pandemic changed the way he feels about being back home, he responds: “I don’t know what to tell you… I would lie if I would say I’m feeling good now. I don’t know.”
“The main reason I left Ukraine was a serious health problem of one of my family members – and the absence of work. We told nothing to their friends and relatives about the desire to migrate. We were not sure where we wanted to go, we were just searching for opportunities,” says Anton (35).
After arriving in Germany on a tourist bus with his wife and two sons, Anton occasionally worked at construction sites, trying to provide for his family. They spent five years abroad and took a decision to come back after a rejection of their asylum claim. The family landed back in Ukraine in March 2020. Anton says that the ERRIN programme was a lifeline for them – and the only way he could secure dignified accommodation for the family.
“Our case is still active. We already received some funds to purchase building materials to make renovation works and thermal insulation of the flat.” He admits the lockdown has made things increasingly challenging, as he still struggles to find a job and his children remain out of school due to the closure of educational institutions. “I am trying to find any work I can to have some income and at the same time I am doing renovation works in my flat. After we came back we thought that we could start anew right away, but the quarantine has made everything even harder. I hope we will manage to overcome this and have the chance to live with dignity.”
“Before going abroad, my life was normal, just a bit hard. I was working as a hairdresser. I was pregnant with my second child,” says Katerina (39), a single mother of two daughters. The woman left East Ukraine fearing the escalating conflict and deteriorating economic situation. She also hoped to seek specialised medical care for one of her daughters, who was in need of an ear surgery.
Through Belarus and Poland, she reached Berlin. “I stayed in Germany for 4.5 years. Soon, I gave birth to my second daughter and received maternity support. After my daughter went to the kindergarten, I started to learn German. My older daughter got some surgeries,” she says. As it was impossible to continue the medical treatment in Germany, doctors advised Katerina to try back in Ukraine. She returned home at the beginning of February 2020 and received accommodation support from the ERRIN programme.
She says that after the pandemic started, “life got much harder as there was no possibility to work. I was afraid for my and my children’s health.” During the lockdown, Katerina could count on financial support from her relatives; right after the government relaxed the measures, she started working as a hairdresser again.
“In 2014, I went to Germany to visit my friends. But during my stay there, the revolution started in Ukraine. So we decided to stay,” says Svitlana (40). She lived in Germany for almost 6 years, working for a hotel and a cleaning company. When the EU classified Ukraine as a safe country of return, Svitlana had no legal right to stay and work abroad any longer – she came back home in December 2019.
“The biggest need for me after return was housing,” explains Svitlana. “I had my own flat, but living conditions there were poor. I used my ERRIN reintegration grant to purchase basic household appliances. Also, I spent some money on building materials to make renovation works in the bathroom.” She says that upon her return to Ukraine she managed to find a job as a shop assistant; however, when the pandemic started, the shop was closed – she was terrified of the perspective of having no income. Despite the fact that she could count on her family’s support, “the fear of this new disease was big.”
For people of Sylhet, migrating to Europe is perceived as a way to gain respect in the community. Asad (30) was still a student when he decided to try his luck overseas. “I have seen many successful people settled in Europe. People in my area respected them. I thought it was very easy to earn money in Europe. Not only me, we all believed that life in Europe was beautiful.”
Asad paid over 10,000 euros to a local smuggler to make his European dream come true. After a long journey through India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy, he finally reached Germany in late 2015. Working as a chef’s assistant, he was confident that it would be easy for him to get a residence permit; “I liked the German way of living,” he says. However, the moment his application for asylum got rejected, he also got some news from home: “My mother became sick and I understood my hopes to become ‘legal’ will not come true. At this point I decided to go back to Bangladesh.”
After his return in March 2019, Asad started a retail business selling spare parts for new, natural gas-powered models of auto rickshaws. He says that when the coronavirus started, he could no longer operate his business; having exhausted his savings in roughly two first weeks of the lockdown, he was forced to take money from his business capital; “I was always praying for everything to get back to normal soon so that I could open my business again.” With the situation slowly stablising, Asad re-assumed his activity: “Everything has changed now, we are maintaining social distance with customers. Prices of everything are higher than before. And my monthly expenses have increased quite a lot.”
Back in 2009, Abdullah (64) was a teacher in a madrassa, a religious school. Back then, political tensions in the country kept increasing; as the situation in Bangladesh was getting increasingly heated, Abu started fearing persecution. Following the advice of his UK-based relatives, he decided to follow their footsteps and flew to the United Kingdom on a tourist visa: “I expected to get political asylum there and I had a plan to take my whole family with me.”
For many years, he could not find a legal job, but kept busy teaching children of the Bangladeshi diaspora. Ten years on, as the situation in Bangladesh stabilised, his application for political asylum got rejected. “My sons were becoming grown up, too. So I decided to return to Bangladesh in September 2019.”
With the reintegration grant from ERRIN, Abdullah purchased a motorcycle to provide transportation services in his area. However, when the coronavirus measures were introduced in Bangladesh, both him and his sons remained jobless. “I was worried about my relatives in the UK. The virus attacked Bangladesh later than Europe. When the government declared a total lockdown life became difficult. The hospital stopped treatment for general patients, food prices were rising very fast. People started to leave the city. Many people lost their jobs. I was worried about the future of my sons.”
After Zulfiqar’s asylum claim got rejected, he voluntarily chose to get back from the UK in February 2019. He acquired an already existing supermarket to start a new life back in Pakistan. Homecoming was not easy, as the family’s primary reason to migrate was an ongoing family dispute in the rural part of the country.
But Khan Super Store, with one helper hired with the support of ERRIN programme, soon became fully operational, allowing the family of five to send the children back to school and rent a house in Mardan. However, the coronavirus pandemic had a serious impact on their business activity, as the store remained closed for almost three months during the lockdown period.
“The business has lost at least 60% of its revenue. The fresh goods in store have expired; other food items are also near their expiration date now and the customers aren’t interested in them, for obvious reasons,” Zulfiqar explains. Covering the childrens’ school fees, house rental and the store helper’s salary posed a serious challenge during the pandemic. Against the odds, Zulfiqar says that no matter what, he and his family are glad they returned back to Pakistan.
The stories have been reproduced courtesy of our service partners: Caritas International Belgium (India, Morocco, Ukraine), IRARA/BRAC (Bangladesh) and WELDO (Pakistan).