The tiny Eastern European country of Moldova is bracing itself for a large return of overseas migrant workers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost one million of the country’s 3.5 million citizens reside abroad, and the remittances they send home accounts for roughly 16 per cent of the country’s GDP, or around US$ 1.2 billion a year.
They often work in low-skilled jobs in the catering, agricultural, entertainment, or hospitality industries. Up to 70,000 of them have little job security, working without formal contracts.
They live in high pandemic risk countries such as Italy, Spain, France and Israel. Facing job losses, unable to pay rent, and lacking adequate health insurance, they have been hardest hit by the wave of factory closures, temporary layoffs, and the almost complete shut-down of tourism across Europe.
Lars Johan Lonnback, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Moldova is deeply concerned about the health, social and economic aspects of the current situation.
“We have to support the returning labour migrants as they will be coming from very hard situations,” he says. “They have lost their jobs and their incomes, and this makes them highly vulnerable. It is very important that these returning migrants are not stigmatized in any way.”
The first imported case of COVID-19 in Moldova was registered on the 7 March, and the figure grew to over 1,000 in a month. The exponential growth of the virus puts great pressure on the country’s weak medical infrastructure.
To cope with the crisis, the Government instituted a state of national emergency, as of 17 March for 60 days, which grounded all flights at Chisinau Airport and closed down most of the border crossing points. Even so, many Moldovans tried, and still try to return.
Border Police have registered some 40,000 Moldovans entering the country in the last three weeks, while Moldovan consular service abroad have seen 7,000 people seeking help to return home.
Nicu Certan, President of the Association of Moldovan students in Craiova, Romania says that students who relied on part-time jobs, currently find themselves financially vulnerable, and staying in Romania they risk becoming a financial burden for their family.
“As the situation gets serious in Romania too some students want to return but they feel stranded as there are no more official bus or train companies operating the usual Romania-Moldova routes. There is a clear need for a government response and/or charter service.”
IOM Moldova looks to support those at risk, particularly via the response plans of local government. The focus will also be on improving preparedness at points of entry and quarantine facilities.
“We are getting ready for the scenario of larger numbers of returning Moldovans by ensuring the deployment of facilities for health screening, management, quarantine/isolation, referral, and transportation”, says Lonnback.
“It’s important to advance an inclusive approach towards the returnees. IOM know the Moldovan migrants to be resourceful and resilient, which made them determined to make the journey abroad in the first place. We know that they will come back with even more skills and determination to reintegrate, build new businesses, or eventually to migrate again once the crisis is over.”