They are in the middle of a conflict situation far from their homes, yet many of them are reluctant to return. Some of the Malayalee nurses stuck in Yemen are quite clearly more apprehensive of what awaits them back home than the dangers they face abroad. This is an all too familiar story in Kerala, which is perhaps the one state that is most dependent on remittances from outside, mainly the Gulf. The fact that many of those who leave don’t want to return is also because they have had to go into debt to go abroad in the first place.
The story of two nurses carried in this newspaper reveals the extent of indebtedness in the family on account of sending the girls abroad. The fact that there is no safety net back home is a factor which prompts people to brave hazardous conditions and try and recoup their losses and eventually send enough money home to sustain their families. Kerala has a huge migrant population in the Gulf and a substantial number of people are dependent on the remittances they send in. It has to some extent given a fillip to small local industry but with a poor manufacturing base, the state has not been able to generate enough employment for its literate population. Much of the remittances has gone into non-productive assets like houses. A debilitating political culture with aggressive trade unionism has killed the prospect of home-grown industry and employment generation. Many of those who migrate take up low-paying jobs, ensuring that their debts plague them for much of their productive life.
The crisis in Yemen shows that whether in Kerala or elsewhere, the State has to put in place a mechanism to ensure that those who return in such circumstances don’t fall through the cracks. For years, the Kerala government has been talking of a fund for Gulf returnees, but this has not taken off the ground. In extraordinary times like this, the government cannot be faulted for the alacrity and purposefulness with which it has acted. But when it comes to the routine problems faced by migrant workers in their host countries, the government has been most tardy with its responses. Better opportunities at home could prevent many from taking up insecure job contracts abroad. And with skilling up, perhaps, those going abroad could aspire to better jobs. The Yemen crisis should serve as a wake-up call to review the policy towards the millions of migrant workers whose remittances have proved so useful all these years.