More than 100 Ugandan migrant workers stranded in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia due to the COVID-19-induced economic downturn and travel restrictions have been assisted to return home voluntarily by the International Organization for Migration, in partnership with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Uganda.
With support from the IOM Regional Office in Nairobi, IOM missions in Uganda and Bahrain worked closely with Ugandan authorities and embassy representatives in Riyadh on the identification and screening of 229 Ugandan nationals in Saudi Arabia. IOM assistance eventually went to the 113 most vulnerable migrants who had no other means to return to Uganda and had tested free of COVID-19.
Tens of thousands of Ugandans are working abroad, especially in the Middle East. Most are employed as either domestic workers or security guards, contributing significantly to the livelihoods of their families back home. They have been deeply affected by the far-reaching socio-economic impact of COVID-19.
Among those who returned to Uganda on Tuesday (15/09) are individuals with medical conditions among other vulnerable migrants. Some of the returnees said they had gone for months without pay.
This movement promoting safe, orderly, and humane migration is the result of the coordination efforts of the office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Uganda, Ugandan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and IOM. The Saudi Government provided all the returnees with free COVID-19 testing regardless of their migratory status. The government rapidly facilitated exit procedures and amnesty on overstays.
The movement demonstrates again that the plight of hundreds of thousands of stranded migrants globally can be addressed by cooperation between states in a manner that ensures COVID-19 related public health responses are fully integrated into the return process.
In a statement, Saudi Human Rights Commission President Awwad Al Awwad, said, “All measures taken by the Government of Saudi Arabia have prioritized the lives of individuals living in the Kingdom, especially those at increased risk of being affected. In the face of such an unprecedented crisis, Saudi Arabia employed all resources to care for the most vulnerable showing respect for human rights while implementing effective measures to alleviate the pandemic’s effects.”
Nathalie Fustier, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Saudi Arabia, said, “This movement is a prime example of how the United Nations can work hand in hand with the Government of Saudi Arabia in facilitating voluntary, safe, and dignified medically enhanced return for stranded migrants during COVID-19.”
IOM Uganda Chief of Mission Sanusi Tejan Savage said every effort had been made to ensure that return of the stranded Ugandans did not endanger the country’s fight against COVID-19.
“All the travelling, migrants were tested for COVID-19 prior to their departure from Riyadh and upon their arrival in Uganda,” Savage said. “They also received sanitation kits, including face masks, and other necessities as they were taken into quarantine centres.”
According to a United Nations study of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, remittances from Ugandans working abroad contribute approximately 4.5 percent to Uganda’s Gross Domestic Product, placing it above the Sub-Saharan Africa average of 2.8 percent. While welcoming the voluntary return initiative, UN Uganda Resident Coordinator Rosa Malango warned that the country’s remittances were bound to fall, drastically affecting household incomes among both the rural and urban poor.
“As these people return home,” Malango said, “they and their dependents are adding to a bigger community of individuals who are becoming increasingly vulnerable to poverty and will need special interventions.”