Stranded Diaspora in UAE: Will India cope up with the return migration?

 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan

Recalling what in mankind’s history is known as the biggest civilian evacuation during the 1990 Gulf War, as almost 1,70,000 Indians were airlifted from Kuwait by a Malayali businessman[1].This might have been a rare act but the current Covid-19 pandemic has urged countries to evacuate their citizens from the badly affected countries in a limited capacity. However, in some countries there has been issuance for forced evacuation as well. India is also in quandary as almost 9 million Indian diaspora resides in the Gulf (Table1). With the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government requesting India[2] to bring back their huge “non-working diaspora” as they have warned countries that it would review its labour laws and visa permits, which would have a huge impact not only on India but also in the Gulf as there are possibilities of trade-off through diplomatic channels. However, the consequences by and large would also disturb the regional economy as well.

The government in UAE initiated the National Disinfection Programme during the last week of March[3], which also seemed to be a bit late considering that Iran had been affected since February from where imported cases have incurred; also Europe and other western countries have been hugely affected earlier itself. Considering the fact that Dubai being an important transit for air commute to South Asia and East Asia from Europe, it has caused few imported cases to those nations. Apart from that, the ports of Dubai and Fujairah have been active in trade, which is another important factor to be noted in the context as majority of its trade and projects of the ports are dealt by Chinese businesses[4]. The imported cases of Covid-19 could not be ruled out in the ‘business rich’ cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Interestingly, with the transmission rates escalating in these cities, the most affected population have been the migrants from South Asia, especially from India.

Indian Gulf Expatriates in a Quandary

While the spread has progressively moved from country to country, it seems that in the developing world the emigrants have been affected the most and bearing a cost in the coming months. Regarding international migration, the largest contingent of diaspora across the globe is from India with more than 28 million Indians[5] (Non-Resident Indians +Persons of Indian Origin) residing and working across various domains in the world and this also makes India as the largest recipient of remittances[6] as well. Interestingly more than one-third of the Indian diaspora, that is around 9 million, resides in the Gulf (Table1). Majority have migrated in search of job  mainly since the oil boom of the 1970s[7]. This plays a huge role on the remittances that India receives which moves via the households who live in India to the economy adding to the country’s Gross Domestic Product(GDP). However, this pandemic has put the emigrants in a strangled position.

Table 1. Population of Indian Diaspora in the Gulf (2019)

CountryNon-Resident Indians (NRIs)Persons of India Origin (PIOs)Overseas Population (Diaspora)
Saudi Arabia2,592,1662,7812,594,947

Source: Overseas Population of India, MEA;

While assuming that the pandemic effect might not leave these countries in the near future and as recession is already around the corner, it seems like developing countries are going to be hit badly especially countries like India. So, why India? To be precise, the return migration challenge is going hurt the economy in the long run. Interestingly, India has one of the largest population of expatriates in the world and in the Gulf. Some consumer states in India like Kerala are hugely dependant on the remittances from abroad as more than 40 percent of Keralite in the Gulf works in UAE and the remittances account for about 36.3 percent of the state’s  Net State Domestic Product(NSDP)[8]. The Arab Emirates has already requested India for repatriation of large number of Indian Diaspora from the Gulf nation. Moreover, it is reported than more than 10000 Indians have lost their jobs in the emirates and many  have been stuck in the airport as well after India had issued travel restrictions from March 22, 2020[9]. According to a source who did not want to be identified, stated that the ground situation seems to be far worse in emirates as there are not enough beds available in the hospitals and most of the emigrants (mostly Indians) especially infrastructural and mall workers, are locked within their dorms with 50-60 people living together while there are a number Covid-19 positives within themselves as well, which by far seems to be an alarming situation[10].However, it is observed that the government in UAE is not in a situation to handle the surge of cases with lack of beds and medical infrastructure as the cities are also very thickly populated with migrants more than the local population, which is one of the  reason for its notice on foreign worker repatriation. While assessing India’s Covid-19 situation, a major share has been from imported cases from the Gulf nation, particularly in Kerala where around 80 percent of the cases were Gulf returnees[11] in the first phase of detection. Thus, India is in a ‘catch-22’ situation.

Challenges ahead for India

Currently India seems to be in a conundrum. While battling its own war against covid-19, there seems to be a responsibility even in countering issues of citizens abroad. But if the foreign governments are insisting for an evacuation, then what are the necessary precautionary measures that the government can take. One, airlifting could take place in various phases with the assistance of the Indian Air Force as it was done in the cases of students stuck in various countries in the last month or so but the numbers in this is a concern. Two, where will the government accommodate and isolate them? as they have to be quarantined for at least two to three weeks and particularly cautious with rapid test facilities in these camps as to allocate the positive and negative cases accordingly in order to ensure hardly any chance of further transmission through them. Three, usage of educational institutions and auditoriums (even rail coaches which the Indian Railways recently arranged), as isolation wards for a limited period would be an option. Four, an emergency financial package for the Gulf returnees apart from free medical assistance for the current situation, which is a necessity given that most of them have lost their jobs.

Interestingly, there are a few questions on the future of the foreign migrated returnees that the Indian government must deal considering both immediate and the forthcoming period of time. The bearing cost of the mass Gulf returnees would be a challenge forward; as the country is already having a high unemployment rate, this would only add to the existing situation. Moreover, there is uncertainty revolving around the returnees and their families; if the bread earner stops earning then the cycle of spending and demands deviates accordingly and this indeed seems to be a panicking signal as there would be a sluggish influence on the Indian economy and the regional economy. In the long run, with the governments in the Gulf having programmes for more indigenisation in the job sector like the Nitaqat Programme in Saudi Arabia and Emiratisation programme in UAE [12], as more lay-offs are  expected in the next two years, this would be a costing burden on the economy,  leaving more pressure on the Indian government for enhanced financial planning and packages with more employment opportunities in the market for revival. However, the government must be ready in prior to face these challenges and plan accordingly for further stability.


[1]S Priyadershini, “Airlifted from Kuwait”, The Hindu, January 27, 2017,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[2]S Kalin and A Cornwell, “UAE warns on foreign worker repatriation, threatens to review work visa quotas”, Livemint, April 13, 2020,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[3]T Nasrallah, “Covid-19: UAE National Disinfection Programme to Continue”, Gulf News, April 4, 2020,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[4]Chinese companies invest Dh602b in KIZAD”, Gulf News, July 21, 2019,, accessed on April 20,2020.

[5]MEA, “Population of Overseas Indians”, Overseas Indian Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, October 10, 2019,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[6]  World Bank, “Migration and Remittances: Recent Developments and Outlook”, Migration and Development Brief 31, World Bank, April 2019,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[7]P Singh and MA Arimbra, “Indians in the Gulf: The Other Side of the Story”, Indian Migration Now- Medium, July 30, 2019,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[8]PK Dutta, “Beyond Floods: How much Money Kerala receives from UAE”, India Today, August 24, 2018,, accessed on April 20, 2020; and TK Devasia,”The Promised Land: How remittances from migrants account for 36.3 % of Kerala’s NSDP”, First Post, August 2018,, accessed on April 20,2020.

[9]Additional Travel Advisory for Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)”, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, March 19, 2020,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[10]Telephonic conversation with an Indian citizen who works in Dubai, UAE.

[11]N Joseph and S Jayarajan, “With over 80 COVID-19 cases, a Kerala District becomes the pandemic’s epicentre”, The News Minute, March 28, 2020,, accessed on April 20, 2020.

[12]Vision 2021 and Emiratisation”, Information and Services, Official Website of Government of United Arab Emirates, March 5, 2020,, accessed on April 20, 2020.