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On top of a record 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, of which 25.9 million are refugees, the COVID-19 pandemic displaced large numbers of young people and adults from cities as workplaces closed, many of whom were engaged in jobs in the informal sector.
In India, an estimated 100 million migrant workers were hard hit by COVID-19 restrictions between March and June 2020, due to business closures in states where they often travel to work. The United Nations Human Rights Commission described the mass return to hometowns and villages as a dire humanitarian situation, leading to disorientation as well as loss of income and livelihood.
“All these migrants lost their job and because they are contractual workers, they have no security and were asked to go with just six hours' notice,” says Shyamal Majumdar, Advisor to the Vivekananda Institute of Biotechnology (VIB), India and former Head of the UNESCO-UNEVOC International Centre for TVET.
Different skillsets from the local economy
Returning migrants include construction workers, labourers, skilled and semi-skilled workers and low-skilled housekeepers and street vendors, precariously working in the informal economy.
“There is a mismatch. There needs to be localization of skills for the returnees that is relevant for environmentally-friendly jobs and closely aligned to the demands of the local economy,” Mr Majumdar says.
As part of its COVID-19 response project, UNESCO-UNEVOC is supporting the Vivekananda Institute of Biotechnology (VIB), a branch of the Sri Ramkrishna Ashram, nestled in the rural market hub of Nimpith, to provide training in locally-relevant, skills-based entrepreneurship for returnees, disadvantaged youth and early school leavers.
Around 11,000 young migrant workers returned from other parts of India to Sagar Island in West Bengal’s Sundarbans region of coastal mangrove swamps.
“Sundarbans is celebrated for its nature but it is a very difficult place to live. Because of poverty and climate change-related issues such as rising sea levels and cyclones, people have left for the big cities,” explains Mr Majumdar. The severe weather has disrupted livelihoods and increased climate migration.
“The young returning migrants are encouraged to start a microenterprise that is closely aligned to existing and new demands of the local economy, giving them a means to survive with limited resources,” Mr Majumdar says. Providing this training now could mitigate the tendency for mass migration and promote self-sufficiency in the post-COVID-19 period.
Mentoring and training
“They are being retrained in technical skills related to biofertilizer, aquaculture and solar renewable energy,” says VIB Director Birendra Kisor Datta, adding mentoring is provided by VIB with its network of university-based experts familiar with the local economy and ecosystem.
“This is an area which needs to grow its capacity to organize and use facilities that draw on renewable energy, so those with a more technical mind will go for solar energy (training),” Mr Datta adds.
With the price of fish very high in the area due to limited supply, those whose households have ponds are trained in aquaculture. Others are trained in betelvine cultivation – a profitable cash crop. The trainees also learn to produce organic manure and pesticides.
“They all have smart phones. So, we are preparing a module on how to use a smart phone as an audio-video communication and learning tool. We have a small package on good agricultural practices and they can download that video at any time,” says Mr Majumdar.
“We are producing some multimedia packages in support,” Mr Majumdar notes. But he estimates 60% of training to be offline, with hands-on practice in VIB labs in smaller COVID-19-secure groups.