Thiruvananthapuram: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a whopping 8.7 lakh expatriates from Kerala to return home, most of them from the Gulf, since last May with a majority of 5.67 lakh citing job loss as the reason for it, according to official data.
The data from the Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) department as of Thursday also showed that 1,11,151 of the 13,27,330 Keralites who came back from other parts of the country also cited loss of jobs as the reason for their return.
The second biggest reason cited by the returnees (2.08 lakh) was their job visas. The rest include senior citizens, or children, and family members of expats.
Since May, when travel was allowed after the easing of the first COVID-19 lockdown, a total of 8,69,730 people returned from overseas, the department said.
Of those returning from within the country, the maximum number of people returned from neighbouring Tamil Nadu (3.12 lakh), followed by Karnataka (3.11 lakh) and Maharashtra (1.37 lakh).
Overall 21.89 lakh Keralites have come back to the state from abroad and from within the country.
Of those returning from abroad, 8,62,544 used the air route to return, and 7,186 took the sea route.
"As many as 8,69,730 Keralites returned from overseas between the first week of May and today (January 7). Of them, as many as 5,67,138 officially cited loss of job as the reason for returning, according to the NORKA.
There were 40 lakh Keralites living/working abroad and 13.73 lakh elsewhere in the country. The state has a resident population of 3.48 crore.
However, S Irudaya Rajan, an expert on international migration, doesn't agree with the official numbers, saying tens of thousands have already gone back to their places of work, some of them even with new jobs.
"I don't think the official numbers on the NORKA portal are true, especially the job-loss figures. While the actual number of returnees could be true, the vast majority of them citing job losses may not be factually correct," he told PTI.
Rajan is the chair professor at the Ministry of Overseas Indian affairs research unit on international migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram.
He said there were about 25 lakh Keralites in the Gulf nations and at best five lakh of them would have returned, yet that will make it the highest in the past 50 years.
There are one crore Indians in the six of the most migrant-friendly Gulf nations. Even during the Kuwait or Iraq wars, the numbers of people who were forced out were far fewer, he said.
Rajan said he has undertaken a study and would come out with "a more accurate number" once it was completed in a few months from now.
"We should not worry too much on how many have come back, as many are going back or have gone back already. We should instead worry about how to help better, how to make them more skilled, helping better migration later," he said.
The expert said the better news was that many were returning to their previous workplace or a new workplace in a new country.
Ernakulam had maximum number of returnees overall at 2,48,113, followed by Thiruvananthapuram with 1,66,806, and Malappuram 1,43,709 and Kasargod had the least at 32,959 after Wayanad with 34,838 returnees.
But among those returning from overseas, Malappuram had the highest number at 1,40,931 followed by Kozhikode at 89,166 and Thrissur at 86,887. Idukki had the lowest at 7,370.
Malappuram with a larger concentration of Muslim population has the highest penetration of families with expats in the Gulf region followed by Kozhikode.
Of those returnees from abroad, maximum (3.15 lakh) came through the airport in Kochi followed by Kozhikode airport (2.58 lakh), Thiruvananthapuram (1.76 lakh) and Kannur airport (1.09 lakh). Cochin Port was used by 2,955 people.
The job losses of expatriates is not a good development for the state whose economy has been heavily leaning onto remittances ever since the Gulf boom began in the 1960s.
Among the states, Kerala has the highest NRI deposits at around Rs 93,000 crore in 2019 and the government was expecting this to cross the Rs one lakh crore mark last year, though it has not materialised due to the pandemic impact.
Rajan also disagreed with the fear of a steep fall in remittances saying even the World Bank which had at the peak of the pandemic predicted a 23-25 per cent fall in remittances in 2020 has later revised it to be around 15 per cent, partly because of the steep fall in the value of rupee.
In the worst case scenario, the NRI deposits would have fallen by 10-12 per cent, he said, attributing it to the ingenuity of Keralites who take advantage of the record low interest in their country of work by borrowing cheap in local currencies and sending money back home.
(With PTI inputs)