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The emergence of the vaccine passport

Origin countries scramble to meet vaccination requirements, as prospective and stranded migrant workers struggle without jobs

On July 6, 2021

Each GCC state has made it mandatory for all incoming migrants to be vaccinated, including those re-entering with valid residence or work permits. Those who are not vaccinated must undergo prohibitively expensive quarantine. While these policies appear reasonable, they are nevertheless creating deeper rifts in inequalities in origin states. Additionally, there are only a few vaccines that have been approved by GCC countries, not all of which are widely available in origin countries.

Saudi Arabia, the primary destination country for South Asian migrants, has approved only the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Those arriving unvaccinated will have to pay upwards of US$900 for quarantine.

Last week, Pakistani migrant workers ‘stormed’ a vaccination centre in Islamabad demanding priority vaccination. Pakistan is dependent on donations from China, and those vaccines – Sinopharm, CanSinoBio, and Sinovac – are not approved in most GCC states. A migrant worker, Muhammad Ismail, who has a job in Saudi and is unable to return told Reuters, “The Saudis say they don’t want the Chinese vaccine, they want these other ones. Otherwise, they keep you in quarantine, and that costs around 5,000 riyals (US$1,333.23). My monthly wages are 1,800 riyals, so how can I afford that?”

The four largest sending countries in South Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal – still have low vaccination rates, and have not yet covered a significant percentage of their most vulnerable population. The majority of migrant workers are under 40 years old and do not fall under the priority age group. However, countries have started prioritising the group due to the devastating impact of remittance loss on both countries as a whole and individual families in particular. Pakistan has started vaccinating people under 40 who are set to migrate with its limited supply of AstraZeneca.

Migrant workers in Bangladesh have also staged protests demanding to be prioritised. Shakirul Islam, Chairman of the Bangladeshi NGO Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), told MR that after negotiations between the Ministry of Expatriate Welfare and the Ministry of Health, Pfizer vaccines have been allocated for those who are registered with the Bureau of Manpower Employer and Training, and who have received travel clearance. “Two categories of workers will be covered, under this allocation – 100,000 first-timers and 40,000 migrants who already have jobs and are unable to return.” The government had initially considered providing a  BT25,000  (US$300) subsidy to cover a portion of the Saudi quarantine fees but instead decided to provide vaccination as a cheaper alternative.

Nepal has also been hard hit on multiple fronts – increasing cases, not enough vaccines, and a large number of overseas workers stranded without income as they are unable to travel to the Gulf states to resume or start work.

Speaking to Kathmandu Post, the general secretary of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA) Sujit Kumar Shrestha expressed concern that these new regulations may have a lasting impact on Nepalis’ prospects in the GCC job market if they are not prioritised for vaccination.  

India has begun vaccination for individuals 18 and over. However, vaccine shortages persist, and since the rollout is organised at the state level, each Indian state must take responsibility to acquire enough doses. The southern state of Telangana, which has seen an increasing GCC-bound migration, has recently issued a guideline that workers with a valid passport and work permit can walk into designated centres for their shots. 

Currently, two vaccines are available – Covaxin and Covishield, and only the latter is approved in the GCC states. Those who have been vaccinated by Covaxin would not receive approval for travel. Further, the recommended gap between the two shots of Covishield is between 12 and 16 weeks, which would further delay travel plans.

Some GCC states such as Oman have banned any travel from red-listed sending countries such as India, except for Omani citizens and health personnel, leaving many residents who had gone on annual leave stranded and at risk of losing their income and jobs.

Others, such as Bahrain, have put a temporary ban on issuing work permits to migrant workers from red-list countries but allows those with existing work permits to return and quarantine for 10-days at home or in an institution if they are not vaccinated.

Kuwait, which has put a ban on most migrant workers, including permit holders, from entering the country, will from 1 August onwards allow only fully vaccinated migrant workers to return. Vaccinated migrants must still quarantine at home or at an approved facility.  

Gulf states, which are highly dependent on migrant labour, have the ability and resources to provide vaccination for incoming migrant workers. The costs of vaccination and quarantine should be incorporated into the recruitment fees that are the responsibility of the sponsor. Governments must put in place facilities and regulations to provide new and existing migrant workers with vaccines and healthcare. 

GCC quarantine and travel policy applicable for migrant workers:  

GCC State Approved Covid-19 Vaccines Current entry requirements
Bahrain Pfizer/BioNTech, Sputnik Light, Sputnik V, Sinopharm, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Covishield, Johnson & Johnson Non-vaccinated migrant workers must undergo a 10-day precautionary quarantine in their own homes or at a quarantine facility licensed by the National Health Regulatory Authority.
Saudi Arabia  Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson Non-vaccinated migrant workers must undergo a 7-day precautionary quarantine at an approved quarantine institution
UAE Pfizer/BioNTech, Sputnik V, Sinopharm, Oxford/AstraZeneca Depending on the Emirate, Non‑vaccinated travellers arriving from a country outside of the “green-list” must quarantine in their own homes or at a quarantine facility for 10 days at their own expense.
Qatar Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna Astrazeneca, Covishield (Astrazeneca) , Johnson & Johnson, Sinopharm Non-vaccinated travellers must quarantine at home or hotel for 7 days. Travellers arriving from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka or Vietnam must have a quarantine hotel reservation for 10 days or 14 days if quarantined at Mekhaines facility.
Oman Sinovac, Pfizer/BioNTech, Sputnik V, Oxford/AstraZeneca All non-citizens must be isolated in an approved institutional (hotel) quarantine facility for 7 days, even if they are vaccinated.
Kuwait Oxford/AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna

Only vaccinated migrants will be allowed to enter Kuwait after 1 August, with mandatory quarantine at home or facility for 7 days.

If allowed to return, unvaccinated domestic workers are subjected to 14-day institutional quarantine