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Key Considerations for COVID-19 Management in Marginalised Populations in Southeast Asia: Transnational Migrants, Informal Workers, and People Living in Informal Settlements

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Key considerations for COVID-19 management in marginalised populations in Southeast Asia: transnational migrants, informal workers, and people living in informal settlements. May 2020

This brief presents considerations for COVID-19 management among structurally vulnerable populations in Southeast Asia, including transnational migrants, people working in the informal economy, and people living in informal urban and peri-urban settlements. These vulnerable groups are generally poorly understood, ignored, or left out of formal policy and as such represent an area of concern for disease control in the region more generally. The brief summarises the vulnerabilities associated with the limited legal and social protection of these groups, and it is not a systematic study of COVID-19 control measures and impacts across the region. It does, however, include information on alternative, parallel, or informal responses that are relevant to COVID-19 control in the region.

This brief was developed for the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP) by the Institute of Development Studies (Megan Schmidt-Sane). It aims to provide practical considerations for governments and response partners working on the COVID-19 response in the context of Southeast Asia. It is the responsibility of the SSHAP.

Summary considerations

Marginal vulnerable populations in context

• Most Southeast Asian countries have responded decisively to the challenges posed by COVID-19. The region is interconnected through its economy and migratory patterns and therefore needs a regional approach, coordinated through existing regional structures like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

• Southeast Asian countries have populations with high levels of vulnerability which need special consideration. Vulnerability is a political issue, linked to a lack of legal protections, international economic migration patterns, and precarious living and working conditions. These increase exposure to the disease as well as the livelihood impact of lockdown measures and the economic downturn.

• Because of their legal status, these populations fall outside of social and legal safety nets, and hence have poor access to services and protection. Access to health, livelihood support, and other forms of state social protection should be extended to these groups regardless of their legal status.

• The line between formal and informal sectors is blurred. There is overlap also between informal work, international migration, and unplanned urbanisation. Such intersections should be considered in assessments of protection needs and the design of COVID-19 control measures and relief.

Informal work

• Informal workers are losing work due to COVID-19 control measures and have few options for livelihood generation in the interim. They should be allowed to continue work, if it is possible to do so safely. Restricting the informal sector pushes workers into further precarity.

• Informal work is not protected under countries’ labour laws and is typically more hazardous than formal work with no formalised worker protections. Informal workers need protection as part of the COVID-19 response and the economic recovery strategy.

• Informal work tends to be under-recognised and unaccounted for, which contributes to inadequate data and policy responses.
Improved data collection is necessary so informal workers are reached by stimulus benefits or social protection.

• Economic policies should account for both the formal and informal economy and its workers. Successful local solutions by governments have included: suspending tax payments during the crisis, incentivising linkages between formal and informal businesses, and improving access to capital, health services and protective equipment for the informal sector.