Millions of migrant workers who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic are expected to return home to already overburdened labor markets, the UN said Wednesday.
Migrant workers were left exceptionally exposed to the virus and the economic shutdown it triggered, said the United Nations' International Labor Organization.
"This is a potential crisis within a crisis," said Manuela Tomei, director of the ILO's conditions of work and equality department.
"Many millions of migrant workers, who were under lockdown in their countries of work, have lost their jobs and are now expected to return home to countries that are already grappling with weak economies and rising unemployment."
The ILO estimates there are 164 million migrant workers worldwide -- nearly half of them women -- comprising 4.7 percent of the global labor force.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many migrant workers were unable to return home due to travel bans, and found themselves stuck.
Nonetheless, Nepal is expecting around 500,000 people who have lost their jobs abroad to return home, mainly from the Middle East and Malaysia.
India has already repatriated more than 220,000 migrant workers, mostly from Gulf states.
Meanwhile some 250,000 have headed back to Bangladesh, more than 130,000 to Indonesia and more than 100,000 to Myanmar, Michelle Leighton, chief of the ILO's labor migration department, told a virtual press conference.
Ethiopia is expecting between 200,000 and 500,000 to return by the end of the year.
The ILO said that in many parts of the world, migrant workers were concentrated in sectors deemed essential during the coronavirus lockdowns, such as health care, transport, services, domestic work and agriculture.
However, they were also more vulnerable to losing their jobs and income during economic crises.
The ILO said migrant women in domestic and care work were among the most vulnerable during the crisis, facing additional work and care demands, with entire families at home during lockdowns.
Tomei said migrant workers were over-represented in sectors in which physical distancing is difficult, they very often hold temporary jobs, and job loss often means a loss of work and residence permits, pushing them into irregular status without protections.
She said migrant workers were "invisible to COVID-19 responses" despite the essential work they did, and needed to be factored into national plans.
She also called for greater cooperation between countries of origin and destination to help returning migrants.
Returning migrant workers could also bring skills that could help their home economies rebuild after the COVID-19 downturn, said the ILO.
But the families of returning migrants could suffer financially from the loss of remittances normally sent to them.