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They Crossed Oceans to Lift Their Families Out of Poverty. Now, They Need Help.

LONDON — For more than a decade, Flavius Tudor has shared the money he has made in England with his mother in Romania, regularly sending home cash that enabled her to buy medicine.

Last month, the flow reversed. His 82-year-old mother sent him money so he could pay his bills.

Suffering a high fever and a persistent cough amid the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Tudor, 52, could no longer enter the nursing home where he worked as a caregiver. So his mother reached into her pension, earned from a lifetime as a librarian in one of Europe’s poorest countries, and sent cash to her son in one of the wealthiest lands on earth.

“It’s very tough times,” he said. “I’m lost.”

Around the globe, the pandemic has jeopardized a vital artery of finance supporting hundreds of millions of families — so-called remittances sent home from wealthy countries by migrant workers. As the coronavirus has sent economies into lockdown, sowing joblessness, people accustomed to taking care of relatives at home have lost their paychecks, forcing some to depend on those who have depended on them.

Last year, migrant workers sent home a record $554 billion, more than three times the amount of development aid dispensed by wealthy countries, according to the World Bank. But those remittances are likely to plunge by one-fifth this year, representing the most severe contraction in history.

The drop amounts to a catastrophe, heightening the near-certainty that the pandemic will produce the first global increase in poverty since the Asian financial crisis of 1998. Some 40 million to 60 million people are expected this year to fall into extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as living on $1.90 a day or less.

Diminishing remittances are both an outgrowth of the crisis gripping the world and a portent of more trouble ahead. Developing countries account for 60 percent of the world economy on the basis of purchasing power, according to the International Monetary Fund. Less spending in poorer nations spells less economic growth for the world.

Like the pandemic that has delivered it, the slide in remittances is global. Europe and Central Asia are expected to suffer a fall of nearly 28 percent in the wages sent home from other countries, while sub-Saharan Africa sees a drop of 23 percent. South Asia appears set for a 22 percent decline, while the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean could absorb a reduction of more than 19 percent.

Overall, the pandemic has damaged the earning power of 164 million migrant workers who support at least 800 million relatives in less affluent countries, according to an estimate from the United Nations Network on Migration.

“We are talking about a staggering number of people who are benefiting from these remittances,” said Dilip Ratha, lead economist on migration and remittances at the World Bank in Washington.

Venturing overseas for work is laced with danger, exposing migrant workers to dishonest recruitment agents, exploitative employers, and the physical perils of manual labor. It is also a singularly effective means of upward mobility.

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Credit…Sebastian Modak/The New York Times

Households receiving remittances eat better, and are more likely to continue their children’s education rather than pressing them into the work force. Babies born into homes receiving remittances tend to be higher in birth weight.

In some countries, migrant workers can tap into unemployment insurance and other government programs — especially Eastern Europeans from European Union nations who have labored in other member states. But in many countries, migrants operate in gray areas, unprotected by government relief and especially vulnerable to hard times.

“Some people, either naïvely or with good intentions, say this Covid-19 democratizes us all, and we are all exposed to it equally,” said Mahmoud Mohieldin, an Egyptian economist who serves as a United Nations special envoy on financing sustainable development. “This is not true. The impacts are very much disproportionate.”

For families in poor countries, sending a relative abroad to earn money tends to be a collective undertaking. People pool their cash to finance journeys in what amounts to the largest investment they will make in their lives.

The pandemic has turned such ventures into disasters.

Three years ago, Mahammed Heron left his village outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, for work in the energy-rich nation of Qatar, tracing a route pursued by tens of millions of South Asian migrants.

He borrowed 400,000 Bangladeshi taka (about $4,700) from relatives and engaged a local recruitment agent that bought him a plane ticket, secured a work visa and promised him a job. This was a monumental amount of money in Bangladesh, more than twice the national income per capita (about $1,855). His wife, Monowara Begum, was terrified. Her first husband — Mr. Heron’s older brother — had been killed by a drunken driver more than a decade earlier in Saudi Arabia, where he had been working as a hospital janitor.

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Credit…Salahuddin Ahmed for The New York Times

But if the prospect of her husband venturing to the Persian Gulf was frightening, staying put seemed riskier still.

Her family lived in a shack made of corrugated aluminum that was vulnerable to the torrential rains of the monsoon. They had no running water. Mr. Heron earned perhaps 300 taka (about $3.50) per day working in the surrounding rice paddies. They could rarely afford meat or fish, subsisting on rice and potatoes. Her oldest son had a heart condition that required medicine.

The only way out of poverty was to invest in her children’s education, but tuition payments reached 6,000 taka (more than $70) per year.

“Our financial situation was never good,” Ms. Begum explained in an interview via a video link, as birds chirped loudly in the village. She reluctantly agreed to the plan.

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Credit…Salahuddin Ahmed for The New York Times

When Mr. Heron landed in Doha in September 2018, the furnace-like heat was not the only shock: The recruitment agency had failed to line up a job. “I was cheated,” he said in an interview by video.

He looked frantically for work, eventually securing a position at a staffing agency that sent him on a variety of assignments — cleaning offices, landscaping and digging into the sandy earth to lay fiber optics cable.

Mr. Heron was paid a monthly salary of 900 Qatari rial (about $250) and assigned a bunk inside a dormitory room he shared with 15 other men, all Bangladeshis.

Every two or three months, he sent home about 30,000 taka (about $350), but it all went toward his debt — still only one-fourth repaid.

Then, in May, with the coronavirus shutting down much of life in Doha, the agency stopped paying the workers, Mr. Heron said. He suffered an asthma flare-up that required hospitalization, absorbing all his cash. He stopped sending money home.

For Bangladesh overall, remittances received from other countries plunged by 23 percent in April compared with a year earlier, and were down by 13 percent in May, according to the nation’s central bank, though June saw an increase.

Schools remain shut in Bangladesh, but whenever they open, Ms. Begum sees no way to afford sending her 16-year-old son, Hasan.

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Credit…Salahuddin Ahmed for The New York Times

She has been urging Hasan to find work — perhaps in construction, maybe at an auto repair shop. He has been resisting, preferring to stay at home and read textbooks.

“I want to continue my studies,” he said. He imagines a life as a software engineer. His face lights up as he describes this — a slender teenager, standing shirtless in front of his shack as roosters crow, envisioning himself in a shiny office, leaning over a computer.

Every few days, he and his mother use a smartphone app and a prepaid internet card to talk to Mr. Heron, stranded in the dormitory in Qatar. He is too ill to work, he said, but lacks money to fly home. After another year, the staffing company is contractually obligated to pay for his return flight. He bides his time, hoping his health improves, hoping his pay resumes, hoping his own children escape his fate.

“I dream that my sons will do something in their life,” he said.

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Credit…Petr David Josek/Associated Press

In the town of Patzún, Guatemala, Edgar Tzirin’s family used the money he made in his job as a prep cook at a New York soup and sandwich restaurant to erect a new house. Mr. Tzirin earned about $2,000 a month. Every two weeks, he dutifully sent home $500 to $700.

This money proved vital when the coronavirus threw his three sisters out of work. When his mother landed in the hospital — maybe with the coronavirus — he paid for her care.

But in April, with New York in lockdown, Mr. Tzirin lost his job. When his grandfather died the following month, he was unable to send money home for the funeral — a deep wound. He used to speak to his family every two to three days, but he can no longer bear it, receding into isolation and loneliness. He has not told them that he lost his job.

“My family needs me,” he said.

Mr. Tzirin gets up at 5:30 every morning and goes out looking for construction work or odd jobs as a day laborer but usually returns home empty-handed. “There’s nothing,” he said.

He is three months behind on his rent. He contemplates returning to Guatemala for the first time in a decade, but what can he do there?

“It’s a hard experience,” Mr. Tzirin said. “People are getting desperate.”

Many migrant workers are now contending with two emergencies at once — a loss of income combined with the menace of the virus itself.

Mr. Tudor, the Romanian immigrant living in Britain, left his home region of Transylvania when he was in his early 20s. Abandoning a perilous life as a coal miner, he landed first in Spain, where he worked in security. As the global financial crisis plunged the country into a veritable depression in 2009, he moved to Britain, settling in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside town of 76,000 people, about 150 miles west of London.

He took care of older people through stints arranged by staffing companies. His most recent job was at a for-profit nursing home called The Heathers. He was making 848 pounds (about $1,070) a week. His wife was cleaning rooms at a hotel, bringing home £1,200 ($1,536) a month.

As the coronavirus emerged, his wife saw her hours reduced. Hospitals began shifting older patients stricken with the virus to nursing homes.

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Credit…Justin French for The New York Times

According to Mr. Tudor, by early March, 23 of the 30 rooms at The Heathers were full of coronavirus patients. Within a week, nine were dead, he said. He and his colleagues were supplied only with disposable surgical masks. One colleague demanded more protective gear and was fired. He said during his last week at the facility, the manager placed a woman with dementia who did not have the virus in the same room as someone who did.

“It was horrible,” Mr. Tudor said. “It’s only about business. It’s about money.”

Reached by phone, a part-owner of The Heathers, Bipin Patel, declined to answer questions. “We’re not making any comments,” he said.

Mr. Tudor soon came down with a fever and a cough, forcing him to stop going to work. He twice tested negative for the coronavirus, but has been unable to secure another job.

In recent years, Britain has sharply reduced government support programs for the jobless and those struggling to pay their bills, folding them into a lump sum scheme known as universal credit.

Mr. Flavius has traded his paycheck for a £1,000 ($1,280) monthly universal credit payment, cutting his income roughly in half. His eyeglasses have broken, but he can’t afford to replace them. When the rent came due last month, he paid it only with the help of his mother, back in Romania.

“The world doesn’t know where it’s going,” he said. “No society can handle this situation.”

Nic Wirtz contributed reporting from Antigua, Guatemala, Hari Kumar from New Delhi and Geneva Abdul contributed research from London.

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