Covid-19 and migration

14 August 2020

It is essential for host states to support migrants and to provide access to Covid-19 tests and other essentials

Imran Sarihasan
Editorial credit: Pasquale Senatore / Shutterstock.com

Humans have been moving around the earth since time immemorial. Nevertheless, this phenomenon has become increasingly commonplace in modern times, and it is estimated that there are now 272 million international migrants around the world. This equals 3.5% of the world’s population.

People choose to leave their country of birth due to a multitude of reasons. Some want to find better economic opportunities and to improve their income and living standards, while others are driven away by religious persecution, violent conflict, or environmental factors related to climate change. A new driver for migration arrived when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission officially reported a cluster of cases of a pneumonia-like illness due to the novel coronavirus on 31 December 2019. Most countries can now expect to face an economic downturn in the wake of the virus, which will no doubt see migrants leaving their homes in search of better life and job opportunities in other countries.

This economic crisis can expect to lead more people to migrate to European countries.  The pandemic and its consequences will likely put the lives of these people in further peril, given border lockdowns in many European countries, and due to legislation providing for more stringent control over mobility. Among other things, such stringent border controls will negatively effect the support and care provided by NGOs and civil society organisations to migrants in transit, denying many migrants access to basic care.

The global economic crisis may also lead to a sharp increase in unemployment in the long term and to an increase in human trafficking from the countries whose economies have been most severely affected. In order to solve this problem, countries should eschew strict labour market regulations for migrants and should provide more supported active labour market programmes to promote labour market participation for migrants (Máté, Sarihasan, and Dajnoki 2017).

There is no doubt that the increased monitoring of movement and increased border security are necessary responses to the pandemic. However, the limitation on movement can cause COVID-19 to spread among migrants and refugees stranded at borders, given their limited access to healthcare and to basic personal protective equipment such as masks, hand sanitisers, and gloves. Authorities must collaborate with humanitarian organisations to allow for the delivery of effective public health strategies that honour the human rights of detained migrants.

Moreover, with COVID-19, the importance of integration programmes for migrants should be seen as increasingly important. Migrants are potential victims of the virus as much as native populations are. Governments should not allow xenophobic sentiment or resistance to migration cause more discrimination and marginalisation. Pushing people across borders or into crowded camps is not a solution for stopping the spread of the virus or to protect public health, and is often counterproductive. Instead, host countries must provide adequate accommodation that can allow migrants in transit to live in safety. Besides this, granting migrants access to the healthcare system and other basic services will also protect society at large, by helping to keep the pandemic at bay.

The pandemic has also exposed how many states rely on migrant workers to undertake essential services, many of whom are on the ‘front lines’ including in the healthcare, transportation, retail and agricultural sectors, where workers face daily risks to their health in order to keep our societies working and moving. Given this, it is essential for host states to provide social protection and access to public services to support migrants, including both psychosocial support and access to Covid-19 tests.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has spread rapidly around the world and has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and continues to affect especially vulnerable populations in every country. Migrants and refugees are among the most vulnerable groups in this regard. We need a joined-up approach to ensure that all people have access to healthcare and to basic facilities in order to protect themselves. What’s more, such support should continue beyond the pandemic, in light of the central role played by migrants in the countries where they work each and every day.