Migration, mobility and COVID-19 – A tale of many tales

The crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed existing migration debates in Europe, yet is inextricably linked with mobility and movement and its governance within the EU and globally. The current situation reveals the complexities of migration debates, pushing aside current, unearthing old and raising new questions.

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      The crisis that displaced the other


      Only some weeks ago it seemed that the refugee situation at the Greek-Turkish border resulting from a failing EU-Turkey deal would have a strong influence on discussions about European solidarity and border management. Little did we anticipate that the media would be busy reporting on European border closures in a different context, allowing the (virtual) discussions between Merkel, Erdogan and Macron on renewing the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal to happen outside the main spotlight. While Merkel declared the deal to still be intact, EU member states have suspended any relocation, return and resettlement provisions due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

      The persisting standoff between refugees and police at the Greek border and renewed tensions and pushback should have given impetus to resolve the European gap in solidarity and its direct manifestations in the form of refugee camps, such the Moria camp in Greece. Yet, with the world facing a serious health crisis and the Greek border situations calming down for now, the devastating situation of refugees in Europe – and elsewhere in the world – seems to have lost the little political attention it may still have had. The recent fire outbreak, the ever-worsening conditions and the fear of the virus affecting the camp itself have become a side-note in the current debates about borders, migration and health.

      In Europe, the initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak took a familiar sequence and is connected to broader mobility and migration governance of the EU. Reversion to border closures, first by EU member states in an uncoordinated fashion, then followed by the EU closing the external ones to safeguard Schengen and to catch up on coordination, resembled to what followed the 2015 ‘refugee situation’.

      It also brought to the fore some well-known challenges in times of crisis: a lack of coordinated EU approaches to managing borders and balancing solidarity with strong interests of individual member states. Under pressure, a borderless and coordinated Europe, in which each member state can rely on the EU and on joint approaches to manage mobility, does not necessarily exist.

      If this leads to a further erosion of trust, it will become more difficult to reach an agreement in the current negotiations on the internal dimension of the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, to be presented by Ylva Johansson in the coming months. And even with a new pact, the trust that an agreement on sharing responsibilities for refugees and migrants will hold in practice may be in question, since it is precisely this type of coordination and European solidarity that needs to be in effect if there are serious migration dynamics to respond to.

      Using COVID-19 for political gain


      In Europe and globally, the COVID-19 health crisis has altered a number of parameters in the discussion on migration and mobility. But it has also led to familiar approaches. Populist attempts are made to exploit the crisis for political gain, using migration, globalisation and migrants as scapegoats. Italy’s Salvini was an early candidate blaming it on African migrants, Hungary’s Orban followed suit making Iranian migrants responsible, and Trump (in desperate need of turning this invisible enemy into one easier to grasp for its electorate) termed it the ‘China virus’ on social media.

      This follows a long tradition of ‘blaming’ diseases that spread across borders on other nations – remember the ‘Irish Disease’ (Cholera) or the ‘Spanish flu’? But in the turn of events, racism has also spread more against Europeans and Chinese in African countries, where some citizens perceive them to be responsible for the spread of the virus. Attacks on Europeans and Asians have happened in Kenya and more incidents of harassment, stone attacks or foot chases are being reported in Ethiopia.

      While right-wing populists have generally found it difficult to capitalise on the situation through their usual strategies so far, a post-corona sentiment could make it easier for politicians to argue against globalisation and existing types and levels of migration. The feeling of suspicion against foreigners may stay or get worse depending on how events turn out, and once they exist, they are harder to reverse.

      Governments have made strong use of migration and mobility policies for managing the outbreak. Many of such measures may well be warranted, although discussions are ongoing on the effectiveness of some measures. But some governments are taking these border- and migration-related steps also under the cover of the novel coronavirus to reach objectives that go beyond strictly managing the health situation.

      Examples exist across the globe: Trump wanting to close the Mexican-US border for Mexican entries (while at the time there were little reported cases), Greek authorities noting that border closures and a stop of asylum processing are due to the coronavirus, or South Africa announcing to build a fence along the border with Zimbabwe to prevent undocumented migrants from crossing the border and spreading the coronavirus.

      What about migrants?


      The coronavirus has brought difficult situations for citizens across the world. For some however, the effects may be more severe than for others. Vulnerable migrants (refugees or irregular migrants who find themselves in precarious situations), belong to the former, and their desperate situation may well further deteriorate.

      First, the measures of ‘social distancing’ for them mean less support, less access to necessities or services (a number of projects in Italy providing migrants with food and other essentials for instance have come to a halt, while in Libya refugees are cut off from aid). Second, they themselves are not in a position to follow much of the good advice given. Hands cannot be washed properly without access to soap or water, and social distancing is a concept that does not squarely apply to the reality of refugee camps or other cramped places.

      Third, not that it was easy to begin with, but the ability to cross borders and seek protection has become even more difficult. UNHCR has been quick to remind governments of the rights of refugees for accessing protection amid the COVID-19 travel restrictions. Fourth, access to resettlement has also been stopped amid the travel restrictions – meaning more persons will stay in camps and temporary settlements outside Europe, where there are increased health risks and heightened psychological pressure of having hopes crushed after years of waiting uncertainty and processing.

      The fear of refugees in crowded places is fully justified and an outbreak in the context of little functioning health care will be devastating. The calls to clear camps or find alternative solutions are gaining in relevance now. Yet they are unlikely to take priority in a moment in which governments are mobilising all resources to care for their citizens. Vulnerable migrants, such as asylum seekers and refugees, are vulnerable precisely because they lack the governments that take care of them in such situations.

      Less vulnerable workers, such as migrant workers earning income in mid-level or lower-income jobs, have been losing work and income and many have returned home since the COVID-19 outbreak (some also because they were afraid of getting infected). Negative effects have been felt by migrant workers across a number of sectors, ranging from tourism to factory work, but this may not be different from other workers hit by the pandemic economically.

      Yet, migrant workers are often the biggest losers when economic crises occur – because of their short-term contracts, their vulnerable statuses or the sectors they are likely working in, amongst other things. Similar effects took place during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. So as the world economy comes to a gradual halt, and more migrants return or are prevented from going abroad for work, we will likely see a decline in remittances being sent, leading to cutting of vital support to communities. African migrants residing in countries of the North or African trade hubs such as Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, will feel the impact, especially if they work in goods and services that are location-based.

      At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis shows how reliant economies are on migrant workers – many of which are in key occupations. The crisis is also revealing more quickly what is already known: that certain segments of the labour market need workers urgently, and that includes the health sector.

      Europe is currently learning this lesson fast. Medical workers from China, Cuba and Russia are supporting the Italian Lombardy region in fighting the virus. Calls are being made to speed up the recognition of skills of foreign care workers so they can quickly help increase capacities in hospitals. We may be able to find more pragmatic solutions for processes that have dragged on for long. The debate about ‘ethical recruitment’ and skills and migration will, as a result, likely gain in prominence again, especially with the pandemic affecting all countries and with health care systems being under strain everywhere.

      Some industries in Europe, such as agriculture, currently fear further economic losses due to travel restrictions resulting in few migrants coming. Germany’s agriculture sector being dependent on migrant workers from Bulgaria, Poland or Romania fear that this year’s harvest is in danger due to border closures and health-related fears. Other migrants are being considered to come to the rescue: Germany’s agricultural minister suggested that asylum seekers could be given temporary work permits to fill in.

      Last, some international students – if they didn’t return home and postponed their studies – face additional pressures. Visa rules may stipulate physical presence or are linked to meeting financial requirements. With classes being moved online and opportunities for hourly jobs increasingly shut down, they may not be able to meet the requirements for their visa student and slip into irregularity. Beyond provisions for ‘suspension of studies’, academic institutions, private sector actors and governments will need to work together to find solutions to cushion effects.

      And the longer term?


      Mobility and migration will continue also in a post-COVID-19 world, but the crisis will leave its imprints. Economic needs for migrants to earn money or for jobs to be filled will persist. So will the needs of the most vulnerable migrants.

      Many questions will still need to be answered. How will financial stability, commodity prices or remittances affect lower-income countries? What will this mean for potential migrants and migration opportunities? How quickly will migrant hubs recover and in which sectors will workers be needed? How hard will remittance-reliant households be hit and what can be done to cushion effects? How do social relations and access to health care shape migration decisions in times of pandemics and beyond? And how humane will our approach to refugees have been?

      Many decisions taken now (and quickly) will have consequences in the longer term. We may see more caution and hesitation in the future concerning openness, mobility and migration. At the same time, we will have recognised how essential migration and mobility is for exchange, wealth and opportunities. And as events unfold, we will see opportunities to explore scenarios, improve policies and fast-track policy options for migrants that have already been discussed for some time.


      The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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