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Coronavirus: A window of opportunity for action on migration?

‘Some of these policies show that other ways are possible.’

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

At the beginning of June, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released a policy brief highlighting what he called the coronavirus pandemic’s “disproportionate impact” on asylum seekers and regular and irregular migrants. 

The virus, and the impacts of national responses to it, have magnified existing inequalities in access to healthcare, safety, and economic security. However, according to the UN brief, they also present the international community with an opportunity to “reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all”.

Around the world, a number of local and national governments have responded to the virus by taking steps to protect the health and human rights of irregular migrants and asylum seekers as part of their overall efforts – although this inclusive approach is far from the norm

The measures, following the recommendations of the UN and migration policy experts and advocates, include providing access to healthcare and social services, visa and residency permit extensions, stays on deportations, releases from immigration detention, and, in the case of Italy, an immigration amnesty.

Many of the policies are limited in scope and time-bound to the current crisis. But seen against a backdrop of responses that have otherwise ranged from neglect to outright hostility, policy experts hope the positive measures could point towards a more sensible and humane approach to migration even after the extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic subside.

“The main positive change that we’re seeing is a lot of ideas that were previously entirely off the table have to be considered a lot more seriously now,” Olivia Sundberg Diez, a migration policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, told The New Humanitarian.

“Some of this, of course, has a humanitarian ground behind it, but a big consideration is public health,” Diez added. “You need to ensure that everybody within your territory has sufficient access to public health. Otherwise, nobody is protected if not everybody is protected.”

Fears about impending food shortages and the deaths of immigrant medical workers during the pandemic have also highlighted the dependence of essential industries in economies around the world on both regular and irregular migrant labour. 

“You need to ensure that everybody within your territory has sufficient access to public health. Otherwise, nobody is protected if not everybody is protected.”

Most of the measures that have been adopted to protect these people “are absolutely essential simply for the survival of the economies – and ultimately the people – of the countries where those migrants are,” said Patrick Taran, president of Global Migration Policy Associates, a Geneva-based consultancy. 

While positive measures have not been the predominant response, “we have some good signs that point to what can be,” Taran added.

Call for inclusion 

When cases of coronavirus first started to surge outside China at the end of February, aid organisations and human rights groups quickly began to sound the alarm about the potentially devastating impact the virus could have on refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who often live in crowded areas with limited access to proper sanitation facilities, healthcare, and social services. 

At the same time, sealed borders and lockdowns made it more difficult for people fleeing wars and persecution to reach places of safety and left migrants stranded in difficult conditions around the world. Some governments also saw the crisis as an opportunity to push through hardline migration policies that had nothing to do with protecting public health but advanced long-standing anti-refugee and anti-immigration agendas.

As the pandemic accelerated, at the end of March, UN agencies put forward an initial set of broad guidelines calling on governments to release people from immigration detention centres, uphold the right to asylum and include refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented people in public health and relief efforts. 

‘Some positive developments’

Over two months later, “there have been some positive developments,” Leonard Doyle, a spokesperson for the UN’s migration agency, IOM, told TNH.

Portugal announced early on that it would treat all foreigners in the country with pending immigration applications as residents, at least until 1 July, allowing them to access healthcare and social services; Ireland granted undocumented migrants full access to healthcare and social welfare, including the country’s pandemic unemployment fund; and, in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Qatar said that they would provide free healthcare to migrant labourers regardless of their legal status.

Elsewhere, state and local governments have taken the initiative to include undocumented people in their efforts to contain and mitigate the effects of the virus, even as national governments have been indifferent or hostile to such efforts.

In Brazil – where the number of cases is spiralling and the response has fallen to local communities – undocumented migrants in São Paulo can access food aid and the city’s municipal hospital network, and the US state of California and the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota both launched relief funds specifically for undocumented residents affected by the pandemic. A number of other cities in the United States have also taken steps to ensure undocumented people can access healthcare and social services.

Numerous countries in Europe, Central America, South America, and elsewhere have extended the validity of visas and residency permits to ensure people do not end up becoming undocumented while government offices are closed due to lockdowns, and at least 10 EU member states have stopped or significantly reduced deportations of undocumented migrants.

A number of European countries, Japan, and Mexico have also released people from immigration detention centres to prevent outbreaks in overcrowded, unhygenic facilities, and Spain took the unprecedented step of completely emptying its immigration detention centres in early May.

In the only such measure since the beginning of the pandemic, Italy’s amnesty law has paved the way for potentially 200,000 people to gain work permits and legal residency. The UN is encouraging other countries to consider regularisation for people in irregular situations. 

‘Normal and right shouldn’t be seen as exceptional’

But even these positive developments have their drawbacks and have been applied as part of patchwork approaches that leave glaring gaps.

Policies giving migrants and asylum seekers access to healthcare and social services in Portugal and Ireland are time-bound to the current crisis, and it’s unclear whether undocumented migrants in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have actually been able to access free healthcare treatment without retribution and descrimination, according to Amnesty International.

Residency permits made available through Italy’s immigration amnesty are only valid for six months. Some people released from immigration detention in Europe have been left destitute and homeless, and Mexico either abandoned or deported people after releasing them from detention. 

“Lockdown periods have been relatively short, but the pandemic will continue. It will be really crucial to see how these measures now would continue beyond their... cut-off dates.”

It is also unclear whether moves away from detention and deportation will outlast the public health concerns that made the changes necessary at the beginning of the pandemic, according to Michele LeVoy, director of the Brussels-based Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM).

“Lockdown periods have been relatively short, but the pandemic will continue,” LeVoy told TNH. “It will be really crucial to see how these measures now would continue beyond their... cut-off dates.”

For Taran, from Global Migration Policy Associates, the positive developments should simply be standard practices, not cause for celebration. “Doing something that should be normal and right shouldn’t be seen as exceptional and positive,” he said.

‘The background is still bleak’

But compared to the overall response to migration during the pandemic, the positive developments do stand out. “All of these [policies] are somewhat promising practices, but the background is... still bleak,” LeVoy said. 

The United States, for example, has indefinitely suspended access to asylum at its borders, continues to carry out deportations – including of many people who have later tested positive for coronavirus – and, contrary to the state and city-level efforts, has excluded undocumented people from federal relief aid. “There’s almost a deliberate punishment going on,” Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, told TNH. 

In April, Italy and Malta also used the virus to justify closing their ports to asylum seekers and migrants fleeing Libya. Malta, until recently, was also holding people rescued at sea on tourist ferries off its coast instead of allowing them to disembark on land. 

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The South African government deliberately excluded undocumented migrants and refugees from financial and food aid meant to mitigate the impact of the country’s lockdown; Algeria expelled hundreds of migrants between mid-March and mid-April, leaving them stranded in the desert in northern Niger; countries in the Gulf deported hundreds of migrant workers at the beginning of the crisis; and Malaysia has been carrying out raids to arrest undocumented migrants even as the virus has been spreading in detention centres in the country.

Globally, as of the end of May, 161 countries had fully or partially closed their borders, and 99 of them were making no exception for people seeking asylum. 

Sustaining the advances

Policymakers and economists have long understood the importance of immigrant and migrant labour to maintaining viable economies, according to Taran. And protecting the human rights of asylum seekers and migrants will be an important component of bringing the coronavirus pandemic under control and continuing international cooperation on global health, conflict management, development, and climate change. 

But nativist political forces hostile to refugees and migrants have played a significant role in recent years in shaping public discourse and policy agendas on migration. 

The coronavirus pandemic might be creating an opening where the interests of public health, economic self-interest, and human rights overlap to pave the way for the adoption of evidence and rights-based policies that were previously off the table. “I do think the pandemic has shifted states’ calculus to a degree,” Diez said, speaking about Europe. “Some of these policies show that other ways are possible.”

At the same time, economic recession and social malaise stemming from lockdowns and border closures could prove to be fertile ground for right-wing groups and political parties to push for even more anti-migrant and nativist policies. 

The challenge for civil society will be building on the few promising measures that have already been put in place. “Anything that has been adopted now is maybe helpful in the short term, but you always have to see the longer term perspective,” LeVoy said. “It’s really important to sustain some of these initial advances.”

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