Coronavirus: A New Stick to Beat Migrants

Migrant communities face a threefold offensive – greater health vulnerability, economic destitution and political scapegoating, reports Mike Phipps

Arguably no group is suffering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic more than migrants.  In Western Europe, undocumented migrants in many countries cannot access public healthcare. Even those with work or residency permits are more likely to be in precarious work, susceptible to sudden layoffs, with no furlough scheme in place.

Access to benefits in many countries is conditional on long residency – often several years.  Other rights may be contingent on being in work, so migrants losing jobs in the lockdowns across Europe may suddenly face expulsion.

For migrants seeking entry into Europe, COVID-19 is also the pretext for new obstacles. The Italian and Maltese governments have turned their back on people stranded at sea and declared their ports unsafe because of the virus, closing them to the few organisations still running rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Although assisting people in distress at sea is a requirement under international maritime law, European countries have since 2017 gradually withdrawn their navies and coastguards from parts of the Mediterranean where they might come into contact with asylum seekers and migrants. Instead, the EU funds the Libyan coastguard to crack down on smuggling networks and curb irregular migration, despite its proven involvement in human rights abuses and collaboration in people smuggling.

Meanwhile Greece is illegally deporting asylum seekers from the Aegean islands by putting them in tented rescue rafts and setting them adrift at sea. There have been several separate reports of asylum seekers being found by the Turkish coastguard drifting in inflatable life rafts without motors or steering.

The irony is that Western Europe needs migrants more than ever. In May, the Italian government allowed tens of thousands of undocumented migrants to apply for work permits.  Prime Minister Conte emphasised his commitment to migrants’ dignity. But the move was demanded by agricultural associations across Italy looking for staffing to fill the gap left by over 200,000 mainly Eastern European seasonal labourers, who are unable to travel to Italy due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

Refugees and migrants on the other side of the world have also been among those worst affected by the pandemic. In Latin America, the same factors apply – job insecurity, overcrowded and precarious living conditions, limited access to health services and social security – with governmental responses to the crisis worsening pre-existing inequalities.

Many migrants in neighbouring countries began a long journey home when their work – and their ability to feed their families – disappeared. As well as the health hazards and dire economic hardships, migrants also face being demonised as carriers of the virus, often by governments looking for convenient scapegoats. The Chilean government and media outlets that support it have been quick to link COVID-19 to irregular migration, which has fuelled an increase in xenophobic attacks against the migrant population. The UNHCR says the pandemic has exacerbated the already rising levels of discrimination and racism against Venezuelan, Haitian, Central American and other migrants and refugees in several countries.

The predicament of Venezuelan migrants is perhaps the most dramatic. Over the last six years, 5 million Venezuelans fled the economic and social crisis engulfing their country. At least two million went to Colombia, but the impact of COVID-19 and Colombia’s lockdown has left many jobless and destitute. The World Food Programme says that many face malnutrition and even starvation. Tens of thousands have headed back home, often on foot.

In Chile, many Bolivian and Peruvian migrants headed home when lockdown measures took away their jobs and means of survival. They found the borders closed and were trapped in overcrowded border cities, waiting for a chance to cross home.

Mexican cities along the US border are experiencing similar problems, due to the US policy of pushing immigrants back over the border to await their immigration proceedings – which are backlogged due to the virus. Many of these migrants have nowhere to live because the shelters that accommodate them have had to cut their intake to comply with social distancing measures. Meanwhile, the deportation of migrants on repatriation flights from the US and Mexico may be accelerating the spread of coronavirus in Central American countries that were previously unaffected.

Globally there are 200 million migrants. Most face economic ruin, health risks and discrimination at this time of crisis. Lack of work or any other means to live is forcing many to travel long distances home, a pattern replicated in India, Russia, southern Africa, the Gulf and Southeast Asia. Returning home, they are often stigmatised as importers of the virus and so face discrimination wherever they are.

While governments frame the crisis in terms of national security and the US Administration tries to secure exclusive rights to a vaccine, the impact of the pandemic on migrants underlines the need for global humanitarian and health cooperation as never before.