According to UNHCR, there are more than 70 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide and 29 million of them have been forced to migrate to other countries. | Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda for EFE
Coronavirus and Migration: Unequal Responses?
The Coronavirus pandemic has made more evident than ever the great inequalities that exist in our societies, where the most vulnerable people, including the migrant and displaced population, will bear the greatest social costs and are most exposed to the virus.
By: Lucía Ramírez Bolívar y Jessica Corredor Villamil*
One of the populations most affected globally by the Coronavirus pandemic is migrants and internally displaced persons, in particular those who have had to do so because of situations of armed conflict, political and economic instability, or because they are discriminated against on the basis of their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. According to UNHCR, there are more than 70 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide and 29 million of them have been forced to migrate to other countries. About 84% of those who have had to migrate are in countries in the Global South with high rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as institutional and economic challenges. This partly explains the fact that before the pandemic the migrant population already faced serious difficulties in accessing fundamental rights such as documentation, employment, housing, food and health.
For example, in Colombia and Peru, the main recipient countries of population from Venezuela, there are significant limitations to regularize the migration situation, there is limited access to health services and food supplies. Most migrants derive their income from informal work (71% in Peru and between 71% and 88% in Colombia) and face situations of labour exploitation.
The pandemic has aggravated this situation by pushing many migrants to be evicted from their homes, lack sufficient food and, consequently, become more exposed to contagion. Given the uncertainty generated by the closure of borders and the economic impact of preventive measures, many have had no alternative but to return to their places of origin. This mobility, again forced, not only puts them at risk from the virus but also the communities to which they return.
In India, for example, where 40 million people work in other cities than their place of origin and most of them live on daily subsistence, Prime Minister Modi imposed confinement with only 4 hours’ notice. The images of the hours and days that followed are shocking as they show the agglutination at bus and train stations of thousands of people trying to return to their home cities. Others show the authorities spraying them with disinfectant, an action strongly criticized and which motivated the opening of an investigation. These examples show the difficulty of governments in dealing with the pandemic and taking measures that also protect migrants and forcibly displaced persons.
In order to conceal their incompetence to handle the crisis, some opportunist governments have chosen to exploit the virus to promote their own xenophobic populist program against the migrant population. While the pandemic was just arriving in EuropeEurope, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared that there was “a link between coronavirus and illegal migrants” and adopted measures that disproportionately affect this population. On March 1, Orban announced the indefinite closure of the border transit camps, the only places in the country where it is possible to file a request for refuge, thus violating this fundamental right to thousands of people who expected to file a request long before the outbreak of COVID-19.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has taken advantage of the crisis to expose his xenophobia and reinforce his anti-immigration argument with statements like “the Democratic policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and well-being of Americans. Now they are seeing it with the coronavirus”, reinforced with arguments in favor of the construction of the wall on the border with Mexico. Even more serious, the Immigration and Customs Enforcementhas refused to release the nearly 40,000 people detained in more than 200 centres across the country. However, in recent days the U.S. president has found himself in the need to take a step back and recognize the importance of migrant workers for the economy of his country. The imaginary threat, part of the playbook of populist governments, loses its validity and reveals their inability to deal with a real threat.
In contrast, other States – honouring their national and international obligations to protect migrants and internally displaced persons – have taken positive steps to include this population in the response to the health emergency. In Peru, The Office of the Ombudsman has made an effort to ensure that mayors with the support of international cooperation provide shelter for homeless migrants. In Portugal, the government granted temporary residence to all persons who had pending immigration or refugee applications. This will enable them to access health services and some social programmes.
Measures have also been taken to encourage migrants to put their knowledge and experience at the service of the community to respond to the pandemic. In Chile, Argentina, France and Germany, temporary recruitment of health professionals with degrees abroad in process of validation was allowed, a measure that strengthens the responsiveness of health systems and allows these people to have income to support themselves.
The Coronavirus pandemic has made more evident than ever the great inequalities that exist in our societies, where the most vulnerable people, including the migrant and displaced population, will bear the greatest social costs and are most exposed to the virus. For this reason, it is essential that states promote policies for this population at two levels. In the short term, they must promote their inclusion in the health response by guaranteeing access to territory, shelter, food, medical care, and the immediate release of persons in migrant detention centres. In the medium term, migration policies should be promoted with a human rights approach, flexible and far-reaching, facilitating regularization processes, local inclusion and ultimately access to rights. Only far-reaching migration policies will reduce the inequalities faced by this population.
* Researchers from the International Area of Dejusticia