Migration and pandemics: an Immiscible Mix

 In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been widely reported that marginalised groups in societies have been disproportionately impacted by the outbreak. Among those who are likely to suffer greater consequences the migrant communities across the world. 

Migrants endure the consequences of the pandemic to a greater extent when compared to other groups – such as natives – for various reasons. Firstly, migrants often suffer from unequal access to basic services such as healthcare. This is more common for those on short-term visas or in irregular situations. In situations where migrants are granted access to healthcare services in the host nation, they remain constrained due to the lack of linguistic diversity in service provision, xenophobia, and limited knowledge of the host country. 

Migrants are also found to be less willing to seek professional healthcare assistance due to fears of being deported, increasing their chances of suffering from the virus. In regard to living circumstances, migrants often live in overcrowded conditions where the practice of social distancing and self-isolation is difficult. Those who are displaced across borders have inadequate access to basic needs such as water and hygiene products. Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) populations are particularly at risk, given that the majority of such groups are located in countries which are incapable of providing the facilities required to maintain the pandemic. Migrants are also found to be overrepresented among frontline workers during the pandemic, as well as within industries which have been the most affected by the pandemic, further increasing their risk of exposure to the virus.  

On a global scale, countries have responded to the pandemic with border closures and tightening immigration regimes. Whilst intended to maintain the spread of the virus, these acts have resulted in immeasurable challenges for asylum seekers who are unable to apply for international protection, as well as migrants who were already in transit prior to the restrictions being placed. The closure of formal immigration streams may drive migrants towards informal, risky migration channels

Policy recommendations 

Employing policies which support the protection of migrants during the pandemic will not only benefit the migrants themselves but will also induce social and economic benefits for the host communities. Ideally, more countries should follow the steps of Portugal, who has granted immigrants and asylum seekers temporary residency rights, enabling them to access public services.

Whilst a handful of countries have adopted certain policy measures to protect the rights of migrants, what should all countries be doing to protect migrants? 

  1. Social safety nets 

Widespread income insecurity amongst migrant groups often incentivises migrants to seek employment during the pandemic, further increasing public health risks of the spread of COVID-19. In order to reduce the chances of this taking place, migrants should be included in national COVID-19 policy responses, as done in Italy and Ireland, where migrants are able to apply for financial assistance from the government. The inclusion of migrants in these ‘social safety nets’ regardless of their migration status, will help to contain the spread of the virus whilst supporting and protecting migrants during these unprecedented times. Further steps countries with a large number of migrants and refugees should consider is to design and implement new programs targeting specific challenges faced by their migrant populations. These could include the provision of food and shelter for displaced migrant workers; arrangement of transportation to help migrants return home; and cash grants to migrant workers to partially compensate for employment and thus income loss. 

2. Employment retention and promotion 

Employment retention policies encourage employers to maintain their current workforce through deductions in social insurance contributions, or through employment subsidies. Whilst these policies can be applied to the entire workforce, they may be implemented to prevent the displacement of migrant workers. China has employed such policies, providing wage subsidies to stabilise employment for migrant workers. Employment promotion policies assist job seekers in finding employment and are also concerned with the regulations surrounding migration programs. These policies could be adjusted to specifically help migrants by providing visa extensions to allow migrants more time to seek employment; providing employment services like job search programs targeted at migrants; providing transportation assistance to displaced migrants who are unable to find jobs. Similar measures have been adopted in Germany, where the ban which had been imposed on seasonal agricultural workers had been lifted. 

3. Remittance policies 

Due to the closure of major services such as banks due to the pandemic, in addition to the economic crisis induced by COVID-19, remittance flows have been negatively impacted. Remittances are a key factor in international migration, totalling to $544 billion in 2019, and are projected to decline by 20% in 2020. In order to support the recovery of remittances, governments should classify remittance service providers as an essential service. In order to facilitate the transfer of remittances in the longer term, digital models of remitting should be promoted, in order to enable remittance flows to be sent during such times of crisis. Qatar has adopted such measures, introducing online remittance services.  

The current pandemic has challenged individuals at all levels of society. It is important to note that migrants and refugees in particular have suffered the consequences of the pandemic to a greater extent due to the reasons listed in this article. In order to alleviate such challenges for these vulnerable groups, governments should take further measures to protect their health and wellbeing, which will in turn benefit all parties involved. 

The featured image (top) is by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash.

By Lameez Siddiqui

Lameez Siddiqui is a third year International Development student at King’s College London.


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International Labour Organisation (2020) Protecting migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Policy Brief.  

International Organisation for Migration (2020) Integrating migration into COVID-19 socio-economic response: a toolkit for development partners. 

Nasimi, R. (2020) The UK’s Covid-19 response can become a defining moment for changing our approach to refugees. Overseas Development Institute. 

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World Bank (2020a) World Bank Predicts Sharpest Decline of Remittances in Recent History. 

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