Pandemic Borders

Can COVID-19 positively change perceptions on migration?

The awareness that threats do not stop at borders and that migration is essential, might open avenues for a renewed debate on migration.

Catherine Xhardez
8 May 2020
Healthcare workers wave to thank people for taking part in a cars parade outside the Eatonville Care Center in Toronto, Canada, on April 28, 2020
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Picture by Zou Zheng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved
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How can the pandemic affect the ways we think about immigration in ‘western’ countries? How can it make us feel more empathy and solidarity, acknowledging vulnerability and interdependence, and building more resilience than before?

In a matter of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has become the most important crisis that western countries have faced since World War II. Extraordinary measures have been taken and lives changed overnight. The magnitude of the crisis is likely to have reshuffled the cards in several areas. Migration will be no exception. But, how might the pandemic influence commonly accepted perceptions and ideas on migration? Studying immigration and immigrant integration policies has taught me the importance of ideas, discourses and the way immigration is framed to capture policy evolution. Although it is not possible to predict policy changes at this stage, recent events and decisions will affect our views on migration, which may in turn trigger policy evolution.

We can imagine two very different stories about migration and the pandemic: The first is negative and pessimistic. In that scenario, the pandemic fuels fear, racism and exclusion of the most vulnerable. It is very much an exacerbation of recent trends. The second is positive and optimistic. Here, the pandemic reminds every one of their own vulnerability and reveals how much societies actually rely on migrants. The second is the positive side of the story.

War, famine, disease, etc.: these destructive events or phenomena transformed many people into migrants across the world. In the West, refugees were the faces of these stories of violence and catastrophes. Except that it all seemed very far away, with little risk of affecting us personally. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis is in our house. This pandemic is a strong reminder of human beings’ vulnerability – especially for western citizens.

In the health care services, on the front line, it is often migrants who are the nurses, doctors or old people’s carers

The system of international protection was strongly built on this awareness, in the aftermath of World War II. In 1951, when the Geneva Convention was signed, hundreds of thousands of uprooted peoples still wandered across the European continent or were squatter in makeshift camps. A lot of us have forgotten that the devastated landscapes and cities were once in Europe. By confronting every human being (even the wealthiest) to their own vulnerability, this crisis dramatically illustrates how life is fragile.

Everyone might need protection at some point. To both fight the COVID-19 and protect some of the most vulnerable – regardless of their status – countries have to take extraordinary measures. Portugal has decided to legalize all migrants or refugees with pending status, so that they all can access the Public Health Care System. Other countries, like Belgium, are extending residence permits and have begun to release unsuccessful asylum seekers from detention centres.

As sanitary conditions have become a priority, the crisis has also shed light on the conditions in which many migrants are often detained: Detaining people in tight quarters, crammed into cells, in unsanitary conditions, with a lack of health care is no way to fight a pandemic”.

While the question of refugees and asylum seekers has polarized opinions, the current crisis shows how much our societies rely on migrants to function, especially in the battle against the virus. There are an estimated 164 million international migrant workers in the world. In the health care services, on the front line, it is often migrants who are the nurses, doctors or old people’s carers.

In the UK, the eight doctors who died from coronavirus were all immigrants, revealing how strongly Britain’s healthcare system depends on foreign doctors. In Australia, in the healthcare sector, “temporary migrants account for more than 5 per cent of general practitioners and resident medical officers, and close to 10 percent of the nursing support and personal care workforce”. For these reasons, governments are making exceptions to allow the (temporary) entry of workers in certain health areas. For example, in Canada, Ontario gives now the opportunity for international trained doctors to apply for a temporary license to fight coronavirus. The same story goes for agriculture and horticulture, or delivery, transport and logistics. Beyond only being a utilitarian answer to needs, these events shall raise awareness that migrants are essential workers in our societies.

There is little doubt that, in the aftermath of the pandemic, migration public policies will have to evolve

The pandemic has resulted in tremendous efforts to enforce border control and huge restrictions to mobility. In the last weeks, borders have been presented as safety barriers. The current pandemic however shows that they are not. Indeed, the virus does not stop at the border. It has no passport. As countries turn inward, this does not mean that the world is safer. In the long run, borders are not meant to be hermetically closed. No moving. No help. No growing. Borders will continue to be challenged. For example, climate-related migration will be a critical challenge in the coming decades, with estimates of some 200 million to 1 billion migrants resulting from climate change alone, by 2050.

The awareness that threats (like major diseases or natural disasters) do not stop at borders might open avenues for a more global and renewed debate on migration by rethinking the dichotomies that structured the debates before COVID-19: inside/outside, us/them, voluntary/forced migration and regular/irregular migration.

There is little doubt that, in the aftermath of the pandemic, migration public policies will have to evolve, taking into account new parameters which appeared during the COVID-19 crisis. The current pandemic might represent a critical juncture for future migration policies.

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