With COVID-19 disrupting travel, shutting borders, and redefining what is essential work, Pandemic Borders explores what international migration will look like after the pandemic, in this series titled #MigrantFutures
While the long term effects of the pandemic are still largely unclear, some predictions about a post-COVID-19 world have focused on the changing power dynamics between great powers, the rise of nationalism, the end of open borders and globalisation, and have a generally unfavourable outlook on migration. These predictions have often focused on the impact of the pandemic on the relationships between the states in the Global North or the implications for South to North migration flows. However, how will the pandemic shape south-south migration flows and impact the realities of migrants with a precarious status?
When the pandemic began this year, the swiftest and most stringent lockdown policies took place in the Global South. African countries particularly, armed with the experience of the Ebola epidemic, weak public health systems and densely populated cities acted quickly to stem the spread of the virus. The quick response in many countries in the Global South is arguably one of the reasons why the spread of the virus has not been as far reaching as expected.
According to the World Bank, South-South migrations account for 34 percent of global migrations and 70 percent of migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa migrate to other African countries. In West Africa, freedom of movement and migration are regional norms and practices. With the pandemic, IOM reports that regional migration dropped by almost 50 percent in the first half of the year.
The quick response in many countries in the Global South is arguably one of the reasons why the spread of the virus has not been as far reaching as expected
Prior to the pandemic, not enough attention was paid to health assessment-focused migration policy or the impact of health on mobility because the focus on cross-border mobility in the region has been mainly on trade and labour. Though there was a regional and coordinated approach to the Ebola epidemic, the link between health, borders and migration still needs to be highlighted further.
Pandemic, Health Challenges and Scapegoating
Countries in the Global South have to also contend with the health challenge of migrations from the Global North. Poor countries are often seen as places where diseases are embedded and this has impacted how migrants from the Global South are treated when they apply for visas, cross borders and how they are treated in countries they migrate to and reside in. Entire migration processes are built around testing migrants in the Global South to ensure they have no diseases in order to apply for visas. These processes are by and large not reciprocal.
The coronavirus pandemic has destabilised the stereotypes about diseases in poor countries and shown that diseases are not limited by borders, economic stability, power or wealth. In African countries, the virus was introduced by visitors from the Global North – especially Europe – before it evolved to community spread. Visitors from the Global North do not have to pass through the same rigorous health assessments when they want to migrate to countries in the Global South and this has to change. What this implies is that going forward, states in the Global South will have to carry out health assessments on all visitors or entrants, regardless of where they are from.
Entire migration processes are built around testing migrants in the Global South to ensure they have no diseases in order to apply for visas. These processes are by and large not reciprocal
The racialisation of diseases is a phenomenon that is embedded in the history and the inception of the global health system. Matiangai Sirleaf delves into how the global health system relied on colonial powers to enforce public health initiatives, resulting in racial discrimination against migrants from the Global South globally. African migrants face discrimination globally whenever there is an epidemic on the continent, as evidenced in how African migrants were treated in Asia, North America and elsewhere during the Ebola epidemic. As the the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, even when the disease does not originate from the continent, African migrants still face discrimination.
Foreigners or ‘others’ are blamed for the failure to manage the pandemic, rather than the state itself. The pandemic has given states an excuse to implement heavy handed migration policies as a means of ‘stemming’ the spread of the virus. At the height of the pandemic, in cities like Guangzhou, China, African migrants faced discriminatory and punitive measures including forced evictions, denial of access to accommodation, police brutality, targeted and forced quarantine, and the seizure of their passports.
The racialisation of diseases is a phenomenon that is embedded in the history and the inception of the global health system
Having a non-African passport becomes a ticket out of discrimination and harassment. Large cities become vehicles for violence against Black bodies, even though 90 percent of the imported cases came from people with Chinese passports. As a result of heavy handed measures, undocumented migrants are more visible than before, with nowhere to live, eat, work or simply exist in the places they chose to migrate to. This results in greater vulnerabilities including higher risks of forced labour, as well as poorer work and health conditions.
Internal migration in pandemic times
Countries like China and India have significant internal migration and the pandemic has impacted migrant workers who are losing jobs in both formal and informal sectors due to the public transport service and movement disruptions. In India like in several Latin American countries, migrant workers were forced to travel large distances en masse and on foot in order to return home. Migrant workers remain trapped in crowded slums and unable to practice proper social distancing without access to basic amenities. Many migrant workers also cannot return to places where they work or go back to their countries of origin. Seasonal migrants have also been stranded as a result of travel restrictions and have been unable to make a living. For example, agricultural workers, transborder traders and herders in West Africa have not been able to migrate within the region to earn a living as before. For herders and other nomadic West Africans, transhumance is no longer possible, which greatly affects their way of life.
Additionally, internally displaced persons (IDP), border communities and forced migrants have been facing heightened obstacles to migration pathways and restricted access to humanitarian aid. Obstacles to migration pathways means IDPs, asylum seekers and refugees are trapped in precarity and will be pressured into irregular migration paths. Without an end of the pandemic in sight, there will be fewer pathways to well-being and security. Furthermore, pre-existing political instability and inequalities may be exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. In West Africa, for example, this year has seen a resurgence of Boko Haram attacks targeting IDP camps and border communities, knowing that the inhabitants have nowhere to go.
Globally, humanity has gotten an opportunity to experience what immobility means and how crippling it can be
The entire world is at a crossroads and with a global recession in sight and no vaccine yet, it will take a while for these various challenges to be resolved. The impact of migrant workers and seasonal labourers in informal sectors and the racial discrimination they face has finally grabbed the world’s attention. Globally, humanity has gotten an opportunity to experience what immobility means and how crippling it can be.
Systems that oppress and discriminate against migrants from the Global South are multiplied through transnational and international processes. As a result, the resistance against these systems must also be transnational in nature; transnational cooperation and solidarity can destabilise pandemic nationalism. The shared experience of immobility during the pandemic should sensitise the world on the plight of migrants and the importance of undermining the racialisation of diseases in the global health system.
Going forward, states must take the lessons from the pandemic seriously and take steps to begin to protect migrants, as well as to adopt a health-focused migration policy and law. The pandemic has shown that in South-South migration, preventing the spread of infectious diseases should become central in migration-related initiatives. After the pandemic, states in the Global South will have to continue to promote health alongside open borders, embedding it into points of entry, tracking health indicators and building health expertise to enhance mobility and free movement in the Global South.