COVID-19 Could Bring About a Migration Crisis. Here’s How We Can Avoid It

Closing national borders is a natural response to the coronavirus pandemic, and governments stand on firm legal ground when they do so. But the virus was never going to be stopped at national frontiers, and now containment policies pose another menace: a new migration crisis.

Recent viral epidemics – SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016, and HIV – illustrate that travel restrictions failed to control the spread of the pathogen. The World Health Organization has acknowledged that travel bans from affected areas rarely contain deadly viruses.

Instead, such restrictions translate fear into national-security policy and ramp up anti-migrant sentiments. They lead to extreme nationalism and insularity, which some world leaders have sought to stoke and exploit. In March, for example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in an interview with Kossuth Rádió, “Our experience is that primarily foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners.”

This is a common refrain. Scapegoating foreigners for all “evils,” including public health concerns, is nothing new. In the 1830s, the British and Americans dubbed cholera an “Irish disease.” This is similar to Donald Trump’s description of COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus.”

It is increasingly evident that COVID-19 will cause a global recession that will shrink most economies. And it is equally evident that the consequences for employment, income, and equality will disproportionately affect migrant workers.

Migrants create more economic value than many seem to think. They take the most difficult and dangerous jobs – including jobs that place them on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. A Migration Policy Institute study published in March found that 17% of the 156 million civilian workers combating the coronavirus virus are “foreign born.” In the US, 29% of physicians, 38% of home health workers, 23% of retail-store pharmacists, 22% of scientific researchers, and 34% of those providing vital transportation were born in another country. Britain’s National Health Service would crash instantly without foreign-born doctors, nurses, and other medical staff.

Despite this, migrant communities are most vulnerable to the economic fallout of the pandemic. Spain, Italy, and the UK have closed detention centers without addressing the health-care concerns of the needy people who were held there. Worse yet, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which host about 25 million workers, have “closed off” some localities where migrant workers were previously allowed. By forcing more migrants into already-crowded detention centers, the authorities are creating new COVID-19 hotspots.

In a pandemic, people often cross borders for health services. In 2008-09, faced with cholera, Zimbabweans left home to seek medical services abroad. Three years later, the Ebola outbreak forced Ugandans to cross borders for help.

A holistic, nuanced approach that acknowledges migrants’ economic contributions is optimal. In 2005, the World Health Organization adopted the International Health Regulations. These guidelines emphasized controlling the spread of disease, while minimizing the adverse effects of travel and trade restrictions. To avoid a migration crisis, countries must integrate migrants into the national pandemic strategy, not only as affected people, but also as individuals who can fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Bangladesh is a case in point. It is currently hosting 1.1 million Rohingya who were forcibly displaced from Myanmar. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi government and the humanitarian community established the Annual Joint Response Plan to protect the Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

The plan takes a “whole of society” approach that includes both the Rohingyas and local people from neighboring villages. Health facilities were set up in the vicinity of the camp, and the Bangladeshi government has also suspended import taxes for supplies and equipment to fight COVID-19.

The pandemic is an unprecedented emergency that demands such exceptional responses. A government must consider the vulnerabilities of refugees and migrants, in addition to legitimate public concerns, balancing national interests and humanitarian responsibilities. It’s a challenging task for any government, especially when the economy is shrinking, and mastering it requires innovative forms of international collaboration.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted a new framework for sustainable development based on the principle that no one should be left behind. The 2030 agenda promised human rights for all and explicitly included refugees among “all nations and peoples and all segments of society.” The same principle must be upheld, without distinction or discrimination, during this critical time for our civilization.

The strategy to defeat COVID-19 must emphasize inclusiveness, courage, and collaboration. Countries must stand together, work together, and fight together to avoid spurring a migration crisis while mitigating the challenges they face. Unity is the only way forward.

Published: 17 April 2020

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