The novel coronavirus spread at dramatic rates since its discovery in Wuhan, China in late 2019. Some countries including China, Vietnam, New Zealand and Norway have successfully stopped the spread with an aggressive response; other countries, however, have been unwilling or unable to make similar progress. Worldwide confirmed cases currently top 20 million. While the virus is certainly transforming many aspects of life, the impact of COVID-19 on migration has become especially significant.
How COVID-19 Affects Refugees
About 80 million people have experienced forcible displacement from their home countries throughout the world. Additionally, 72 million of those asylum seekers are currently living in developing countries that lack the resources to aggressively fight a pandemic like COVID-19.
The International Rescue Committee estimates that up to 1 billion cases of COVID-19 could hit fragile countries housing the world’s refugees, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. Yemen has struggled with a major humanitarian crisis since its civil war escalated in 2015. Today an estimated 24 million people within the country are in need of assistance, with half of those individuals being children.
In most refugee camps, social distancing is impossible. One can find a prominent example of this difficulty in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This camp crams more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees into a very small, dense area. These refugees have severely limited access to health care. The lack of clean water for handwashing could prove disastrous when attempting to combat COVID-19. In addition, malnutrition and poor sanitation make refugee camps like Cox’s Bazar a potential hotbed for viral transmission. Medical depots at the camp only have 300 beds available and will be overrun if an outbreak emerges. These makeshift hospitals lack the lifesaving respirators needed for those in critical condition. In addition, medical workers must deal with COVID-19 on top of other preexisting health crises. Diseases like cholera, malaria and tuberculosis remain a constant issue.
The impact of COVID-19 on migration is evident in the record low numbers of refugee resettlement. For the time being, the United Nations has suspended relocation. People living in these unsuitable conditions are in dire need of help. Rather than taking in these refugees, most countries have chosen to lock down their borders without exception.
The Fate of Migrant Workers
Many industries in developed and undeveloped countries alike rely on a steady stream of foreign laborers. In the age of COVID-19, there is a premium on skilled workers in key industries like healthcare. As such, some countries have expedited the migration process for doctors, nurses and scientists.
Other job types have not experienced such demand. In countries like the United Arab Emirates, migrant workers are unemployed or have unpaid wages as a result of the pandemic. These men and women have no income to send back to their families and home villages, and many face a difficult decision: return home to their families where work is even rarer or scramble to find another job under their visa before being deported.
An Opportunity for Change
The long-term impact of COVID-19 on migration remains unclear. Asylum seekers in refugee camps will likely be the last on the priority list when vaccines become available, thus delaying their relocation even further. Until refugees obtain similar health protections to citizens, coronavirus will never fully resolve.
As lockdowns gradually end, the countries hit hardest by COVID-19 will face the immense task of rebuilding their economies. As part of this process, there will likely be a focus on hiring citizens over migrant workers. Governments may choose to distribute funds to domestic industries and put foreign aid on the back burner.
There is, however, a chance to reimagine human mobility. Portugal, Ireland and Qatar moved to ensure everyone has access to health care, regardless of their citizenship status. Several European Union countries have emptied their immigration detention centers to avoid outbreaks. Italy’s new amnesty law has granted 200,000 work permits to migrant workers.
Migrant workers are a major contributor to the global GDP, performing jobs across skill levels. Foreign labor is vital to successful economies, and a more fluid entry system would help expedite the road back. It is finally in the self-interest of governments worldwide to provide an easier path for these workers and mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 on migration.
– Matthew Beach