More than a year after the emergence of COVID-19, we look at five ways the pandemic has affected migrants around the world. 

1. Life on the frontline

The pandemic shows just how essential migrant workers are. Italy, for example, like many other European countries, relies on migrant labour to power its agricultural sector. Often undervalued and exploited before the pandemic, migrant workers are now recognised as ‘essential’ workers, keeping their adoptive countries fed during the global economic shutdown.

Migrants tend to do work that puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19: agriculture, production and other labour-intensive jobs that have to be done in person, with the heightened risk of exposure that carries. This risk is highest in the healthcare sector, which in many countries relies on migrants (migrants account for one in four doctors and one in six nurses in OECD countries). Here they work right on the frontline of the pandemic, risking their own lives to help other people to address the pandemic.

Things are just as difficult for those migrants who now find themselves out of work. Individual countries’ data highlights the precariousness of migrant employment during the pandemic: in the USA, employment levels for foreign workers fell by 21 percent between February and April 2020, compared to just 14 percent for native-born workers.

2. Global disruption

Global migration levels are at an historic low as many nations have closed their borders to halt the virus’ spread. Both the EU and West Africa’s ECOWAS, two of the world’s largest free-movement areas, have introduced stringent restrictions on travel. And across the world, up to 3 million migrants have been stranded wherever they happened to be when the pandemic began.

As a good indication of the pandemic’s impact on migration, the number of new visas and residence permits issued by OECD countries fell by 46 percent in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Countries in recovery risk forgetting the value of migrants, having adjusted to a world of remote working and learning, and having already redirected attention and resources away from migrant integration to other issues.

3. The hard road home

It is not just international migratory flows that have been disrupted. In the weeks and months after its national lockdown began, India witnessed its second largest mass movement of people  since its independence in 1947. By May 2020, 7.5 million people had left crowded urban centres for the relative space and safety of their rural homes. For the authorities, this has presented its own challenge, as they have struggled to house, feed and maintain sanitary conditions for the wandering masses. 

Countries have also had to respond to an influx of migrant workers returning from abroad: as well as managing internal migratory flows, by February 2021, India had repatriated more than 4.5 million stranded Indians from all over the globe; in the Philippines, over 230,000 overseas workers had been repatriated by October 2020; in April 2020, the Ukrainian government announced that 2 million Ukrainians had returned from abroad; and estimates suggest that 1 million people have and will return to Egypt. In these countries and 

elsewhere, the enormous influx of people presents a significant burden for the state and for local communities, as all of these people must be accommodated to quarantine, and then given access to housing, support and jobs so that they can reintegrate in the long-term.

4. The money dries up

It’s not just the flow of people. The international flow of money  has been significantly disrupted, too, with remittances from high-income nations to low- and middle-income nations falling by 7.2 percent in 2020, with a further decline of 7.5 percent expected in 2021. Foreign direct investment into low- and middle-income countries has also been significantly impacted by the pandemic (projected to decrease by nearly 32 percent in 2020), meaning that remittances will be increasingly relied upon even as they begin to decline.

On the micro-level, of course, this paints a gloomy picture for those who rely on the income of relatives working overseas to help support their livelihoods.

5. The prejudice pandemic

Migrants are facing a sharp rise in racist and xenophobic prejudice. As outsiders, they are an easy target for the fear and anxiety generated by the pandemic. This prejudice is both overt – verbal abuse, physical violence – and covert, expressed in differing levels of COVID-19 testing and treatment for migrants versus native residents, harsher mobility restrictions, and segregation in cramped, unhygienic housing away from the general population.

IOM has compiled an extensive report on the various attacks and indignities suffered by migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. It highlights the culpability not just of individuals reacting with fear and anger to the pandemic, but also of governments which may discriminate in their policy responses, and media which can also fuel xenophobic narratives. All of these sources of discrimination must be addressed to foster social cohesion as the world moves towards post-COVID recovery.

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