How is COVID-19 affecting migrants and refugees around the world? An invitation to a conversation

By Louisa Brain|March 30, 2020|Uncategorized|0 comments

By Professor Laura Hammond, Principal Investigator, LIDC-MLT

As I write this, it is estimated that ¼ of the world’s population is in some form of lockdown. Various forms of ‘social isolation’ are being practiced, from people being advised to work at home if they can, to restrictions on the sizes of social groupings and on the movement of people within and between regions as well as strict lockdowns and shelter in place orders. Children on every continent are staying home, their schools closed for the foreseeable future. The daily count of people testing positive for the virus, largely meaningless except as a bare minimum figure since so few people are being tested, is skyrocketing; the real numbers of infected people are assumed to be many times higher. Death rates in most countries are still increasing on a daily basis; and in countries where the worst seems to have passed, people are worrying about the possibility of a second outbreak in the coming months.

At the moment, global attention is on Europe and North America, where the case and death rates are reported to be the highest. But these are regions in which the apparent ability to track the virus and its impacts are greatest. Less attention is being paid to countries where testing capacity is virtually non-existent. And even less attention is being paid to those who fall between the cracks of government prioritisation: the homeless, migrants, refugees, the socially unprotected who lack access to affordable health care and for whom measures such as social distancing, working from home, and washing hands for 20 seconds several times a day are just not possible.

Almost as fast as the virus has spread around the globe, defying borders and differences of every kind – international, interpersonal, ethnic, religious, and economic – exclusionary tactics have sprung up. National borders have been closed. Nationals of countries where the virus has had the greatest impact are treated with suspicion, hostility and even outright violence whether or not they have had any exposure to the virus. As people withdraw into their homes to protect themselves and their families, their focus shifts further away from the imperatives of helping others – and especially those who are geographically and socially distant.

There are of course numerous exceptions to this trend. Neighbours helping neighbours, volunteers supporting health workers with childcare and food deliveries so they can focus on their jobs, people donating to food pantries. But the dominant shift is towards less, not more, cooperation.

As a recent blog by a team from the Institute of Development Studies and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine points out, ‘COVID-19 will reveal inequalities in health resources, particularly in countries without universal access to health care. The precarities engendered by the deepening social inequalities of the neoliberal economic order are likely to intensify the suffering that an outbreak brings.’ Truly, the question of who is the most vulnerable to this pandemic is one about who suffers the most from inequalities in their community, their country, and in the globe.

In contexts of migration and displacement, where there has recently been a commitment to supporting migrants and refugees through a ‘whole of society’ approach, COVID-19 provides a major challenge. Will countries consider the needs of people on the move together with those of more settled populations? Will non-citizens be treated the same as citizens? Will everyone have access to the same level of health care? And what more needs to be done to help the hard-to-reach people within the population?

We in the LIDC Migration Leadership Team have been thinking a lot in recent weeks about the millions of migrants, displaced persons, refugees, stateless people, and others living in precarity. We do not hear their stories much in the news (a major exception being this blog started by UNHCR). We are concerned that they may be overlooked by governments and host communities in the scramble to respond to the pandemic, or even worse, that they may be scapegoated and their vulnerability may be deepened as a result of baseless fears of the Other.

We are planning to use this blog space to invite people to contribute short pieces – in whatever form they like: short essays, letters, photos, poems – to help convey how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting migrants and other marginalised populations. We are particularly interested in what life is like for you or for migrants near you who are living with the threat of COVID-19? What personal stories, worries, frustrations, celebrations of humanity would you like to share with us? How are people coping and what are the central challenges they are facing related to this pandemic?

We hope that people will join us in helping to bring attention to those who so far are not being noticed, so that hopefully they will not be forgotten but instead received the support they need.

Please send any contributions to: ht27@soas.ac.uk

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