Fear, desperation, anger and stress: The emotions of undocumented migrants during COVID-19 pandemic

Fear, desperation, anger and stress: The emotions of undocumented migrants during COVID-19 pandemic

Dogus Simsek

“We might not die due to the virus, but we might lose our lives from hunger, poverty, lack of access to medicines and hostile environment. Most of us feel the fear, desperation, stress, anger and anxiety.”

An undocumented migrant in Istanbul explains the feelings of undocumented migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic with these words. Emotions are a part of everyday life, however, in the case of undocumented migrants, emotions are often complex, mixed and transnational. Undocumented migrants are in situations of drastic vulnerability. They do not have legal rights to reside in the settlement country, or have access to health care, labour markets and education, and are in danger of becoming scapegoats.

Being undocumented during the pandemic in Europe means being left behind and being among the least protected. Health care is inaccessible to undocumented migrants in most parts of Europe and also in other parts of the world. The living conditions of undocumented migrants do not allow them to follow the World Health Organisation’s health advice, including basic hygiene measures and self-isolation. They are unable to observe the two-metre and other social distancing guidance relating to workplaces and homes as many of them live in close contact and in over-crowded accommodation.

Furthermore, the socio-economic effects of the pandemic are also visible in the everyday lives of undocumented migrants as many of them work in an informal economy without social security, faced with exploitation around the lack of safe working conditions. They are overworked and underpaid, and are more likely to be affected by income loss and reduction of employment. As they are excluded from states’ financial support, losing their source of income put them in a more vulnerable position.

On the one hand, the ones who continue to go to work are faced with a risk of being infected. On the other hand, when they cannot continue to work due to the closure of workplaces or losing their jobs, they rely on NGOs and local associations to provide assistance. However, these organisations are also facing difficulties in providing services during the pandemic, so they more likely to be faced with extreme poverty. It is also more likely that undocumented migrants face everyday and institutional racism even more now than before the pandemic.

These are some of the main struggles and dilemmas that undocumented migrants have been experiencing stronger during the pandemic. I am interested in the emotions of undocumented migrants during the pandemic. What do they feel about these experiences? How does it feel to be invisible especially during the pandemic? What do they fear more – being infected, losing their jobs or being deported? How does it feel to be far away from loved ones during the pandemic?

There is a growing body of research on emotional dimensions of human mobility highlighting that emotions are central aspects of international migration (see, Boccagni and Baldassar, 2015; Svašek, 2010; Wise and Velayutham, 2017). This research sets out the role of structural constraints, such as immigration policies, socio-economic inequalities on the emotions of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, the influence of interactions with the members of the receiving society on their emotions, the feelings about being away from the loved ones and so on. In normal times, these mainly include anger, anxiety, fear, guilt, alongside happiness and hope.

The emotional processes of migrants are more complex than non-migrants due to living across the borders of the country of origin and the country of settlement and encountering emotions that are, on the one hand, shaped by memories related to the country of origin and, on the other hand, by direct interaction with the members of the receiving society and institutions. Migrants can feel hopeful and guilty or happy and anxious at the same time as when they feel guilty due to leaving the loved ones behind, they at the same time feel happy to be able to escape from the conflict in their countries of origin.

I have recently contacted undocumented migrants I know in London and Istanbul to find out how is their health, whether they are in a safe place, how they cope with uncertainty and whether they are able to receive support from local organisations. The undocumented migrants I have contacted both in the UK and Turkey started talking about their emotions during the pandemic that is linked with their migratory status. For example, when I asked, ‘how you are’, an undocumented migrant who lives in London said that “I am more scared… more hopeless… more desperate than before. During this process, I think about what I would do if I will be deported. Then, I think about my family back in my country of origin and worried about their safety. I also remember that I do not have a job anymore and do not know how to survive and what my family will do because I will not be able to send them money.” The emotional experiences related to the pandemic has transnational dimensions as well. The undocumented migrants also feel worried for their families who are in need of financial support the countries of origin. Their sense of vulnerability crosses the borders of nation-states.

Another undocumented migrant living in London I have been in touch with recently said that “I am not scared of being in contact the virus; I am scared of dying from hunger due to losing my job and not being able to receive support from charities during the pandemic. This makes me feel desperate, more worried about my life and hopeless.” According to a report published in November 2019 by the Pew Research Center, an estimated 800,000 to 1.2 million undocumented migrants lived in the UK in 2017. They are not allowed to work formally as many of them work in informal economy. Many of them supported by charities who provide food parcels, clothing and supermarket vouchers.

However, charities are not able to provide support during the pandemic. The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), a non-governmental organisation that aims to promote respect for the human rights of undocumented migrants within Europe, published a statement on COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on undocumented migrants. The PICUM members call on authorities to provide emergency support, address gaps in public health systems, homelessness and food insecurity, end immigration detention, suspend deportations and prevent further irregularity. However, mental health support is also crucial for undocumented migrants especially during the pandemic.

As stated by an undocumented migrant living in Istanbul, facing mental health problems due to feeling desperation, anxiety and fear during the pandemic are common emotions not only among undocumented migrants but also among their families. Another undocumented migrant in Istanbul said the following: “I am very stressed out because I lost my job due to coronavirus. I cannot send money to my parents who look after my children in Ghana. My parents also feel anxious due to the fact that I cannot send them money. I do not know how I will survive; how they will survive. These are the challenges I am facing at the moment not the virus itself. When I realise that I am not able to provide the needs of my children back home, I feel stressful, anxious, sad and angry. I have had these feelings from time to time, but I knew how to cope with it. Now, realising that not being able to support my children for a long time creates extra stress on me and I have panic symptoms and no way out of this feeling.”

An undocumented migrant, who lives in Istanbul, compares her feelings before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, “I have been living in Istanbul for 5 years without legal rights to reside in Turkey. Living in another country without official permission consists of various emotions. I always fear of being caught and then deported. I also feel anxious because of uncertainty. I sometimes feel hopeful when I believe in myself and think of my achievements. From time to time I feel happy when I look at the photos of my kids. These are the emotions I experience every single day depending on the time of the day. In the evenings, I am happy because it is the time of the day I look at the photos of my kids. During the pandemic, I do not feel hopeful and happy anymore even during the evenings when I look at the photos of my kids, because I know that for a long time I cannot send them money, make them happy. I am not feeling hopeful either because I do not know if I can achieve anything or my life will be better. How I can feel hopeful and happy when I lost my job and do not have any other income; when I do not know if I will be able to pay my rent, buy food; and more importantly, when I am not able to support my kids, when my kids are not happy. I am more worried for my kids than being infected.”

The emotions of undocumented migrants during the pandemic changed, some are doubled, and have transnational dimensions as these feelings are also shared by their families back in the countries of origin who are also affected by the pandemic.

Boccagni, P., & Baldassar, L. (2015). Emotions on the move: Mapping the emergent field of emotion and migration. Emotion, Space and Society16, 73-80.
Svašek, M. (2010). On the Move: Emotions and Human Mobility, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36:6, 865-880.
Wise, A. & Velayutham, S. (2017) Transnational Affect and Emotion in Migration Research, International Journal of Sociology, 47:2, 116-130.


Dogus Simsek is a Teaching Fellow in Political Sociology in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. Twitter: @dogussimsek