Some hope for migrants and refugees in the time of COVID-19?

Some hope for migrants and refugees in the time of COVID-19?

Jesse Machin

Government responses to COVID-19 have come under scrutiny since the pandemic began. Stories on issues ranging from the economic impact of national lockdowns to the effectiveness of social distancing measures dominate the media. Now that the movement of people across national borders has become a public health issue, above and beyond the long-standing ‘morality versus legality’ debate, the impact of COVID response strategies on the lives of migrants and refugees should also demand public attention.

To discuss this issue, a panel of five activists and academics recently came together in a virtual event hosted by the University of York’s Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre (IGDC) and Migration Network. Speaking in the contexts of Latin America, Europe, and the UK, the panellists made clear that problems with government attitudes towards migration go far deeper than the pandemic. Years of anti-immigrant rhetoric have made it easier to increasingly dehumanise and criminalise people on the move, reducing their freedoms and denying their basic rights. The current health crisis seems set to make an already broken system even worse. There is a danger that the emergency powers used to restrict immigration and trigger deportations will increase the use of restrictive measures even after COVID.

However, when asked what can and should be done to uphold the rights of migrants and refugees during this time, the panellists suggested that certain responses to COVID-19 could set the stage for successful long-term systemic change. We have begun to see examples of ‘positive’ government responses to the pandemic that give evidence to academics and migrants rights activists long-held claims that a different kind of immigration policy is both possible and preferable; not just for people on the move, but for society as a whole. Do these encouraging responses to COVID-19 offer some hope for permanent change?

For a long time, we have been told that the rights of migrants and the rights of citizens are at odds. It is no accident that an undesirable image of ‘the immigrant’ has been built up in the public imagination – governments who fail to take care of their people tend to look for scapegoats. As a result, the treatment of migrants and refugees in immigration systems across Europe and the West has been allowed to become increasingly inhumane. In response to these injustices, migrants’ rights activists, refugee-led advocacy groups, researchers, and academics have been agitating for alternatives to commonplace ‘hostile’ immigration measures that are intended to discourage people from crossing borders. This work has been an uphill climb; one that, in many ways, the pandemic has made even steeper.

Some governments have leaned into existing anti-immigration sentiment to present the idea that ‘migrants equal the virus’, using COVID-19 as a pretext to implement even harsher measures by applying existing laws out of context. In numerous countries, public health exception clauses have been used to block entry for vulnerable asylum seekers and trigger deportations that place lives at risk. In this way, COVID-19 has served to reinforce existing border regimes.

Throughout most of Europe, for instance, asylum claims processing was paused. Boats arriving on European shores were illegally pushed back out to sea. Denying the right to asylum violates the principle of non-refoulement, in direct contravention of international law. Closing borders may seem necessary in the context of a pandemic, but these restrictions should not apply to forced or irregular migrants and asylum seekers whose lives are particularly at risk. In these cases, the UN has determined that closing borders results in human rights violations.

A number of governments have also doubled down on their containment policies, confining irregular migrants to overcrowded and unsanitary detainment centres where the risk of an outbreak is dangerously high. The prevalence of COVID transmission among migrant and refugee communities is yet another failure of government but, as a large percentage of detention facilities and asylum hostels are run by private companies, it can be difficult to pin governments down on their responsibilities. UK asylum hostels have seen coronavirus outbreaks throughout the pandemic due to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and lack of PPE. Delays in the asylum claims system have meant that successful claims do not now result in transition out of hostels and into permanent accommodation, leaving families blocked into a stagnant system, in unfit living conditions. At the same time, the Home Office resumed evictions of asylum seekers with unsuccessful claims, acting against its own policy and the UK government’s public health advice during periods of lockdown.

Doubtless, this picture is bleak, but there are a few examples of government responses to the pandemic that offer more positive outcomes. The Commissioner for Human Rights has called for the release of immigration detainees during COVID-19; a measure that has been taken up in varying degrees across some European States, including Spain and the UK. These moves are being seen by activists as evidence that detention centres are unnecessary, prompting hope that detention could eventually be removed from the immigration policy landscape altogether.

This will not happen automatically, but with lobbying and public pressure these COVID response measures could become a first step in the right direction. John Grayson, independent researcher and adult educator with the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group (SYMAAG), stresses the importance of a politics of solidarity that views refugees themselves as agents of change. We should not forget that refugees and migrants are part of civil society and have voices of their own.

Hope might also arise in the form of growing recognition of the vital social contributions made by workers with refugee or migrant status. Many of those who are now recognised as ‘essential workers’ do not have the right to healthcare or financial support, despite working in industries that are generally described as exploitative and precarious, both in terms of the lack of financial security and risk of exposure to COVID.

Lack of access to basic services is not a new problem for people on the move. Irregular or undocumented migrants – particularly displaced women and girls – are frequently exposed to violence when trying to access health services, and often face the threat of deportation by doing so. But the need to address the spread of coronavirus has forced governments to reconsider how resources and services are distributed. For example, the government of Portugal has temporarily granted migrants and refugees the right to healthcare, understanding that withholding access to healthcare from certain communities has harmful knock-on effects for society as a whole.

Although none of these ‘positive’ responses go far enough on their own, they can nonetheless be seen as indicators that advocates’ demands for rights to healthcare, work, housing, and asylum are viable and necessary. It is important to remember that the injustices suffered by migrants and refugees go deeper than the pandemic, and regressive responses are likely to have long-term negative consequences. Yet, we also have the opportunity to use short-term positive responses to COVID as a springboard to facilitate long-term permanent change.

We should agitate to end the use of detention centres following the release of detainees, push for economic inclusion of refugees and migrants on the strength of growing recognition of the importance of these work economies in response to the pandemic, and demand a guaranteed right to healthcare with no risk of subsequent deportation on the basis that exclusion from these services harms everyone. Dr Pia Riggirozzi, Professor of Global Politics at the University of Southampton, also argues that we should demand governments recognise their legal and ethical obligations under international law by formalising and regularising more avenues of legitimate migration.

What will it take to bring such changes about? At the close of the University of York discussion panel chaired by Dr Sara de Jong, the panellists reminded us that systemic change will require movement from the general public, as well as academics, activists, and migrant- and refugee-led advocacy groups. Emily Arnold-Fernandez, President and CEO of Asylum Access, pointed out that political rhetoric is not enough – there must be a bottom-up drive for policy-led action supported by economic strategy. These changes will also require impactful social science research to understand the diversity of migration so that policies can be targeted to meet specific needs, argued Dr Adriana Velasquez, researcher for the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), Honduras. Finally, Niamh Ni Bhriain of the Transnational Institute (TNI) highlighted the need to pair critiques of current policy measures with challenges to underlying social and philosophical assumptions about the need for borders and immigration control.

In a time of such uncertainty about what life after COVID will look like, it is vital that we recognise the scale of possible damage that certain government responses could do to the rights struggles of people on the move. However, we can and should also use the positive responses to COVID to push for systemic change in the present, in the hope of securing more rights and a better quality of life for migrants and refugees throughout the post-COVID years to come.


Jesse Machin is a doctoral researcher at the University of York Department of Politics. Their research into the citizenship rights of stateless groups is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Cover image credit: Radek Homola. Deserted refugee camp, Calais, France. Sourced from