During the springtime lockdowns in Europe, a poem-turned-video ‘you clap for me now’, went viral. Its message was to protect the migrants in the EU, who work to keep home-office populations safe, but who often face discrimination and stigmatization.
Between 13% and a third of essential workers are migrants.
Many are left behind in terms of access to unemployment benefits and spiral into hunger, poverty, isolation, and illness. Out of 250,000 undocumented migrants in Switzerland, 90,000 have not accessed healthcare during the pandemic, for fear of being detected, denounced and deported.
Migrants are at a ‘triple loss’ by the pandemic—not only are their jobs more precarious, their journeys more perilous, but they also face twice the risk of contracting the virus than non-migrant populations.
At the peak of the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015/16, some EU Member States raised the resettlement conflict to the UN in the hopes that sharing responsibility for large population movements would be resolved more evenly at the global level. This led to the formation of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). The GCM figures as the first UN-led global instrument entirely devoted to international migration, which, even if not legally binding, restates the existing international legal obligations on migration and provides a benchmark of where the protection of migrants’ human rights currently stands at.
The UN Agenda 2030, is a non-binding UN instrument, adopted in 2015, which commits states to achieving 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Though the Agenda does not have a particular focus on migration, it does address issues that are vital to migrant rights such inequality, labor and education, calling for ‘well-managed migration policies’ that ‘facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility’. Other goals include eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality as well as health, and well being.
In 2020, COVID-19 was a big test for these UN initiatives. But have they proven useful in the response to the global pandemic especially in protecting migrants?
Why does the GCM matter?
Surprisingly little can be found in the GCM’s 23 objectives about mitigating the effects of a public health emergency, including COVID-19 on migrants. Data about how COVID-19 affects the migration lifecycle is still scant. The GCM’s objectives are still far from being achieved, especially when it comes to access to basic services, empowering migrants or eliminating discrimination. In its current form, the GCM is more set to strengthen the global governance of migration under the auspices of the International Organisation for Migration rather than allow a deviation from it.
States like Italy, Portugal and Spain, have been experimenting with regularising undocumented migrant populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is no international framework to monitor and review these one-off programs.
They remain subject to potential arbitrariness, fraud by employers or selectiveness.
For instance, in Italy protection only included undocumented migrants who work in the frontlines, leaving out those working in construction or logistics. More global oversight can help avoid such arbitrary or short sighted decisions and to make sure the rights of migrants are protected and health prevention during the pandemic is insured.
Who’s afraid of regularising migrants during a pandemic?
In addition to Italy, Portugal also regularised the status of undocumented migrants who were carrying out frontline functions, including harvesting, healthcare and domestic work. Likewise, Spain considers normalising its roughly 430,000 undocumented migrants. It is no coincidence that the pandemic prompted the city councils of Geneva and Zurich to finally implement a city card for the undocumented, allowing them to seek emergency health care and allowing their children to access schools.
Clearly, to regularise status, means improving access of migrants to health, education, food, and shelter. Yet, the EU return directive only justifies case-by-case authorisations of stay for ‘compassionate, humanitarian or other reasons.’