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Sunday, March 3, 2024

International Migrants Alliance intensifies demands for migrants, refugees, and displaced peoples amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Crises often highlight and worsen pre-existing social and economic problems. This statement has been repeated by many experts, commentators and observers of late, in the wake of the health and economic crises triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The situation of the migrants, refugees, immigrants and displaced people of the world is no exception to this truism.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, migrants were given low wages and benefits and were denied regular status and union rights even as they performed jobs that were often dirty, dangerous and demanding. Aside from facing job insecurity, they were also frequently excluded from social protection.

At the same time, they always faced racism and xenophobia in the places where they work and reside. Some politicians and various ultranationalist groups depict them as stealing jobs and services that supposedly rightfully belong to natives of receiving countries. They were blamed for the joblessness and privatization of social services that are the effects of neoliberal policies implemented by the same elites that scapegoat them.

Migrants are forced to endure a form of modern-day slavery and being treated as commodities within the framework of forced migration from their countries of origin. They were forced to leave their countries because of widespread unemployment, lack of social services, and therefore poverty and hunger, as well as various forms of state violence.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the health and economic crises that it has worsened have exacerbated the plight of the migrants of the world. On the one hand, many migrant workers saw themselves suddenly thrust into the medical and economic frontline, facing grave risks to their health and lives.

On the other hand, many were laid off from work, or are projected to lose their jobs. The International Labor Organization projected in late April that almost half of the world’s workforce, migrants included, face the risk of losing their livelihood [1]. Still many other migrants faced wage cuts through various schemes. These migrants now lack the income to send to their hungry families in their home countries, even as they struggle to survive in receiving countries.

As a result, remittances are projected to drop by 20 percent, the highest in recent history. Even the World Bank recognizes that migrant workers “tend to be more vulnerable to loss of employment and wages during an economic crisis in a host country [2].”

The pandemic has also worsened the racism and xenophobia directed at migrants, especially those of Asian origin and Afro-descendants in non-Asian countries. Other migrants also suffer as the crises have brought about worse discrimination in the areas of jobs, wages and services.

It is with this context in mind that we — as migrants, refugees, immigrants and displaced people of the world, and their advocates — are putting forward the following demands based on our situation during the Covid-19 pandemic:

Our countries must move away from remittance-dependent economies and
pursue an independent, people-centered and sustainable development path.
Provide government assistance to migrants returning to home countries.

Because of the border restrictions that were imposed in order to contain the pandemic, many migrant workers are unable to travel and are in fact trying to return home. From East Africans crossing the Gulf of Aden to work in the Gulf States to seasonal migrant workers from Eastern Europe working in Western European farms; from Venezuelans working in Colombia and in other South American countries to Afghans going to Iran and Pakistan; from Haitians going to the Dominican Republic and other Latino American countries to Mesoamerican peoples going to the USA– the numbers have been decreasing [3].

Many countries have suspended labor migration. Many analysts and observers predict that as the pandemic rages on, and even after it, many countries will enforce stricter restrictions in their borders, especially fuelled by the rise of ultra-nationalist sentiments.

Because of layoffs, wage cuts and even leaves without pay, many migrants are unable to send remittances to their families at home.

These phenomena spawned by the Covid-19 pandemic further show that countries cannot rely on labor migration and dollar remittances to pursue genuine and sustainable development. Countries should move away from economies dependent on migrant labor and seek and develop domestic sources of development.

With their contracts ending or their jobs gone, many migrant workers have decided to go back home. They should be provided by their governments with various forms of assistance.

One form of assistance is the travel, usually flight, home. While many of the top labor-exporting countries have helped their migrant workers in the GCC countries to go home, for example, other countries should follow suit as many workers remain stranded in other continents [4].

Migrants returning from abroad need to be housed in quarantine facilities where they can be healthy, clean and carry out physical distancing. This is a big task for governments, and the number of returning migrants have overwhelmed quarantine capacity in many countries [5].

In countries of the Global South, internal migrants composed of people from the countryside who go to the cities to work, should also receive similar forms of assistance. India’s 23 million internal migrants were not given transportation assistance in going home and experienced quarantine congestion [6].

The Covid-19 pandemic itself, the crises and problems that it is giving rise to, and the possibility that similar pandemics will break out in the future are providing lessons to sending countries, mostly from the Global South, about the development path that they should take.

Deforestation, corporate farming and other economic activities that destroy forests and the environment heighten the chances that pathogens like the Coronavirus will be spilling over more frequently from animals to humans. This means operations of big corporations, usually from advanced capitalist countries, in these areas should be reduced, if not eliminated completely.

The closing of borders also renders “just in time” production and value chains and supply chains, which link sites in various countries, as well as international trade, problematic. Countries will need to create more essential goods within their borders.

As advanced capitalist countries only attend to their domestic needs and are unable to provide financing aid to other countries for the enormous efforts needed to combat and survive the pandemic, countries from the Global South must be capable of generating employment and finances from within their territories and using their own resources.

Countries should do away with foreign control and domination of their economies. The needs of the people should come first before the needs of the international market. Countries’ human and natural resources should be utilized for the own people’s benefit.

Improve migrants’ living and working conditions.
Uphold workplace safety and migrants’ rights to decent and worthy work.

In receiving countries, many migrants are housed in cramped quarters where physical distancing is close to impossible. Migrants, including those with pre-existing better conditions, share a small room with six to twelve others in these labor camps where sanitary conditions are often poor. This is most pronounced in GCC countries, some of the top destinations of migrant workers [7].

Many migrants remain in these living quarters even as governments and big business gear up to re-start their economies under the so-called “new normal,” which increases the risk that the Coronavirus will be brought home to these uncomfortably small spaces.

The experience of Singapore is instructive: the city-state had the virus under control until a second wave struck in early May. The epicenter: the 43 large but cramped dormitories where the blue-collar workers – those in lower hierarchy within companies, auxiliaries and manual operators – among the country’s 1.7 million migrants reside [8]. Migrants simply cannot be excluded or overlooked in countries’ efforts to keep themselves safe from Covid-19. Their living spaces should be improved in ways that uphold physical distancing and sanitation.

Workplace safety is most crucial as most countries ease restrictions to people’s movements and seek to re-start their economies.

There have been many cases where workplaces served as transmission areas for the Coronavirus, and experts warn that workplaces could cause outbreaks in the future [9].

There is a need for mass testing, contact-tracing, constant health monitoring, sanitation, and emergency and other measures in the workplace.

Workers, including migrants, should be actively involved in ensuring workplace health and safety and could form such committees for this purpose.

The pandemic and its attendant crises make the upholding of migrants’ rights to decent and worthy work of paramount importance: the right to living, not starvation wages; to job security, not labor flexibilization; to union rights, not threats of retrenchment, retaliation, and blackmail to freeze or reduce wages, among others.

These also make the implementation of numerous international legal instruments which have enshrined the rights of migrant workers — from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C189) — more necessary and urgent.

The present situation also makes it more urgent for both sending and receiving countries to sign protocols and agreements that seek to uphold migrants’ rights.

Despite these legal instruments, however, migrant rights are still not upheld because of the particular purpose in capitalism system of migrant labor: reduce production cost and improve the quality of life of citizens in receiving countries, and use migrants’ earnings and remittances for consumption in sending countries.

Still, migrants of the world raise the banner of their rights as these are everywhere under attack. Migrant workers have always been the target of the worst forms of workplace, physical and sexual abuse, and many return home to their countries in coffins as a result.

Particular attention should be given to the rights of domestic workers, who comprise a significant section of the population of migrants the world over. As families in receiving countries stay at home longer, the work of migrant domestic workers has increased, but their rights must be respected both by households and the governments of receiving countries.

Stop detaining migrants and expelling refugees, demilitarize borders,
and allow entry of stranded migrants.

Many governments have responded to the pandemic by closing borders and enforcing stricter immigration rules. The enemy, however, is the virus, not the migrants of the world, and governments should uphold migrants’ rights even during the pandemic. Stricter measures against migrants are unjust and may even contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

Migrants in camps along the borders of the US and Europe are vulnerable to the disease. There were calls for example to evacuate the 42,000 asylum-seekers who are residing in camps in five islands of Greece which lack water and even soap supply [10].

Many Guatemalan deportees from the US were discovered to be sick with Covid-19, and were given only a temperature check and “visual screening.” Meanwhile, 2,500 US-bound migrants, mostly Haitians, are cramped in government migration centers in Panama, as the country’s border with Costa Rica is closed [11].

In early May, thousands of refugees, including hundreds of Rohingyas from Myanmar, were unable to disembark from boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea because of border restrictions implemented by Southeast Asian governments [12]. Similarly, in the case of Latin America, Venezuelan migrants trying to return to Venezuela were repressed with tear gas by the Colombian government.

Migrants in immigration detention centers have been released in several European countries including Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Still, the Europe Commission for Human Rights had to call on other countries to follow suit [13].

There is a need for countries, especially receiving countries, to stop detaining migrants and expelling refugees, demilitarize their borders and allow the transit and entry of migrants who have become stranded by the border closures.

End criminalization and sanctions on activists and defenders of human rights, migrants and refugees’ rights. Stop the deportation of students whose visa has been affected by COVID-19, and do not deny visa on the basis of infection. Comprehensive reform that is just and humane for all undocumented migrants and refugee should be established.

Include migrants in governments’ services, protection and economic relief programs. Combat stigmatization, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiments, especially violence and attacks stemming from these.

Health systems and essential services in countries worst hit by the pandemic and in most advanced countries rely on migrant workers. Almost 30 percent of the workforce in highly affected sectors in OECD countries is foreign-born [14].

At least 11 out of the 15 countries most affected by the pandemic — the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland and Chile– depend on migrant workers in their healthcare systems [15]. Migrants also form 12 percent of the 1.9 million workforce of the UK health system and 17 percent of the 12.4 million workforce of the US health system [16].

Numerous migrants have acquired the disease and many have died while fighting at the medical frontlines. The well-deserved praises being heaped on frontliners in fighting the pandemic should translate to actual protection for them, and medical assistance in case of sickness, and financial help in case of death.

Other measures will be timely and welcome as well. For migrant healthcare workers, the UK government removed a controversial visa surcharge and allowed families of healthcare workers who died because of the Covid-19 to remain in the country [17]. While in Chile, the authorities do not yet accept the incorporation of foreign doctors who have not given the National Examination of Medical Knowledge (Eunacom) as a requirement to practice medicine in the country. This was despite the fact that this year, because of the health contingency, this examination was effectively overturned. However, this did not involve granting other modalities for the nearly 3,000 registered foreigners to strengthen national medical personnel [18].

While many migrants face jobs and income loss, many are excluded from government measures that provide relief to citizens of receiving countries. This is discriminatory and endangers the fight against the pandemic, as no one is safe unless everyone is safe, including migrants. Migrants should be included in economic relief assistance provided by governments.

In the US, for example, many immigrants — especially the unauthorized and their relatives, even if already US citizens and legal permanent residents — were not included in the Donald Trump administration’s aid, relief, and economic security package. This compounds the lack of health coverage for many migrants in the country [19].

Japan, in contrast, provided financial assistance not only to citizens, but to people who have resided in the country for at least three months and have registered as residents [20]. The United Arab Emirates also provided meals to low-income families and individuals, including migrant workers [21].

Including migrants in government relief programs should mean stopping the arrest, detention and deportation of undocumented migrants. It should mean providing general amnesty to, and implementing the regularization of, migrants without conditions to enable access to services, protection and aid.

While some governments of sending countries have also provided financial assistance to migrant workers in receiving countries, such assistance is often insufficient to meet even the immediate needs of migrants who suffer from joblessness or wage cuts. This is true of the financial assistance given by top labor exporters India, Pakistan and the Philippines to their migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries [22].

The experience of many countries has shown that those with robust public healthcare systems, not those with privatized and for-profit ones, are in a better position to fight Covid-19. The pandemic shows us that public healthcare systems should be boosted immediately.

Migrants, however, face many challenges in accessing healthcare: loss of jobs and income, insecurity in healthcare, short-term visas, and issues caused by their legal status. Those with irregular status think twice before approaching a medical facility even if they are already experiencing symptoms.

Recognizing undocumented migrants’ non-inclusion in countries’ healthcare systems, experts from the World Health Organization said, “Refugees and migrants must be included in national public health systems, with no risk of financial or legal consequences for them [T]here can be no public health without refugee and migrant health [23].”

Many politicians and groups in advanced capitalist countries have taken advantage of the Coronavirus’ eruption to promote their white supremacist and ultranationalist agenda.

Most notorious among these are Donald Trump, who called the virus “Chinese virus,” and his State Secretary Mike Pompeo, who called it the “Wuhan virus.” Political parties of the right-wing in the UK, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, Germany and Brazil have spewed similar rhetoric.

Such statements have fuelled attacks against people of Asian descent in the said countries and even in Australia and Russia. Discrimination against Asians was also reported in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, even as discrimination against the Chinese was also reported in South Korea, Japan and Indonesia [24].

These governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to deepen their racist policies. Trump has implemented his “Stay in Mexico” policy supposedly to prevent the spread of the virus, reducing the approval of asylum applications from Latin American countries from 20 percent to 1 percent and deporting even children, in violation of previous laws and regulations [25].

Political and economic elites, especially in the Global North, have sought to hide the structural reasons that lie in capitalism and neoliberal economic policies for widespread joblessness and poverty by blaming migrants. Now, they are trying to hide the pandemic’s root causes in capitalism’s wanton destruction of the environment. They must be opposed.

For many years, overseas migrant workers’ dollar remittances served as the lifeline of sending countries’ economies. Now, migrants, suffering from job and income loss, need the help of their governments in order to survive — and governments should provide such help.

Families of migrant workers, often seen as well off in their communities, should not be excluded from financial assistance given by their governments. Governments should also suspend new state exactions imposed on migrant workers, and even reduce those already existing.

In the Philippines, not only are families of migrant workers facing exclusion from the government’s financial assistance, but the government has recently approved a new state exaction that is exorbitant and onerous for migrants and their families [26].

Governments should also extend livelihood assistance to returning migrants, to enable the latter to start their lives anew in their home countries.

Junk the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD), change the migration-for-development framework of the Global Compact for Safe,
Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM).

The closing of borders and massive layoffs caused by the pandemic give credence to the analysis that migration cannot be a strategy for long-term and genuine development for sending countries.

While the pandemic is hurting economies everywhere, its impact is most severe for sending countries, mostly from the Global South, who are also forced to contend with returning migrant workers, drastic increases in unemployment, and reduction in remittances and dollar reserves. This is the latest proof that the migration-for-development strategy is an utter failure.

Migration as a strategy for development lies at the essence of the GFMD. It is also fundamental to the GCM, even as the latter reflects the demands which migrants have fought for over the decades.

The said strategy comes from the perspective of elites and governments of both sending and receiving countries. It asks migrants and people of sending countries to embrace forced migration as a means of helping their countries achieve development. It seeks merely to make forced labor, inhumane at its core, a little more humane. Even in seeking to achieve this objective, however, it faces serious limitations: the GFMD and the GCM, for example, do not have mechanisms to make governments accountable for their crimes against migrants.

Pro-migrant forums and compacts must embrace a human rights-based approach, which sees the whole issue of migration from the perspective of the most exploited and oppressed in this phenomenon — the migrant workers themselves. Such an approach concretizes development at the level of people and puts into question the entire system of forced migration as violative of the rights of migrants and the people of sending countries.

Pro-migrant forums and compacts must also address the root causes of forced migration that lie in sending countries: underdevelopment, economic control by foreign powers and a handful of elites, agrarian backwardness, and lack of industries. It is only by addressing these through fundamental social changes can we envision a world without forced migration: where no family is torn apart by the need to send breadwinners abroad.

These demands cover the immediate and long-term needs of the migrants of the world in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In order to advance these demands, we are calling on:

Migrants, refugees, immigrants, displaced people and their advocates to come together and collectively speak out and fight for these demands.
Existing migrant communities and organizations and labor movements to support migrants in seeking these demands’ realization.
Governments, especially those in the Global North, their national agencies and international groupings to heed these demands which are all in consonance with existing declarations, conventions and agreements on migrants’ rights.
The United Nations to release statements on the plight and demands of the migrants of the world — similar to its statements on ceasefire, food security, health care and other areas related to the pandemic. While responding to the more immediate among these demands, the UN should move away from seeing migration as a strategy for achieving development. ###

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