As the global health crisis continues to persist in the many countries around the world, this week’s Policy Shift news will look at institutional responses at the international, regional and local levels on the impact of Covid-19 toward immigrant and refugee populations.
Source: John Englart (Takver)/Flickr CC-by-SA
At the international level, United Nation agencies, including the UNHCR, the WHO and the IOM are working towards dedicated assistance and information sharing for refugee populations around the world. The UNHCR’s approach has focused on providing health and hygiene equipment, medical care and basic services, like access to water, while also promoting better communication and coordination among different networks, in particular local community partners. To take a closer look at their specific actions in different countries, or to support their work, more information is available here. In addition, the WHO has emphasized the need for providing less crowded conditions, access to health care, and employment assistance for refugees and migrants who are particularly vulnerable to the precarious conditions created by the pandemic. The WHO is also publishing a series of articles in The Lancet, with the most recent focused on “a series of WHO documents to support health authorities in the European Region in including refugees and migrants in COVID-19 related operations through a number of recommendations.”
At the European level, an article in Times magazine highlights the important role that refugees with medical and healthcare backgrounds are contributing in countries like Greece. However, having their professional qualifications officially recognized has represented a key difficulty for many refugees and asylum seekers, even prior to the current crisis. The Council of Europe has attempted to respond to this issue by creating the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) program in 2017. To take part in the program, “an applicant submits whatever documentation they have, then has an in-depth interview with two experts from their field. While the EQPR is not the equivalent of qualification, it can be a first step in the process of getting recognition, in medicine and other professions.”
During this global crisis, it is clear that increasing support for programs like these, as well as their efficiency and impact, is essential to allow more individuals to contribute to and benefit from each other’s knowledge and expertise. It can also help to change the negative discourse surrounding asylum seekers and migration that certain groups and media outlets utilize. As the Council of Europe explains, “Around the world, thousands of people from refugee backgrounds with experience in healthcare could prove a vital resource in the battle to treat COVID-19 patients. Countries including Ireland, Germany, Australia and France are examining that potential, and the response from refugee communities has been huge.”
However, in addition to the potential contributions from migrants with healthcare backgrounds and other professional diplomas, this article published by CEPR, underlines the important role of migrants in Europe coming from other fields as well. The article’s author Francesco Fasani explains, “low-educated migrants, not just high-skilled ones, are employed in occupations that are key for their host societies, which suggests the need to reconsider, once the crisis has passed, a migration policy debate which is currently almost entirely focused on the importance of attracting high-skilled migrants to the EU.”
While the article focuses on the European context, other publications are calling attention to the role of “essential workers” in the agricultural industry in the U.S. Although these workers have always been “essential” to the U.S. economy, the COVID crisis has brought greater focus to the large contribution of these workers, often facing unsanitary living conditions, in addition to their precarious employment and resident status. Many of these individuals are facing the impossible situation of being both “essential” and “undocumented”, encouraged to continue working during the health crisis, while still facing the constant risk of deportation. Instead, the renewed and long overdue attention toward these essential workers in all parts of the world should push us to encourage governments to regularize immigration statuses, improve living and working conditions, and recognize their important contribution to society as a whole.
Local governments also have a role to play in protecting immigrant rights during this crisis. In California, Governor Newsom has set up a relief fund for undocumented residents of the state, the first such program in the United States. The initial fund established 75 million dollars to be distributed as “Disaster Relief Assistance...for immigrant workers affected by COVID-19.” Donations from external foundations are planned to reach another 50 million dollars to further support the fund, and organizations are continuing to accept financial contributions from individuals as well. Unfortunately, out of the estimated 2 million undocumented residents in California (the highest number of undocumented residents of any U.S. state), the assistance package plans to reach only 150,000 individuals, providing a one-time check of 500 dollars, or 1,000 per family. In addition, reports from individuals trying to access the program have shown it to be extremely difficult to obtain and almost immediately oversaturated. Despite these problems, relief programs like these are important steps and represent models that can be improved for greater impact and outreach, and expanded in other regions as well.