The politics of migration in a (post) COVID-19 world


Picture of Heaven Crawley
Heaven Crawley

Chair in International Migration at Coventry University

Let me take you back to the end of February 2020.

In these COVID-19 lockdown days that feels like a very long time. But it is important to remember what Europe looked like then because the issues and challenges facing us have not gone away. And they will return.

At the end of February the media was dominated – as it has so been so often over the past five years – by images of refugees streaming towards the Greek land border. Most had been taken there on buses provided by the Turkish government, with the explicit aim of reminding the EU of Turkey’s pivotal role in containing migration to Europe and leveraging this position to mobilise support for its fight against the Syrian army in Irbil. The following week saw fascist attacks against refugees and migrants and the organisations supporting them on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Chios. The politics of migration in Europe, never far from surface, had clearly arrived back at the top.

Just one month earlier, the UK finally left the EU. Migration had been front and centre of the Brexit referendum which – crucially – took place at the height of the so-called ‘migration crisis’ in Europe. And it has dominated discussions ever since, from the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, to the symbolic significance of the colour of the British passport, to the difficulties of getting seasonal workers to harvest the country’s fruit and vegetables.

The contribution of migrants and the importance of their integration for the wider community is finally apparent

If it’s hard to remember just how much migration dominated discussions in Europe before the arrival of COVID-19 then imagining what the politics of migration might look like in a post COVID-19 world – assuming that there is such a thing – is even more difficult. But already there are signs. And those signs take us in two very different directions.

On the one hand COVID-19 has demonstrated our global interconnectedness and the importance of migrant workers to the functioning of European societies in ways that no international, national or migrant campaign has ever been able. In the UK we have seen praise from a traditionally hostile media for the so-called ‘low skilled’ migrant workers that constitute a significant proportion of staff in the British NHS and are currently saving British lives. The Portuguese government has temporarily granted all migrants and asylum seekers in the country full citizenship rights to ensure full access to country’s healthcare and reduce the risks for public health. The contribution of migrants and the importance of their integration for the wider community is finally apparent.

But there are also signs that governments in Europe are already dipping into their migration control toolbox to demonstrate the robustness of their response to COVID-19.

Hungary is using the pandemic as an excuse to dismantle democracy, explicitly blaming migrants from Iran for the spread of the virus. Authorities in Italy and Malta have now declared their ports closed to those crossing the Mediterranean from Libya, citing the health risks of COVID-19. Racism against those originating from China and South-East Asia more generally has increased, fuelled by descriptions of COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’. The OECD has expressed concerns that fear-exploiting rhetoric around the pandemic could provide the political space to push through structural anti-migration policies that would be detrimental to the rights and health of migrants and undermine the potential developmental impacts of migration.

The impacts will also be felt across Europe with its rapidly ageing population

Whilst migration both to and from Europe has now effectively screeched to a halt, the political use of migration sadly has not.  We have a choice in what happens next.

We know already that COVID-19 is throttling vital migration flows around the world with potentially devastating consequences for migrants, their families and countries in the Global South for whom remittances are a vital source of income, greater than either overseas development aid or foreign direct assistance. Many millions of migrant workers are trapped without access to work. Millions of refugees are living in crowded unsanitary conditions in camps and urban settings around the world, no longer to access humanitarian support or eke out a living.

The impacts will also be felt across Europe with its rapidly ageing population and growing reliance on migrants as key workers in the health, education, social care and service sectors.

COVID-19 has created huge challenges but it has also created an opportunity to do things differently, to break with the politics of migration in Europe which, over the past decade or more, have served no one well. The migration clock may have stopped but it can never be turned back. The challenge is to find new ways of managing migration that takes advantage of our global connectivity and interdependence. And that needs to start with Europe’s political leaders talking about migration in an entirely different way.

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