Europe must recognize the vital contributions of vulnerable migrants
As COVID-19 disrupts travel, closes borders and redefines essential work, in this series, titled #, Pandemic Borders examines what international migration will look like after the pandemic.MigrantFutures
In the spring of 2020, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe, public opinion and governments seemed to have become aware of the importance of some workers to our daily needs and, more generally, to the well-being of our societies.
People clapping and singing from their enforced seclusion paid tribute to those who fight the virus on the front lines, in hospitals and nursing homes, but also to those who run the food supply chain by harvesting fruits, vegetables and grains, by working in supermarkets and keeping grocery stores going, and by delivering to our doors those “magical” packages that are considered so important to keep our spirits (and our economy!) going.
In some European countries, many suddenly realized the importance of nurses, health workers, package and transport workers, agriculture and seasonal pickers, combined with the realization that a large proportion of those working in these sectors were / are foreigners (born outside of Europe and / or a non-European Have EU citizenship). In order to reduce citizens’ fear of not finding enough food on the supermarket shelves or not enough health care providers in old people’s homes and hospitals, authorities such as Italian government, have either facilitated the issuance of seasonal work permits or attempted to provide work permits for those who have already been in the country but are in informal or irregular employment (regulatory process).
Some EU countries like France, Germany or Spain new opportunities for newcomers working in the health sector to stand in stark contrast to European immigration policies, all of which have been shaped by waves of restrictive policies for decades.
However, this remained too short after the first wave of the pandemic ended. Indeed, both governments and the general public were little or no concern about the impact of the pandemic on the daily lives of the migrants who had filled our refrigerators, granted our wishes and opened our hospitals. In our Sirius Research we looked at what happened to them – and what is still happening – and that is what we found.
Let’s start with immigrants who came to Europe to find employment and who found one before the coronavirus outbreak. These are split between those who lost their jobs during the pandemic and those who kept their jobs. The former were employed in the economic sectors most affected by the lockdown and forced foreclosure, i.e. in the areas of accommodation and tourism, restaurants and leisure: like national citizens, they lost their jobs, but unlike EU citizens they were not all (and not all equally) are entitled to income support measures, which governments are urgently putting in place to help their workers on leave in these hard-hit sectors.
Indeed, access to unemployment benefits is linked to certain criteria, some of which (length of residence, length of working hours, type of employment contract) of immigrants (who are also exposed to more precarious working conditions or irregular employment that keeps them away from any form of income support from our governments ). As a result, the immigrants who have lost their jobs find themselves in a situation of vulnerability and even poverty, sometimes only alleviated by the intervention of local authorities and civil society organizations.
Those immigrants who kept their jobs, the “essential workers”, found themselves in a different kind of vulnerability in which their health was at risk: social distancing, working from home or security measures were either impossible or difficult to implement safely. Due to our highly segmented labor markets, they were therefore more exposed to COVID-19 infections than EU citizens. Another factor that contributed to their stigmatization was the increased perception in the media that migrants are exposed to an increased risk of infection because of their job, which in turn endangers their mental and psychological health.