COVID 19: The welfare of undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and the question of return

By Omar N. Cham

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to have a devastating impact on virtually all aspects of human lives. What started as a health emergency, has now brought the world to its knees and has had considerably negative impact on individual lives, livelihoods and by extension, national economies. Land, sea and air borders have all been but virtually closed around the world and human movement has been severely restricted to limit the spread of the virus. Like in other parts of the world, Europe has been severely affected. National governments in Europe as well as the European Union have coordinated efforts to provide support for the most vulnerable members of society. 

However, in the midst of this crisis, irregular migrants and asylum seekers still remain among the most vulnerable to the virus. The disruption to their informal sources of livelihoods due to the virus, means that many are at risk of experiencing severe food shortages and nutrition related challenges. In addition, they are confronted with limited access to health care and access to government support. Whilst undocumented migrants and asylum seekers contend with these challenges, a bigger fear remains, the fear of deportation. The fear of deportation makes undocumented migrants and asylum seekers reluctant to share vital information about their health, and even ask for basic medical assistance given the emergence of the immigration debate in the coronavirus conversation. Whilst deportations have been paused in Europe due to the wide shutdown of global aviation, the USA amidst the virus, continues to carry out deportations. Notwithstanding, one question at the center of this debate is whether a moratorium, as a result of COVID-19 on deportations from Europe will be announced, once a sense of normalcy returns (most likely in summer). If so how long will that moratorium be in place for? And what does COVID-19 mean for the protection of the rights of asylum seekers?

Moreover, the often fragile political or economic nature of the developing nations in which many undocumented migrants and asylum seekers are returned to also poses a number of issues.  For example, deportations to developing nations, could place a greater strain on underdeveloped or limited healthcare infrastructure. Indeed, any effort to carry out deportations from Europe in the foreseeable future without thorough testing could potentially create a massive public health crisis in the countries of return. Therefore, any plans to conduct future deportations most ensure that deportees are thoroughly tested and public health regulations in both the sending and receiving countries are comprehensively followed. In the context of asylum seekers, the emergence of COVID-19 means the inevitable delay of hearing asylum claims. Many asylum seekers and undocumented migrants live in crowded reception centers which makes physical or social distancing extremely difficult and thus exposes many to the risk of contracting the virus. The emergence of the virus has seen the transfer of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants of such centers to camps and other accommodation facilities to protect them from the virus. However, some have argued that these measures aren’t meant to protect them from the virus but to further deter them from access to asylum and limit their free movement.

In the times of COVID-19, of global pandemic, the recognition and the protection of the fundamental rights of every person, especially the right to access health care services, irrespective of their legal status, is essential towards the fight against COVID-19. In addition, the regularization of undocumented migrants is critical at this point and time.  Regularization helps to ensures that they are protected from exploitation, whilst at the same time being presented with the opportunity to work in important sectors. Sectors such as agriculture, which has been severely affected as a result of COVID-19. As we gradually emerge from this pandemic, the coming months will hopefully bring with them measures which help prioritize the rights of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers throughout Europe.