Coronavirus: Fight Pandemic – Protect migrants

Coronavirus: Fight Pandemic – Protect migrants

By Ambet Yuson

20 March 2020 12:33

Photo: Kyaw Soe (Kawthoung) Global New Light of Myanmar

Coronavirus or COVID 19 is a global problem. Nobody is protected by their passport, country of origin or residence. Plans to deal with the crisis that are likely to be most effective are those linked with exposure rather than irrelevant factors. the conditions for the transmittal of the disease, those forced to live and/or work in proximity with others are especially vulnerable. Reducing risk depends not only on taking measures to protect oneself, but also on protecting others.

Public health systems, if they are to defend the entire population, must protect the most vulnerable. It is becoming clear that inequalities that have developed and have been exacerbated in recent decades are affecting the care and attention and treatment given to those who are excluded or under-valued in society. 

They are often those who have been beyond the reach of health care and/or do not have access to vital prevention information. Among the most vulnerable people are migrants. They are also often living in crowded conditions. 

Coronavirus is an occupational health and safety issue for migrant and other workers. That also means that those who are not provided with basic protection and skills in that area are likely to be more exposed. 

Workers engaged in precarious work often lack rights and protections, even if their employment is legal, This may include contract work, short-term-contracts, zero-hours contracts, self-employed, workers dispatched by labour-hire agencies, or others who do not have a normal employment relationship. Migrant workers are disproportionately found in such precarious and insecure work. 

Many migrants are excluded from medical services or afraid to seek them. In the United States, for example, there are many irregular workers who have no access to affordable health care and are reluctant to seek assistance. They are, in effect, on the side-lines; something that has become dangerous to everybody.

We should also keep in mind that migrant workers are needed if we are to cope with the coronavirus. Many migrant workers are working in health care and other vital services. They may be affected by lockdowns and other measures. However, their living environments, if care and conditions are not adequate, may expose them to the virus.

There are many cross-border workers. In many countries in Europe, their rights are protected, and they benefit from social protections through employers and governments. However, in much of the world, such protections are rare. They will often lose income or employment altogether and not have even minimal health protection and, when they fall, will not be caught by any social safety net.  

Governments and employers should make sure that information related to contracting and transmitting the virus is available to migrants and in multiple languages, when necessary. As a minimum, everyone should have the possibility of being tested for Coronavirus (in some circumstances such as over-crowding, tests should be used as a preventive measure) and tests should be free of charge. All workers should continue to be paid should they get COVID 19. Hospitals, clinics, and other forms of care and treatment should be adequate and equipped to treat migrants. 

In the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), where construction and many other services are dependent on migrant workers, many thousands of workers are housed in confined conditions. BWI has visited many accommodations in Qatar in recent years. Even the best facilities are densely populated and due to the heat, are closed. It is the same principle as with the better-known examples of cruise ships, where the virus can spread among a confined group of people. In some lockdown situations, problems may develop of access to food, clean water, sanitation and other facilities.

In addition to stretching health services, Covid-19 is disrupting education and other services. In those parts of the world where masses of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are in detention centres or camps where health care and hygiene, under the best of circumstances, are often poor, the virus could spread rapidly. 

One such danger zone is Lesbos in Greece, where human beings are the weapons deployed by Turkey and Greece in a political conflict. Around 20,000 people are in or around the Moria refugee camp, living in conditions of appalling hygiene and with little medical care. The situation has been aggravated by an attack by vigilantes who, among other things, set fire to a warehouse storing food. The first confirmed case of Covid-19 has been discovered. The crowded conditions in the camp and surrounding region will provide an ideal incubator for the virus and facilitate its spread among refugees and non-refugees alike. 

Unfortunately, we are seeing anti-migrant groups and political parties using the fear of coronavirus as another reason that migrants and refugees must be stopped at the border. All measures should be taken for health and scientific reasons based on exposure and risk and not for political reasons because people come from elsewhere. 

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, wrote in an article in the “Telegraph”, 

“Migrants and refugees – regardless of their formal status – must be an integral part of national systems and plans for tackling the virus. Many of these women, men and children find themselves in places where health services are overstretched or inaccessible.”

“They may be confined to camps and settlements, or living in urban slums where overcrowding, and poorly-resourced sanitation, increases the risk of exposure.”

“It is also vital that any tightening of border controls, travel restrictions or limitations on freedom of movement do not prevent people who may be fleeing from war or persecution from accessing safety and protection.”

“Beyond these very immediate challenges, the path of the coronavirus will also undoubtedly test our principles, values and shared humanity.”

Covid-19 is a major challenge to the world. It is a dramatic case of common needs of the global community that require solidarity. I would argue that the same thing is also true of a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues, but this is an easily understood example of your health and welfare depending directly on that of your neighbour. 

The reaction to this crisis needs to be serious and thorough and draw on the best scientific evidence and health practices available. It should be built on both a sense of urgency and common sense. Panic will lead to trying, and failing, to protect the few when protecting the few depends on protecting the many.