No aspect of human activity has escaped the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and migration, already one of the most contentious and dominant topics in international politics long before the coronavirus outbreak, is no exception.

The pandemic has exposed the anti-migration camp in its utter viciousness. However, it could also contribute to reshaping the public discourse into one that takes into account the complexity of the issue, discarding the prejudices and biases against migration introduced by the populist right-wing in the more affluent parts of the world. For right-wing populists, there is an irresistible temptation to rerun 2015’s fearmongering against migrants and foreigners more generally, cynically blaming them for spreading the coronavirus, without — true to their creed — a shred of evidence.

From early on, when the spread of COVID-19 was still on a relatively small scale, politicians from the likes of France’s right-wing National Rally called for a halt to all migration to Europe, as did Spain’s far-right Vox, adding outright racism to the mix as one of its members tweeted: “If I get lost, don’t look for me in a Chinese restaurant.” More recently Nigel Farage, who is probably afraid of slipping into obscurity in the aftermath of Brexit, suggested that there was a COVID crisis in Dover, claiming that 12 migrants on a boat that landed in southeast England had all tested positive for coronavirus. The UK Home Office pointed out that this was incorrect and that “none of these 12 people tested positive for COVID-19.”

It was an exercise in damage limitation by the authorities, knowing that in the world of social media the damage had already been done. Echoing Farage’s words at the height of the refugee crisis, when he accused migrants from Syria of being terrorists, one of the replies asked the Home Office if they could confirm that “none are Daesh? No, I didn’t think so.” On top of this labeling of migrants as terrorists and criminals, or as arriving on the shores of EU countries in order to live at the expense of a generous welfare society, we now have more negative stereotyping in accusations that migrants are spreading a lethal virus.

For the anti-migration movement, the pandemic has been a gift that they won’t let pass without making the most of it. And, as usual, they deliberately make no distinction between economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and portray immigration and immigrants as a threat to both security and national identity. Such misrepresentation is an unacceptable, flimsy and outrageous justification for depriving migrants of their rights. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, migrants represent a large part of the growing workforce in the US and in Europe, and hence contribute to economic growth that is enjoyed by everyone.

Contrary to what the anti-migrant demagogues argue, migrants do not “take other people’s jobs,” but instead fill important niches in fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy, and contribute to a more vibrant labor market. In the case of refugees and asylum seekers there also is an international commitment and obligation to ensure their safety and well-being, without ignoring their contribution to the economy and society.

It is not fear of the spread of coronavirus that motivates nationalist populism, but the migrants themselves. It is the xenophobic fear of societies becoming more diverse. But if anyone is suffering disproportionately from the current devastating health crisis, it is the migrants, especially refugees, who are by definition more vulnerable. At the best of times it is difficult for displaced people and the stateless to obtain work permits and access to formal employment, or be eligible to the social safety nets in their countries of refuge.

And having escaped the hell of wars, civil wars, or other social and economic upheavals, doesn’t necessarily end the predicament of a refugee. In addition to the traumatic experiences in their homeland, they subsequently face almost impossible legal and practical hurdles to settling in another country, with little or no help. With restricted rights to work and limited access to a bank account, and in many cases limited freedom of movement, the struggle to survive can be an excruciating ordeal. COVID-19 has reduced the demand for labor in some sectors, and lockdowns leading to the closure of nonessential services have had a disproportionate adverse impact on migrants.

A considerable number of migrants, through no fault of their own, do not enter the formal labor market and become part of the informal economy, which is often characterized by small or undefined workplaces, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, low levels of skill and productivity, low or irregular wages and long working hours. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, migrants, especially the more unskilled among them, are even more likely to be pushed into the hands of the informal economy and some unscrupulous employers. Workers in the informal economy are not recognized, registered, regulated or protected under labor and social protection legislation.

In too many countries migrants, whether economic ones or those fleeing the horrors of war and oppression, are perceived and treated as society’s most dispensable, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated their predicament. Though the pandemic has prevented many countries from implementing forced returns, it has also left the migrants with no income, as many have been subject to zero-hour contracts, or remain completely outside the system with no access to welfare; and it has also harmed those with families abroad who rely on their remittances.

In the developed world, the migrant discourse has become increasingly toxic and unconstructive, ignoring both the economic and social benefits of migration and the moral obligation to those whose lives and freedoms are at risk. We should depart from oversimplifying such a complex phenomenon and adapt a long-term strategic approach that takes into account the root causes that impel so many people to look for a better life abroad, assesses the needs and capacities of countries to absorb migration, and is based on hard facts, without ignoring the moral argument and our international obligations to the less fortunate.

We should also commit to investing in and working with migrants’ countries of origin to improve conditions there, so people won’t have to risk their lives and be torn from their families in order to live in security and escape poverty and want.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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